kerala backwaters sunset9

Last Updated on March 23, 2021

It was Jaime who broke the silence.

The four of us were reading or staring out at the water. Val hadn’t spoken in hours, not that Dani or I would have heard. Taking in the view consumed all our attention.

“Oh my god…” Jaime said, stretching his legs like a cat. “I’m soooo relaxed.”

ParadiseWe all agreed, nodding dreamily. Having spent two full days on board our houseboat, we had entered into a prolonged state of calm usually reserved for the end of an intense hour-long massage.

Our Kerala backwaters tour was easily the highlight of our time in India, and we didn’t want it to end. In fact, although we originally scheduled two nights, we extended to a third night to keep this relaxed feeling alive. We were very aware that this might be a major highlight or could be an utter failure, so choosing wisely was our main goal. After searching for the right boat and crew for a couple of days prior, we couldn’t have been more satisfied with our choice.

kerala backwaters tourWhen I first heard ‘backwaters’ I imagined dark, brackish water muddled with mangroves. Instead, this area is made up of miles and miles of dark blue water, as far as the eye can see. The backwaters cover almost all of the state of Kerala. The water is laid out almost as if it were fields, like a patchwork quilt, sewn together into squares by single rows of palm trees growing out of land not more than a meter across, where the next ‘field’ of water begins.
backwaters palm treesAt other times, the water becomes more like a river or narrows into a brook, surrounded on either side by dry land dotted with two or three houses, a few schools, shops, even bright pink catholic churches are sprinkled into the view, and occasionally we pass an actual village.

Our boat is somewhere comfortably between the surprisingly luxurious options and the rust bucket rip-offs we were shown for the exact same price as ours. For $35 per person per night, our houseboat has two double rooms, both en-suite bathrooms are no smaller than what Dani and I had on our Mediterranean cruise. The downstairs has a nice table where we eat our meals, but most our time is spent upstairs under the thatch roof, where we have a chaise lounge of sorts, a couch, two chairs and the rounded front is also fully cushioned.

houseboat sundeckOur crew is made up of a captain and a chef, neither of whom speak any English at all, so we speak only to say thank you for the amazing meals. The three days we spend gliding through endless palm trees feel like a series of moments woven together by the glide of the boat and our meal times. We wake up around 8am and are served coffee and tea while we wait for an authentic Keralan breakfast. The boat sets off around 9:30 each morning, though we wish it would leave earlier so we could have more time watching this incredible world go by. At 1pm the boat stops wherever it is and we eat lunch, the largest meal of the day.

kerala backwaters tourWe are served two or three curries, a soup, vegetable dishes, both cold and hot, plus rice and chapathi bread. Just as the heat breaks, around 4pm, we are served coffee and tea again, with a sweet snack and then, after crossing the lake, we head back into a quiet little inlet and are served dinner just after the sun sets, around 7.30pm. Who would’ve that we would have some of the best food in all of India on our Kerala backwaters tour.

The rest of the day is punctuated by intimate moments, like the exotic bird that lands on the railing upstairs, flirts with our cameras and then flies away or the group of bright yellow butterflies that flutter alongside the boat until we slowly but surely outpace them. Kids with big smiles and wide eyes wave at us as we pass, their mothers standing on steps that lead into the water, smacking the water out of the clothing they beat on the laundry stone.

Laundry in the riverIn the mornings, we pass people standing on those same steps, brushing their teeth or lathered in thick white soap which they wash right off into the water. The water is their source of life, and where everything takes place: washing, fishing, bathing, and every so often a motor boat nearly sinking, stocked bricks, or steel or sandbags speeds by with the materials to build one more house somewhere out here.

One morning before we set sail, two boys came by with a rabbit and her tiny bunnies in a box. We rubbed the bunnies’ furry little bellies and laughed with the boys and the captain of the boat, who we think is from here, but since he doesn’t speak English, this is the most time he spends with us the whole trip. The moment was so simple and sweet, and ended with a polite ‘Bye, bye!’ and off they went.

In the afternoon on the second day, we were tooling along and approaching a smaller water channel, when suddenly thousands of ducks started pouring out of the channel into the main river alongside our boat. Not much faster than these ducks, we were able to watch as the last of the thousands of birds rounded the corner and floated together in a unified migration wherever it was they were headed.

Duck parade The first night, before the relaxation seeped into every cell of our bodies, we stayed up drinking and talking until late. The second and third nights we spent watching Modern Family, swapping stories or just relaxing. If it weren’t for the bit of caffeine we drank twice a day, I am not sure I would have made it out of sleep mode by the third day at all.

It feels like nothing could go wrong the in the world, which is shocking considering that most of the time we spend in a moving vehicle in India the hectic pace, incessant honking, brake slamming and near misses make me hyper-aware of just how many things could go wrong at any moment. But that is India, a land of contrasts, of extremes. And a Kerala backwater tour shows you a side of this country that not a lot of people get to see.

Kerala backwaters tourIn fact, it makes sense that it is here, in India, where the pendulum could swing so far away from the mania in the cities over to such an utterly peaceful place.

If you want to go on a Kerala backwaters tour, read our tips on how to find the right houseboat for your own Kerala backwaters cruise here.

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  1. That really does look heavenly! A friend of the family highly recommended that we do a backwater tour in Kochi, but said we should only do 1 day, because otherwise it gets boring. (As if!) Can’t wait to read your next post on how to pick a houseboat as this definitely seems to be an experience not to be missed!

    1. Hey Steph – we’ll put out the post on Tuesday, so stay tuned for that. We wouldn’t recommend doing it from Kochi, and we’ll tell you why in that post! 🙂

    1. Thanks Sky! The relaxation is particularly serene when you know you’re escaping the craziness of India – unlike any other craziness in the world 🙂 You just have to be ready to get back into the madness the minute the boat docks and you get off 🙂

  2. Damn… you just took me back to those 3 days. This is seriously one of the highlights of my trip around the world. I don’t even know how to describe how amazing it was. I’m so glad I was able to do this with friends like y’all. It really made it more memorable than being with strangers like I normally am on tours like this.

    1. Hey Jaime, I wrote this while laying in a hammock, looking out and water and palm trees here on the beach and so it was so similar it practically teleported me right back there, too! I loved how relaxed you were, too, it was so nice to see you recover from the stressful months in India before that!

    1. Hi Laurence – Definitely go to India – it is a photographer’s dream! And do this boat tour for sure. Dani only crashed us once or twice, haha! 😉

  3. This is something we really REALLY want to do! I can’t believe we didn’t make it back to India when we were in that part of the world, but there’s plenty of time. But dang, the country is so huge we’ll need months to properly explore it all. 🙂

  4. I’ve wanted to do one of these backwater cruises ever since I saw Justine do it on one of the Lonely Planet/Globetrekker videos. It look so relaxing – having everything taken care of and just sitting back and enjoying the scenery.

    1. We’ve never seen or heard anything about the Backwaters before we got to Asia and started planning our trip to India, to be honest – I had no idea they were so popular and featured in all kind of TV shows and travel articles and even included in the `50 destinations of a lifetime’ by National Geographic Traveler and similar lists!

  5. This is just fantastic! I will have to plan a trip to Kerela real fast! Sounds like heaven. The traditional Southern Meal also has Sambhar and Idli and Dosa, did you try all that out?
    Have a wonderful week 🙂

    1. Thanks so much, Arti! And yessss, we definitely tried all the delicious Southern Indian food – LOVED it, especially the Dosa which we can’t get enough of!

  6. This is incredible! I’ve been dreaming of Kerala!!! I only made it as far south as Goa, but I am going to correct that next year. The nature all around you and the thousands of migrating ducks sound like pure bliss to me! 😀

    1. It seems like you did exactly the opposite of what we did – we only made it as far north as Goa 🙂 We are hoping to correct that ASAP! I am sure you will love Kerala, Audrey – it’s an incredible place and the backwaters are just beautiful.

    1. Definitely the most relaxing time we’ve had in India, but also way more relaxing than some of our beach getaways. It doesn’t happen often that somebody cooks three meals a day for us 😀

  7. I read a short article about this in a magazine a few months ago and have been meaning to research it more. This post says it all. I soooo want to do this when I visit India, which will hopefully be next year. Soo cheap too!

    1. Next year – yay! We can’t recommend this enough, and you are right, it is ridiculously cheap compared to anything like this in the Western world. At the time it even felt expensive because India is just so cheap and it was hard to spend more than $20 per day most of the time, but $35 per day including all meals for this once-in-a-lifetime experience is pretty amazing!

  8. This looks absolutely stunning, from the scenery and the people to the food and the boat itself. It sort of reminds me of our Amazon River Cruise, although we did have small-boat excursions every day that allowed us to get a bit closer to the wildlife. India has been in my top 5 dream destinations for years– Mary has been there, but I never have– and this trip away from the bustling cities looks like just the sort of thing we would love!

  9. This looks absolutely stunning, from the scenery and the people to the food and the boat itself. It sort of reminds me of our Amazon River Cruise, although we did have small-boat excursions every day that allowed us to get a bit closer to the wildlife. India has been in my top 5 dream destinations for years– Mary has been there, but I never have– and this trip away from the bustling cities looks like just the sort of thing we would love!

    1. Bret – it was stunning, you are right! An experience none of us will ever forget. An Amazon river cruise sounds amazing too and I hope we’ll get to do one when we travel through South America.. maybe next spring? 🙂

  10. Wow, that is one amazing houseboat! I loved reading this as it sounds so peaceful and relaxing. After three days though, might get a little boring but definitely a great way to relax and enjoy some “me” time. Even seems romantic as well. I would definitely do this!

    1. Thanks Jeremy – it was soooo peaceful! I think there are definitely people who might get bored but we were at a point where we had traveled quite fast and through some hectic places and we were looking for some peace and quiet. And we all had great books to read and good company 🙂

  11. This is on my travel to do list (wow, I feel like I say that every time… although the list is pretty long so that’s not surprising!). It seems like such a relaxing way to travel and an amazing way to see India.

    1. I know what you mean about the travel list, Rebecca – ours is soooo long, and we’re adding new places constantly! I’d definitely recommend Kerala though – cruising through the backwaters remains one of the highlights of our travels!

    1. I wish! We got business cards from so many boats that day, I can’t remember which one’s the one from the company we ended up using… 🙁 Sorry! My best advice is to go and check out the boats in person before booking a trip. Enjoy the Backwaters!

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