Lonely Planet lists a trip to Kerala’s backwaters aboard a houseboat as one of the top 10 things to do before you die. With that in mind, I decided it would be foolish to skip it, despite the steep price tag. Many backpackers I met opted for less expensive means of transport to explore the backwaters – from kayaks to wooden canoes, which can be organised for a fraction of the price. There’s no getting away from the fact that hiring a houseboat will make a big dent in your travelling funds. The question I had – is it worth it? Only one way to find out…
Back at Varkala’s Soul & Surf, I met a bubbly English girl called Jenny, who was also travelling solo and like me, planning on visiting Alleppey for a house boat trip. Needless to say, trips like this are much easier and cheaper if you can find someone to buddy up with and split costs. The train to Alleppey is quite straightforward, the first leaving Varkalam daily at 10.25am and taking around three hours. I arrived with plenty of time to spare, only to be greeted by the sight of dozens of men and women digging up the track. Not a promising sign that my train would be departing as planned!
But I’ve found that navigating India’s public transport takes patience, persaverence and a sense of humour. When you’re told it’s not possible, try asking another member of staff or quizzing members of the public and don’t be fobbed off too easily. After asking around, I managed to figure out an alternative route (despite initially being told there wasn’t one), which meant a slight detour and longer trip.
On route, I met a friendly group of Israelis who were heading in the same direction. This is exactly why I love travelling alone, you’re so much more approachable as a solo backpacker and although I’ve grown to enjoy time in my own company, it’s always nice being enveloped into a group. It takes the stress out of working out which platform you need or how to get to your final destination. India so far has been an easy country to meet people in – from every corner of the world and every walk of life.
After arriving in Alleppey, we headed straight to the travel counter in the carpark where for one rupee, you’re allocated a set-price tuk tuk and avoid having to haggle. I headed to Wind & Waves hostel, just out of town. I’d discovered a bargain bucket dorm bed on Hostel World (just 200 rupees per night) which sounded too good to be true but it didn’t dissapoint. For the equivelent of 2 British pounds, I shared a clean ensuite 4-bed dorm with 3 other English girls. The hostel is pretty basic but staff are friendly and there’s a hammock on the porch and a roof terrace with views of the beach which made a great meeting ground for other backpackers.
ARRIVING IN ALLEPEY
On my first afternoon, I pottered around the city centre with my 3 new Israeli friends, ending up in The Coffee House for a late lunch. Definitely seek this place out if you can, it’s dirt cheap but food is fantastic – for 100 rupees a head we feasted on masala dosas, chicken curry, fresh juices and every type of bread and variation on a chiapatti you can think of. It’s part of a small chain so food is consistent and service efficient. We especially liked the traditional uniform of the remarkably efficient waiters who impressively memorised an order of nearly a dozen items.
ORGANISNG OUR HOUSE BOAT
The next morning, after parting ways with my Israeli friends, I met Jenny from Soul & Surf down at the main jetty. You’ll be approached by touts offering to show you various options at various price points and it goes without saying that it’s best to shop around and view a handful before deciding. We were after a spacious top deck to sunbathe and relax on, these varied hugely – some just had plastic furniture and others were more luxurious, with hammocks or upholstered recliners. We managed to haggle a little but in peak season, you won’t get much of a discount, despite the fact that there appeared to be far more boats than willing clients. We felt we struck a fair deal at 2500 rupees each for sole use of a house boat, sharing one bedroom between us.
The price included a private chef who managed to put together the most delicious spread of Keralan curries – river fish and various other dishes for lunch and chicken curry with dhal and okra for dinner. It also included breakfast the next morning, tea and plates of grapes, watermelon and oranges throughout the day. You really can’t complain for the price – a night’s accommodation, a spectacular boat trip and three home-cooked meals aboard your own private, floating hotel. Whatever negative things you hear about the houseboats, take it with a pinch of salt – it’s a relaxing and totally unique way to explore the famous backwaters and the price reflects the service you get.
After a few hours cruising through the backwaters, past women doing their laundry and children playing on the palm-lined banks, we docked near a quiet riverside village for the night. Hopping off to explore was undoubtedly the highlight, walking around the banks of the backwaters we were greeted by inquisitive children keen to practice their English and give us flowers and smiling mothers busy doing their laundry in the water. All of them obliged our requests to take photos and it was fascinating to see village life upclose, rather than just from the comfort of our luxurious boat which steamed past dozens of similar villages along the way.
We returned to the port at 9am after a delicious vegetable omlette to set us up for the day. A few locals had suggested a visit to Marari beach so we hopped straight in a tuk tuk there. Kerala’s beaches aren’t as clean as Goa’s and we were initially put off my the sight of rubbish, including a couple of needles, littering the shore. But walk a bit further down and you’ll find the immaculate sands stretching outside the Marari Beach Resort (presumably maintainted by staff there for the rich guests forking out £280 a night for a room). There’s a great spot for lunch next door where 200 rupees buys you a heaped bowl of spiced prawns and 150 rupees will get you an enormous spread of vegetable curries and rice.
Three days in Allepey was just about enough but I could have easily spent longer. The backwaters will transport you to another world and floating past villages and palm-tree lined banks is one of the most romantic, relaxing experiences I’ve had in India.
BACKPACKING IN HEELS TIPS:
- If you like a night cap, find out if there are any ‘dry days’ when you arrive in Allepey – national days when the sale of alcohol is prohibited. Determined not to be caught out, I bought a bottle of gin with me which meant I could also avoid queuning up with the dozens of men at the city’s intimidating liquor shop. Send your male companions to do a booze run – it’s really not a place you want to frequent if you can help it.
- Ask your driver to stop on route for an ice cream or fresh coconut juice, there are quaint little riverside shops selling refreshments along the way.
- We didn’t do so but other travellers asked their captain to stop in secluded swimming spots so they could bathe in the backwaters.
- Take plenty of mosquito spray and even citronella candles for the evening.