But if you’d like to see the backwaters in a more low-key way, then a trip in a traditional wooden canoe might be just the ticket. Travelling almost at water level, you’ll get off the main rivers into a network of narrow canals and see village life close up.
Gliding along at water level
Canoe trips last from 1 hour to 1 day (6-7 hours, including stops for snacks and sightseeing). They’re cheaper than houseboat stays, and with no engine they’re more eco-friendly. For a small canoe, 4 adults would be a comfortable maximum.
The villagers in the backwaters make their livings from a mixture of subsistence farming, coir-rope making, fishing and boat-building. You will undoubtedly be taken to a rope-making demonstration – this is where the ropes for Keralan fishing nets are made.
Many canals are only a few feet wide and a few feet deep. On my trip, the canopy of palm trees was so thick and the water so still that I felt like the canoe was skimming over green silk.
We stopped to watch a lady making a coir rope. Walking backwards from a spinning wheel, she wove shredded coconut husks into a rope. She said she could make up to 400m of rope a day like this, most of which ended up as coir mats.
Making ropes - the hard way
Then we glided past fish farms, strung over with blue nets to keep the birds off. 3 fishermen paddled past us in their canoe, calling out to villagers as they went. The tap-tap of hammer and nails indicated that boat-builders were at work.
Fisherman takes quick ciggy break
We stopped for a snack in another village. A mother poured chai for us while her daughter giggled at me. A few photos later and it was time to head back. Ducking under the palm branches that criss-cross the narrow canals, we went back onto the main river.
The canal network is well-maintained: expect to see stone-reinforced banks, dredging machines and concrete bridges.
Or, as my guide put it when I asked him:
“Canals are the same as highways here”
I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Paddling through the canals
- Where: The Kettunad backwaters between Kollam, Allappuzha and Kochi
- When: Year-round (weather permitting during monsoon)
- How much: Expect to pay Rs150-200 per hour
- Don’t Forget: Water, Sunblock, Hat (there is no shade on the canoes). Small change for tips and snacks
- Good to know: Many villagers here live at subsistence level. Any purchases you make or gifts for children are much appreciated.