Cruising along the palm tree fringed Kerala backwaters in a traditional reed, thatched boat was the most serene and peaceful experience I found in India and an experience not to be missed when in Kerala.
The palm trees bowed in the breeze and the sun glittered on the water. I watched mesmerised as we passed little colourful houses on the banks of the river and people paddling by in canoe boats loaded with reeds. There was something else too – the sweet sound of silence, something hard to find in India.
The most iconic image of Kerala is the thatched houseboats but with prices from $100 per day upwards this might be too expensive for a budget traveller. But don’t despair – you can still enjoy the beauty of Keralas backwaters on a budget and the nature is just as mesmerizing whether you spend $10 or $1000 on a boat.
How to Cruise the Kerala Backwaters on a Budget
We arranged the Kerala backwaters trip through the tourist office in Fort Cochin for the cost of 650 rupees (about £6/ $10 including lunch!). We were driven about a hour out of Kochi on a mini bus with about 10 other westerners through brightly coloured villages until we reached a bridge over a large river. As we drove out of Kochi it was early morning and buses were packed to the rafters until arms and legs literally spilled out of the open windows.
I learnt that, as the world’s first elected communist government in 1957, the state of Kerala has the highest literacy and life expectancy rates and the lowest infant mortality in India. It was uplifting to see children on their way to school, laughing and joking in their smart uniforms, the girls all wore their hair in two plaits with ironed v shape white dupattas and salwar kamez uniforms.
The boat was a large, covered typical Kerala backwaters boat which looks like it has been weaved together. It didn’t have a motor, instead 2 weathered boatmen used long poles to push and steer as they treaded the front boards of the boat.
The men in Kerala often wear turban like head wear and a kind of tucked up skirt. The boatman wore this and it seemed quite impractical for manual boat work as his tucked up skirt kept falling out and needed to be refolded but it all added to the magic and charm.
I relaxed in the boat, listening to the birds and watching village and backwater life pass by along the side of the waterways as we drifted down the Kerala backwaters.
We went into narrower channels where the undergrowth scraped past the boat poking in through the open window arches. There was a government work scheme here where village people get paid to clear the undergrowth from the waterways – a bit like highway maintenance but with machetes, toothless grins and friendly waves as we floated past.
Traditional Backwater Life
We also got off the boat to see a spice farm, small factories making lime powders and some women making rope coils. The bright colours of their nice houses poked out between the palm trees overlooking the waterways. It was an amazing feeling to be witnessing a peaceful way of life on the Kerala backwaters that probably hasn’t changed much for hundreds of years.
A tasty typical Keralan lunch of rice, vegetable curries and pickles was served on a banana leaf on a little island. In the afternoon we explored some more on a smaller, open topped, canoe style boat. It felt a little unstable at first but As we floated through the jungle like smaller channels I caught glimpses through the trees of little houses and waterside life.
I enjoyed the peaceful meandering through the lush Kerala backwaters and glimpses into traditional life as we floated back through the waterways provided the most relaxed and serene day in India.
You can pre book a very similar full day budget backwater tour here on Get Your Guide
Kerala is one of the most beautiful,advanced and relaxing parts of India, you could almost call it India for Beginners – see Why Kerala makes a perfect introduction to exploring incredible India here.