Ahhh, the Kerala Backwaters. If there is one stereotypical image of India’s tropical state of Kerala, these would be it. A trip on one of the famous houseboats that float down them can be found on most traveller’s bucket lists and trip itinerarys. It was on mine for a while, too. Who wouldn’t like to drink rum and sleep under the stars in one of the most stunning parts of the country?
On my trip, I was desperate to see the Kerala backwaters. However, travelling solo on a backpacker’s budget and getting a houseboat to myself sounded a bit extravagant…. and also, a bit sad! I had no idea that are other ways to see the backwaters. After speaking to some friends that I met, I was relieved to find out that houseboats aren’t the only option to see the backwaters. In the end, I decided to see them by canoe and honestly think I had a much more worthwhile experience because of it.
Here are a few reasons why I would recommend a canoe trip down the Kerala backwaters to any other solo, budget traveller in India.
The Budget Friendly Way to See the Backwaters
Cruising down the Kerala backwaters is one of the most memorable experiences that you’ll make on your India trip, but it doesn’t need to cost a fortune. When I took my trip in October (which is the off-season), I was pretty lazy. I turned up at my hostel, told them I wanted to see the backwaters the next day and let them sort everything out for me. How much did it cost? 1,000 rupees for the full day including a traditional breakfast and lunch. So cheap that I pretty much felt like I was robbing the company!
If you google houseboats in Kerala, you’ll find tour companies charging through the nose for the experience. As is to be expected, booking in person will get you a much better deal and most people tend to do this rather than booking online. Still though, unless there is a huge group of you, a decent houseboat (the ones with the chefs serving fancy food rather than 100 rupee thalis) is still gonna be pricey. If you’re a wee rupee-pinching gypsy like I am, then you’ll want to go by canoe!
It’s Safe for Solo Females
Of course, my travel budget wasn’t the only thing stopping me from getting a houseboat. And nope, neither was the fact that I’m not that fond of my own company. As much as I hate it when people incessantly rant about the dangers of travelling solo in India, taking a houseboat alone did seem a bit risky to me.
India isn’t the dangerous hell hole that the media wants you to believe it is, but the reality is that, unfortunately, as females, there are precautions we need to take. Sleeping overnight alone on a houseboat in the middle of wilderness probably isn’t the most sensible choice you could make on your trip. Save yourself (and your family) the worry and choose another option!
Meet New People on your Tour
Luckily, seeing the backwaters by canoe is perfectly safe! For starters, there are no enclosed spaces and it’s broad daylight so you don’t need to worry about putting yourself in a vulnerable position. Plus, you won’t be on your own and you might actually meet some cool new people.
On my way to the backwaters, I got put in a tuk-tuk with 2 girls who I thought I would be spending the day with. (One of whom became my travel buddy for the next week down in Varkala where we would do yoga, sunbathe and eat paneer butter masala together everyday.) After making pals with these two lovelies and getting excited to spend the day together, I got pulled out the tuk-tuk and told I was going elsewhere. Um, okay, bye new friends.
The people I ended up doing on a canoe with were an equally lovely French couple, although I did feel like I was crashing their romantic gondola ride. In the adjacent canoe, there were a German girl, an Austrian girl and an English lad. We ended up sourcing out some “toddy” together and then braving one of the state booze shops for some rum. (That is an experience that you DEFINITELY need to have in India but it’s not for the faint of hearted. I felt like I was in a scene from Shantaram.)
When you’re travelling solo it’s nice to meet new people from time to time. I’m glad I didn’t resign myself to drowning my sorrows in rum, alone in the sea.
Closer to Local Life
While it’s all fun and games for tourists visiting the backwaters, there is so much hype about them that we tend to forget one important thing; people actually live there. Yes, many people call the famed backwaters that are on the front of holiday brochures their home. For those people, the bodies of water are more than just a prop for Instagram selfies. The backwaters are their life. They bathe there, they clean their clothes there, they drink there, they even swim across them to see their neighbour from “across the road.”
Our canoe tour took us down all the back canals so we could see more of real life on the backwaters. As houseboats are so big, they can’t fit down all the nooks and crannies the canoes can get down. Honestly, this one of the main reasons I think I made the best decision. You can find luxury and 5-star service anywhere- if you want to see the real life of the backwaters, get on a canoe!
It’s Much More Environmentally Friendly
Following on my from my last point. The backwaters are a place where people live and, as guests in their neighbourhood, it’s our responsibility to treat them with respect. Some people might think that taking a boat down their canals to see how they live could be intrusive, and in some ways, I do agree. However, the reality is that the tourism industry in the backwaters is a huge source of livelihood for the people who live there. Most of them are welcoming and happy to see tourists responsibly visiting their homeland.
One way we can help is to choose the more environmentally friendly option. Mass tourism in Kerala is sadly causing mass pollution in the backwaters and this is mainly due to the motorised houseboats and the toilets waste that comes from them. You’ve probably noticed that the water in my pictures is more than a murky green than a crystal blue and this is a result of that.
These days, I’m trying to be a more eco-conscious traveller so I try to leave as little trace as possible on my trips. For me, this makes the houseboat a big no-no and the canoe a much more attractive choice.
(Plus, a Few Tips for the Kerala Backwaters!)
So, that’s my five reasons to explore the backwater by canoe and I hope it’s inspired you to leave the houseboats for the honeymooners! Here are a few extra tips for your trip to the Kerala backwaters.
Where to Stay
I did my backwaters tour in Alleppey which is the most popular place to see them. In high season, it can get pretty busy along the waterways. Still though, it’s popular for a reason and a beautiful place to see the Kerala backwaters.
I stayed at a hostel called The Wind n Waves which was pretty basic. However, it was only 200 rupees per night during low season and the guys in reception took care of my backwaters trip for me. If you’re not too fussy and on a budget, I’d definitely recommend it.
Get In, Get Out
Honestly, the area around Alleppey doesn’t have much to see at all. Much like I would advise anyone visiting the Taj mahal not to spend a lot of time in Agra, the same can be said for Alleppey. I got in the night before and left the next day. This gave me a nice amount of time to settle in and do the tour without rushing around too much. It also allowed me to save precious time on my trip to see more worthy places. Unless stray dogs and beaches covered in broken glass are your thing, I’d do the same.
In the high season, it is possible to take a government ferry onwards from Alleppey to Kollam, near Varkala. This is something I would have loved to had the chance to do if it had been running while I was there.
Support Local Businessmen
As the Kerala Backwaters have risen in popularity, there have been more and more foreign investors coming in to start up their own backwater sailing companies. Try and keep your business local by booking when you arrive, rather than online. Speak to tuk-tuk drivers and hotel owners. Most of them will have a local friend who they want to hook you up with.
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