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Houseboats at Kerala Backwaters

Backwaters in Kerala is a network of 1500 km of canals both manmade and natural, 38 rivers and 5 big lakes extending from one end of Kerala to the other.

Backwaters is one of the major tourism product of Kerala, being unique to the state. Traditionally used as one of the main transportation alleys, today backwaters offer a rejuvenating experience for tourists visiting Kerala.

The backwaters can be explored by hiring a boat for one or several days. If you go for more than a day, the boat usually comes with a navigator and a cook, which provide you with various facilities when exploring the backwaters.


While hill resorts and beaches can be found in other parts of India, the backwaters are unique to Kerala. Meandering through the coastal areas of Kerala is a 900-km-long (560-mile) intricate network of lagoons, lakes, canals, estuaries and deltas of several rivers that flow into the Arabian Sea. This is a natural phenomenon, as major rivers and streams that flows within Kerala drain themselves into backwaters regions, resulting in creation of several small land strips, lagoons, islands etc, which opens to sea at few areas. Thus backwaters are one of the largest fresh-water sources and rich in marine habitat as well as adds to natural beauty. Kerala has 3 backwater regions.

The most beautiful and accessible part of the backwaters is the 1 Vembanad Lake Vembanad on Wikipedia stretch in the districts of Ernakulam, Alappuzha and Kottayam. The Vembanad Lake is the longest lake in South Asia and listed as prestigious Ramsar sites, with rich biodiversity. The north Vembanad Lake opens to sea at Kochi harbour. The Kochi coast is dotted with numerous islands interconnected by ferries and bridges, adorning the Queen of the Arabian Sea like a necklace of pearls. The islands break the waves from the sea, thus ensuring that the back waters are calm and navigable. Among the islands, Wellingdon Island deserves special mention as it houses the Port of Cochin and the largest Naval presence in India: the Southern Naval Command.

The southern Vembanad Lake is world-renowned for its natural beauty and large expanse of water, sandwiched between district of Alappuzha and Kottayam. This is the most visited tourist area in South India and enthralls visitors all over world. Houseboat tourism, made these backwaters popular, where tourists can stay overnight in luxurious houseboats, enjoying natural beauty.

A small Christian chapel along a backwater canal, with traditional houseboats moored beside it.

Alappuzha has one of the largest network of canals and lagoons. It is famous for its unique practice of farming below sea-level at Kuttanad, where sea water is prevented using mud bars and lagoon strips. Whereas Kottayam has rose to world fame, when its sleepy lake village- Kumarakom became favourite holiday homes for international celebrities, overnight. Kumarakom is a famous bird sanctuary with home of several rare migratory birds with large expanse of backwaters and lagoons.

The second most visited backwater region is 2 Ashtamudi Lake Ashtamudi Lake on Wikipedia in Kollam district. This is one of the largest freshwater lake in India, with numerous navigable canals and rivers interconnecting almost all regions of south Kerala. The Ashtamudi Lake is also home of several endangered marine species.

The third backwater region is located at Kannur-Valiyaparambu Backwaters located in districts of Kannur and Kasaragod, which is least exploited, though it offers amazing natural beauty and presence of numerous small uninhabited islands.

Apart from these three major backwater regions, smaller lagoons can be found in most coastal districts of Kerala. The popular options are

  • Thiruvallam Lagoons and Akkulam-Veli Backwaters in Thiruvananthapuram district. Whereas former is a religious destination, latter is famous for its large eco-tourist project, the Akkulam Tourist Village.
  • Alumkadavu Backwaters in Kollam district at Karunagappally, famous for its large houseboat dry docks and boatyards where most of the houseboats are constructed and repaired.
  • Kumbalangi Backwaters, which is part of Vembanad Lake, near Kochi. It is famous for its village tourism, where small canoes are used to navigate a maze of mangrove forests, which is a unique experience
  • Canoli canal and Kallai backwaters, in Kozhikode district, are good for boating while the bird sanctuary at Kadalundi is fast becoming a favourite with bird-watchers and nature lovers. Nearby is Korapuzha, where the Korapuzha Jalotsavam, a water sports festival attracts large tourists.

Houseboat tourism is the most popular activity in backwaters, with many large Kettu-vallams (traditional rice boats, now converted into floating hotels), large cruisers and yachts operating.

Arundhati Roy's famed debut novel The God of Small Things is set largely in the Kerala Backwaters. It is worth reading to get a sense of the role of culture, religion, and politics in shaping the society of the people who live here.

Get in[edit]

By plane[edit]

To access the Vembanad Lake, 1 Cochin International Airport Cochin International Airport on Wikipedia (COK IATA) in Kochi is 90 km from Alappuzha and Kottayam districts.

To access the Ashtamudi Lake, 2 Thiruvananthapuram International Airport Thiruvananthapuram International Airport on Wikipedia (TRV IATA) in state capital Thiruvananthapuram is better, as it's within 68 km.

3 Calicut International Airport Kozhikode International Airport on Wikipedia (CCJ IATA) near Kozhikode, should be your choice to reach the Malabar Backwaters, particularly Kannur areas. Alternatively, Mangalore Airport (IXE IATA) and Coimbatore Airport (CJB IATA) are other options having national flight connectivity.

By train[edit]

Alappuzha Town and Kottayam Junction are the major railway stations for all trains bound to South Kerala, where you need to align to proceed to Alappuzha Backwaters and Kumarakom islands respectively.

Kollam Junction, another major railway station, is in heart of Kollam town where you can reach Astamudi-Sasthamkotta lake regions

Kannur, Thalassery, are Kasargod are major stationsthe busy Konkan Railway line (Thiruvananthapuram–Mumbai route), hence align respectively, to proceed to the Malabar backwaters region.

By car[edit]

Most of the backwater regions are interconnected each other with National highways and State highways. While much of Alappuzha region is connected by NH 47, Kottayam is connected with SH 1 (MC Road) and both the regions are interconnected with AC State highway (Alappuzha–Changassery).

Much of Kollam regions are covered with numerous State highways and 2 national highway- NH 47 and NH 208.

Northern Kerala are interconnected with several SH and NH 17.

By ferry[edit]

Regular cruises call at Kochi port from where tourists can reach Vembanad Lake either by car or yachts or light cruisers. A few ships do call at Old Alappuzha Port.

Similarly few cruises call at Beypore Port near Kozhikode, from where tourists can proceed to Kannur Backwaters via cars.

Get around[edit]

Map of Kerala Backwaters

Boat is the best way to go around the region. Apart from tourist houseboats, regular ferries operated by Kerala State Inland Navigation Company (KSINC) and traditional country-side canoes also operate in the region.

Road connections are also available interconnected by bridges, allowing cars and buses to ply. A few islands are connected with small walk-bridges, which needed to be explored either by foot or bicycle/bikes.


A village in the Kerala Backwaters


Before trucks became common, the main cargo transportation was through backwaters by 'Kettuvalloms'. Kettuvallom loosely translated means: ‘roofed boat’. They can be as long as 70 foot, with a 30 ton capacity, made with wooden planks joined and tied together with coconut ropes and painted with cashew nut oil outside. Nowadays many kettuvalloms have been converted to House Boats by enterprising boat owners with amenities like beds, kitchens, bars & toilets. The entire houseboats are constructed with natural eco-friendly materials like bamboo, coir, palm leaves and wood. Normally houseboats have 2 or 3 bedrooms with large lobby area, a kitchen and crew rooms. Some larger houseboats are even two storied with open terrace and observation deck connected with bamboo stair case.

They are available on hire for fixed rates (varies according to the season). The package usually includes tour along the backwater with stops at various place with historical or cultural importance. The menu usually includes the fresh water catch along with the seasonal sea food and Kerala vegetarian dishes. Guests who require special menus as well as vegetarian foods in certain specific styles, must inform the crew or operator office, at least one day before the cruise. Packages include cost of food and all regular amenities. Guests can swim in the backwaters, only in the areas, authorized by houseboat crew. Most of the houseboat operates on 22-hour cruise, starting from noon to 10AM next day. The houseboats will be anchored from evening 8PM onwards and morning 6AM next day, as laws prohibit these vessels being piloted at night. Houseboats are available for 8-hour cruise package for larger crowds, who do not prefer staying over-night.

The backwaters flow through almost all the districts of Kerala -- Alappuzha, Thiruvananthapuram, Ernakulam, Kottayam, etc. Almost all the stretches have breathtaking views. Not to be missed are the Thiruvallam backwaters, Kumarakom (on Vembanad lake) and Kuttanad.

Other attractions[edit]

It's water, water and water everywhere, with few narrow of strip of land in-between with huge coconut trees guarding, with its palms swaying in wind. The experience cannot be described effectively by any travelogue.


A large draw to the backwaters of Kerala are tours in houseboats. The houseboats are equipped with kitchens (many include a cook!), bedrooms and a pilot. Some houseboat operators offer fishing and will even cook your catch according to your preferred style of cooking. These tours commonly anchor at local vegetable markets and allow you to purchase fresh, local produce. In the evenings, the houseboats will anchor near local toddy shops and you can treat yourself to traditional Kerala palm toddies and food.

Perhaps unique to this region are the floating supermarkets operated by Triveni Co-op. They offer a decent selection of groceries items and other essentials to cater to people living on the islands. The supermarkets are built inside large motorized boats.


A key component of the daily menu for those travelling in a houseboat is freshly-caught freshwater fish. Regular menus are prepared in typical Kerala style, freshly prepared by crew in each houseboat. Special dietary needs can be accommodated if notified in advance. Guests also can cook for themselves in the boat's kitchen.

Around the backwaters, there are numerous small Kallu shops (Toddy Shops) which also serve food. However you would not be able to appreciate, if you are a vegetarian or vegan, as majority of them are fishes and other non-vegetarian dishes. Kallu-shops, serves local palm toddy known as Kallu, but today most of the people visit shops for its signature dishes. Some signature regional specialties include:

  • Karimeen Fry: Pearlspot fish which is shallow fried in coconut oil.
  • Varal Roast: a relative of the squid, famous its tasty meat, which is grilled in banana leaf in a semi-masala gravy
  • Kochjnu Pollichatu: grilled shrimp (prawns) cooked in dry tomato gravy
  • Chemmeen Thoran: shallow fried tiger prawn strips cooked with fried vegetables with grated coconut powder
  • Panni Ullathiyathu: baked pork cooked in heavily spiced tomato masala gravy
  • Tharavu Roast: duck curry in semi dry masala gravy
  • Kappa and Fish Curry: Mashed baked Tapioca flavored in tumeric and spices, served with fish curry.
  • Pepper fried Chicken served with Malabar Porattas (Kerala Bread)


  • Kallu (Toddy) with fish: Fresh palm toddy derived from coconut tree.
  • Sweet Tender coconut water


Many travellers stay on houseboats, but you can also find many resorts dotting the backwaters. Most of these are converted ancestral homes where you can stay with the family and have a feel of the local culture and cuisine.

There are few homestays in the island of Kumbalangi, Bolghatty etc. But to see the backwaters, you don't have to stay in any of the islands, there are hotels in mainland Ernakulam, from where you can go the islands, or backwaters.

  • Alleppeystay (kerala cruises), punnamada, . Houseboat booking. 400.
  • Abad Turtle Beach Resort. Abad turtle beach resort spread across an area of 13 acres of land, the beach resort is located at mararikulam, a fishing village about 50 km from Kochi. The resort overlook the white sandy marari beach and has a rivulet flowing on one side.

Stay safe[edit]

  • Most of houseboats are relatively safer with excellent safety track-record and all houseboats have trained lifeguards. Yet precautions must be taken care, as backwaters have bigger depth and even expert swimmers itself finds difficult in swimming here. Swim only in those areas, authorized by lifeguards. Never swim in evenings and early mornings
  • Being water borne areas, mosquitoes are common, hence mosquito-repellents must be used.
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