Aleppey to Kumarakom – Kerala Backwaters
Kerala is most famous for its stunning backwaters. Going from Aleppey to Kumarakom on a houseboat across the serene Vembanad Lake is pretty much a rite of passage for any traveler visiting Kerala. Despite its popularity with tourists, the backwaters have retained their peaceful beauty and pastoral charm.
Nothing can beat the feeling of rocking gently on the water, lazily flowing by waving palm and coconut trees as the warm breeze caresses your face. We booked our houseboat tour through Pournami Travels, which I highly recommend. We had the boat to ourselves and the whole tour was honestly one of the highlights of our trip so far.
The scenery was stunning and the wildlife was abundant – so many birds! It was kind of a lot of birds…almost like the Hitchcock movie The Birds for the sheer number of birds we saw; except no birds attacked or anything. Phew, how many times can I say “birds” in a sentence? Birds.
Seeing the kingfisher was my favorite. This bird (ha) is so tiny to have such a bold name but its colors are gorgeous. Very majestic, this bird.
I’m going to stop talking about birds now.
We had an amazing crew with us – Sunil, Vinod and Sreedhar – who were incredibly hospitable and kind. They were thoroughly knowledgeable about the backwaters and gave a great overview of the area. They talked about the annual boat race – Vallam Kalli – held every Onam (harvest festival), pointed out wildlife and provided insight into the land and the people whose livelihood is the backwaters.
Sreedhar and Sunil were our co-captains and even let us steer the houseboat for a little while. It was actually a lot harder than it looked. I barely have the skills to walk straight, let alone keep an entire boat on course. Vinod was our trusty chef and his culinary skill was on point. We enjoyed every meal on the boat and spent the time in between eating clutching our overfull stomachs and groaning about how we ate too much but couldn’t stop because his cooking was so good.
We spent several hours boating from the Finishing Point in Aleppey (the Vallam Kalli race finish line) through Vembanad Lake. It’s the largest lake in Kerala and the longest lake in India. Being out there on the flat silvery waters where the shore wasn’t visible felt like floating in the middle of our own planet. In addition to houseboats, we also saw larger cargo barges, smaller fishing boats and even an “ice cream truck” boat that floated along offering sweet treats to passing houseboats.
As we sailed, we saw fishermen using long bamboo poles to catch fish. They would swim out into the lake, hold the poles vertically and spear them downwards to trap the fish. It was an incredible sight especially when you consider the depth of the water (about 40 feet) and the fact that the poles are roughly double the height of a grown man.
Just before sunset, we had the opportunity to hop on a small motorized canoe and take a tour of the smaller canals that flow through the villages situated on the backwaters. The tiny boat propelled us down narrow channels under elevated footbridges, passed brightly colored cottages and floated us next to green paddy fields.We glimpsed the villages snug in their bucolic setting with the heady scents of coconut cooking oil and jasmine in the air. Many of the homes had steps leading directly to the canal and people would stand ankle deep in the water washing clothes, dishes, and babies alike. There were also
many older women standing on the banks of the canal holding long fishing poles presumably to catch fish for dinner or to sell at the market.
Apparently, this area is a popular shooting locale for the Indian film industry and it’s easy to see why. Having grown up watching Indian movies I can just imagine the romantic leads flirtatiously chasing each other through the trees as the heroine casually flutters her sari in the breeze. Lolz Indian movies with their indoor wind and improbable outdoor settings with weather inappropriate clothing (saris on snowcapped mountains? er no.). Gotta love em.
After touring the smaller inlet channels, we headed back to our boat and caught the last rays of the bright orange sun as it set behind the trees. We fell asleep anchored near a small island where the only sounds were the various chirps and croaks of the animals nearby. Early the next morning, S and I stood on the back of the boat and watched the sunrise illuminate the morning with its intense pink, purple, and orange hues. It was incredibly peaceful and we stood basking in the glory of watching the day unfold and the world slowly wake up around us.
I’ll never forget the day we spent sailing the backwaters of Kerala. The intense tranquility and witnessing a completely different way of life in such a beautiful location. I’m not overly spiritual but I felt a certain camaraderie with the land and the life of the area; a sort of ‘oneness’ with where I was and everyone and everything I was with. It was an uncomplicated feeling of peace and contentment and I sincerely hope to return someday soon.