Messing about on the River: Kerala’s Backwaters

Backwater cruises are everywhere in Kerala. From the government tourist office to your guesthouse, everybody will try to sell you a trip on a converted rice barge.

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.

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.





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.

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.


Where: Allappuzha, Kollam, Kochi, Varkala or Kovalam are good places to start

When: Year-round (weather permitting during monsoo)

How much: A half-day trip costs around Rs700-800

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.

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