The Kerala backwater starters from Kochi and goes till Kollam. The five lakes lying parallel to the Arabian sea create the famous backwaters of Kerala. These lakes are fed by 9 major and many small rivers coming from western ghats. Vembanad lake is the biggest among these lakes with Alleppey (Alappuzha) on its one side and Kumarakom on its other side. These backwater lakes are interconnected with each other by small and large canals. The backwater canal system is very well defined and connect different towns. The National Waterway Number 3 is the longest of all and there are many canals working as waterways. These canals make well define the waterway network. It is a complex labyrinth but very well managed.
Vembanad lake is known as Vembanad Kayal in the local language is the longest freshwater lake in India. The canal network and size of Vembanad lake around Alleppey or Alappuzha makes it a popular hot spot to explore backwaters.
Alappuzha/Alleppey and Kumarakom are the most popular towns among backwater visitors.
It can be confusing for a first-time traveler to decide where to stay while visiting Kerala backwaters.
In Kumarakom or Alleppey??
Some people get confused if both are next to each other Or both are the different name for the same place Or maybe one is part of another.
Actually, both are different places located on the bank of Vembanad lake but in the opposite direction.
When I first visited backwaters, I stayed in Kumarakom and the second time I stayed in Alleppey. Both places have their own charm and advantage & disadvantage.
Kumarakom in Kottayam
Kumarakom is a sleepy town with many big luxury resorts on the bank of Vembanad lake. It is very popular among honeymooning couples, who prefer a peaceful and all-inclusive resort stay. There is a bird sanctuary in Kumarakom, which attracts many bird watchers from across the globe.
Winter months are best to spot birds. The canal system around Kumarakom is less intricate and there are bigger waterways. The houseboats of Kumarakom mostly circle in the lake. This is an ideal place for people looking for luxury during the holidays.
Alleppey or Alappuzha as local people call it is a town with lots of activities. Here you will find more homestays, smaller resorts on the bank of the lake and canals.
There is a labyrinth of canals and this canals system is also used by locals for traveling from one place to another. There are more activities in Alleppey in comparison to Kumarakom. And last but not least, here you have an option of visiting a beach.
I personally prefer Alleppey because here I can get much closer to the local life and experience the culture. There are few other things to do in Alleppey other than visiting backwaters. There are many restaurants so a lot of food options. And the last but most important thing is that here I can live economically and explore backwaters at low cost.
How to explore Alleppey Backwaters
When someone mention exploring backwaters of Alleppey, I am sure most of the people think of houseboats. I remember when the first time mentioned to my friends that we are going to Kerala, almost everyone suggested that we should stay for a night in a houseboat to explore backwaters.
At times you don’t find enough information about the place and feel confused. Now after personally visiting twice, I can say there are many more options to see backwaters of Kerala in Alleppey.
Every traveler has a different style of traveling and as one size doesn’t fit all, same goes for traveling. While choosing a place to stay or mode of travel, we have to consider if we are solo or with family or friends, if we are on the budget or there is no issue about the budget, how much time we have and what is the reason for visiting a place.
Considering most of the points I can think of, I came upon following findings based on my experience. Here is my list of advantage and disadvantage of every mode of exploring Alleppey backwaters.
Kettuvallam or Houseboat in Alleppey Backwaters of Alleppey
The houseboats are definitely the most convenient way to explore backwaters but these are not the only way. A stay in a houseboat is usually mentioned as a must-do in Alleppey. These houseboats look so picture-perfect in backwaters that it is difficult to resist traveling in these.
The advantage of a Houseboat
* These houseboats are comfortable and you get a bedroom with Air conditioner.
* They offer comfortable chairs on the deck for viewing as you sail in backwaters.
* The food is cooked and served as you are sailing in water. They serve your food on board and it is a unique experience. (Check about the food in details before booking. What they have included or excluded from the menu.)
* You get to sleep in the boat, while it is swaying in the water.
* You can hire a boat for the day and return before evening.
* It is good for bigger groups.
The disadvantage of a Houseboat
* These boats are expensive and Alleppey houseboat rates for one day for one room will cost you 7,000 INR onwards. The tariff may increase in peak season.
* Each houseboat has 2 to 3 rooms and if you book full boat then cost will go up. Otherwise, if you book a room then you have to share the deck and common area with other people.
* Boats starts around 04.00 PM and park on shore after sunset. They again start sailing after sunrise the next day. Most of the boats drop you back at around 10.00 AM or before.
* The houseboats are large in size and that’s why they can sail in Vembanad lake or bigger canals. They can’t enter in small canals due to size.
Shikara Boats in Alleppey Backwaters
These boats are smaller in size in comparison to houseboats and used for sightseeing during the day. Shikaras are made of wood with designs and colors inspired by local culture. They look picture perfect in the canals and lake.
The advantage of a Shikara boats
* These boats are smaller in size so they can go inside intricate canal routes and smaller canals.
* The cost of these is much cheaper as compared to houseboats.
* Shikara boats can be hired on the hourly basis.
* These boats can be shared with other people and it will cut the cost.
* The seats in Shikara boats are well cushioned and comfortable.
* Depending upon size these boats can accommodate 4 to 10 people.
* The Shikara boat has a roof which protects from sun rays.
* The boat is open from all sides so you can see the view and surrounding areas up close.
* Shikaras are low and you are close to water, you get the close view of life around the canals.
* It cost between 200 to 400 INR per person/per hour depending upon the season.
The Disadvantages of Shikara Boats
* There are no toilets, so you have to go to shore to relieve yourself.
* Sitting and sailing through canals in these boasts gives the touristy feeling.
* You can not move in the boat and you have to sit in one place.
* These boats are not stable if people try to move from one place to another.
* There is no food or water available on the boat, so carry your own.
State Water Transport Department (SWTD)’s boat service
This is a government-run boat/ferry service operated by the State water transport department. This boat service is also known as Tourist boat service. These boats are the most economical way to explore Alleppey and Kerala Backwaters. Also, this boat service covers the most interior parts of the canal system.
The advantage of an SWTD boat service
* These are most economical and cost between 20 to 400 INR depending upon the route.
* You can check the rote options online on State Water Transport Department website and plan before going to jetty.
* There are multiple fixed routes and boat goes to the interior parts of the backwater. You can choose any route of your choice and opt for multiple routes in a day.
* As you travel with other people by boat, they will share many interesting things and tips about the area. A good way to get local insight.
* The longest route of tourist boat is from Alleppey to Kollam. It is time-consuming but good for onetime experience.
* The boats are bigger and double story, so quite stable. You can move inside the boat as you like on the upper deck or lower deck. Seats are on a first come first serve basis.
* You can carry your luggage in these boats free of cost.
* There is a toilet on the boat.
The disadvantage of an SWTD boat service
* The seats are not comfortable because there is no cushioning in most boats.
* During offseason the boat scheduled get erratic and sometimes they cancel the long-distance boats if very few passengers.
* These boats have fixed routes and you can not ask them to change or stop as per your convenience.
* Food is not available onboard, so carry your food.
Canoe tour in Kerala Backwaters
A canoe is similar to Kayak but made of wood. Canoeing is the most eco-friendly way to explore the Kerala backwaters. These boats are without motors and a person rows these boat with a paddle. It is meant for people looking for a local experience.
The Advantage of Canoe boat
* Ideal for solo travelers and couples as three people can comfortably fit in a canoe.
* It is rowed by a professional so you can go to the inner and smaller canals.
* These are small in size and can easily maneuver in small canals. Which are best to experience backwaters.
* You can stop your canoe anywhere and explore the villages on banks of canals or have Toddy.
* Canoe is slow-paced and you can absorb your surrounding at leisurely.
* There is no noise pollution of a motor.
The disadvantage of Canoe boat
* Canoes are slow-paced and require more time.
* It’s good for 2 to 3 people and cannot accommodate groups.
* There is no shade or roof so, you have to sit in sun. Carry hats or caps with you.
Motorboats in Alleppey Backwaters
I have seen few motorboats in Kumarakom area of Vembanad lake. These motorboats are fast but noisy and move too fast for my liking. I saw some people opting for these motorboats to explore the backwaters but I don’t find any advantage in using these.
I read at some places that by visiting backwaters and getting close to villages we are disturbing local people. After reading all these I was also very cautious before going for my first backwater ride. But after visiting backwaters in Alleppey, I noticed that people are friendly. They are welcome you with the open heart. They don’t make you feel if you are intruding on their personal space.
Yet it is our duty that we should not cross our boundary and should be respectful to everyone we interact. People in the backwaters understand that tourism is one of the main sources of income.
Water pollution in Vembanad lake and Canals
The houseboat tourism in backwaters of Kerala started in early 1990 and over the years it exploded. There are a few hundred houseboats in the backwater but only 20 to 25% of houseboats have pollution control certificate. Thus with no system in place these houseboats are creating pollution by spilling oil, emitting CO2, and creating noise pollution. Other than these pollutants, these houseboats also dispose of sewage and rubbish in the backwaters.
All these pollute the backwaters and affecting the ecosystem. This polluted water is then used by people living on the banks of lake and canals. The same water is also used for irrigation of paddy fields, which is affecting the crop and also the health of farmers working in fields.
The plastic bottles and wrappers of other food products are disposed of in water carelessly by tourists.
All these affect the ecosystem of the lake and the life of people around the lake & canals.
As a responsible traveler, we should make sure that we don’t become part of pollution creators and take all precautions. Be a responsible traveler.
I hope you got some useful tips for exploring backwaters. If you like to add some tips on it, please feel free to do so.