Kayak, Canoe or a Houseboat?

I have now been on a houseboat, canoe and kayak in the Kerala’s backwaters. While all are fun ways to explore the backwaters, each has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. In this post I am going to compare all the three modes of exploring the backwaters in the God’s Own Country. Even though the experiences happened over two trips, I was exploring the Vembanad Lake on all the three excursions. So, the experiences are of the same region and comparable. So Kayak, Canoe or a Houseboat, that is the question!

luxury-houseboat
A Luxury Houseboat in Kerala

What you will like most of course depends on your own preferences. If you wish for luxury, houseboat is what will suit your needs. After all you can get a houseboat which has air-conditioned bedrooms and dining areas. As there is a kitchen too, getting tea on the holiday is easy. However due to the size houseboats can go only in wide water channels.

canoe-kerala-backwaters
Explore the Kerala Backwaters on a Canoe

A canoe is somewhere mid way between a houseboat and kayak. It gives you some comfort and it takes you into narrower water lanes. Some may say it is neither here nor there! But if you want to be more adventurous without going all the way, canoe is a good option. It certainly takes you closer to the villages in the backwaters.

kayaking-kerala-backwaters
Kayaking in the Kerala Backwaters

If you want to go on an adventure kayaking is what you will enjoy. You are just this high from the water and you can touch it anytime you want. You can see our kayak was going close behind a local boat. Such intimate experiences are not possible in the bigger vessels. You also get plenty of exercise while kayaking.

 So here is the table mapping my experiences of it all kayak, canoe and houseboat. Take your pick, or in fact do indulge in all.

CanoeKayakHouseboat
Gives you some amount of luxuryGives you the least amount of luxuryGives you the most luxury
Has no kitchenHas no kitchenHas a kitchen
Is motorizedNot motorizedIs motorized
Gives you no exerciseGives you plenty of exercisePampers you and gives you good food
Can go in narrow water channels Can go in narrowest water channelsCan go in wide water channels only
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‘Whenever I am asked, “How was your vacation?” I have a fixed reply, “Holidays are always good.” But camping by the Ganges with Chhavi was better than good! We were staying at the MHE Beach Camp. As the kid is still small she was underage for rafting. So, the number one attraction on the Ganges was ruled out for us. And yet, we had so much fun.

10. Waking Up by the River

camping--shivpuri
Waking Up by the Ganges

The last thing I would hear before closing my eyes was the sound of river. As soon as I would open my eyes, it would be there again, the beautiful sound! There is something very seductive about waking up next to a river! Chhavi would demand to open the tent flaps as soon as she would open her eyes, she anyway does that way too early in the morning. And there it would be, the big, magnificent Ganges, right next to out tents. We visited the camp from Sunday to Tuesday and it was particularly quiet during the weekdays. This was my kind of vacation, far away from the maddening crowd.

9. Swinging in a Hammock

hammock
Swinging in a Hammock

The days in the northern plains are getting hotter. After breakfast we would straight run to the river and splash around it. After lunch we would laze around the camp. On our day 3 they had put a hammock near the dining area. Chhavi would initially roll out of it while trying to swing.

After getting a hang of it and swinging for a long time she finally vacated it. I saw my chance and I occupied it quickly. She didn’t like it one bit. She asked me to get off, which I refused. Then she came and tried to throw me out of it. When she could not she started jumping on me! After a while she got busy elsewhere. And I had a peaceful time in the hammock with my book! There is no better way to spend an afternoon by the river than swinging in a hammock.

8. Food or When Chhavi Would Eat it on her Own

food
Good Food

MHE Beach Camp serves some lip smacking food. They use less oil which was much appreciated. They would vary the menu as well. However, for me the biggest blessing was that Chhavi would eat on her own. After playing in the sun, sand and water she would be really hungry. What a blessing it was to have the child eat on her own instead of me being after her life, which is our usual scene!

7. Starry Nights

starry-night
A Million More Stars!

I just loved the starry nights at Shivpuri. As usual there were a million more stars in the sky than the city. The good bit with Chhavi is that she goes to bed early on her own. I was free to pursue night photography.

But there was another aspect to the night that I would not have noticed on my own. As there was no electricity Chhavi would not like it at the night at all. She would go what I called ‘min min’ (would translate to cribbing) as soon as it became dark. She found it scary. She protested so much that by the third night we had to shift to the city.

6. Chai ke Glass

chai
Chai Ka Glass

Chai makes me happy, it makes me immensely happy. I like places which realize this and give me my fill. The nice folks at the MHE Beach Camp would put a flask full of tea for me. It was such a source of happiness for me. Instead of the tea cups provided, I would drink it in the glass! That makes it taste even better.

5. In the Far Far Away Land

ganges-shivpuri
In the Far Far Away Land

I like isolation, there I said it. I am not much for crowded places. MHE Beach Camp is on the other side of the river. Once we crossed to that side on a raft, there I was, away from it all. Even though I could see a bridge with traffic on it and other camps, the location was ideal to relax and unwind.

4. Playing by the River

ganga-shivpuri
Playing by the River

The water of the Ganges in cold, surprisingly cold even at end of March. MHE Beach Camp is very strict about wearing life jackets if the guests wish to go anywhere near the river. I appreciated it a lot. There is a nice beach with a shallow portion of the river. It was our favorite spot in the entire camp! I would wade bit by bit in the river and take a dip after ages. The burning sun would feel so nice after the cold dip. Chhavi found the water not so nice, so she would sit by the river making tunnels in the sand.

3. Chhavi’s Friends

camping-ganges
Chhavi’s Friends Titu and Mukesh

Mukesh and Titu, the rafting instructors pampered Chhavi a lot. they would pay with her, teach her volleyball, and when she would not enter the river take her there and drench her! She was particularly fond of Mukesh as he spent a lot of time with us. If a guest goes down to the river an instructor sort of materializes out of thin air on the beach. While we were there, looks like it was Mukesh’s turn to be that instructor. He had immense patience to play with a small child and keep her entertained too. I handed the camera to him while we were kayaking. He has a way with the camera too!

2. Kayaking

kayaking
Chhavi Tries Kayaking

Titu and Mukesh gave us two kayaks to play around in the shallow pond that the river forms by the bank! And before you declare us complete nuts for letting such a small child go into the river in a kayak, both the kayaks were tied by ropes which Titu held on to firmly. Mukesh was around in his raft to keep us in the shallow as well.

Both Chhavi and I had a gala time trying our hands at kayaking. Later Chhavi was complaining to me that they kept her tightly on the rope while they left me comparatively free to roam around! How observant the kids are! I asked Titu about turning the kayak around and he said I would have to back paddle to do so. I got some hang of it after trying many times. I thoroughly enjoyed kayaking around in shallow water with some amount of control over the kayak!

1. Playing in the Sand

playing-sand
Mama was Asking Not to Play in Sand!

The kid was so happy to see the sand all around her. She went completely berserk. She would crawl in the sand on all fours. She would roll around in the sand getting it in her hair as well. She would dig into it with her hands till it got inside her nails!

On the first day I tried to stop her in the evening after I changed her clothes. She made such a protesting face that I melted. For three days she had a free run in sand, and she loved every minute of it. I knew this is what she enjoyed most on the trip but just to reconfirm, I told her, “Chhavi I am going to write about the trip now so tell me what did you like most?” True to her form she didn’t reply to me first. But after some time she shouted, “Sand” and got back to mucking around with colors lying on the floor.

PS. I went to the MHE Beach Camp as part of their Blogger-in-Residence Program. Do check it out.

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It is difficult to believe that all I spent were measly 4 days in Kochi and the backwaters. I had so much fun in those four days, it feels like I was there at least for 10 days! So here are 10 things I thought were a lot of fun to do in Kochi and backwaters. My trip was on invitation from Travspire.

Kashi Cafe, Fort Kochi

Kashi Cafe, Fort Kochi

10. Visit the Kashi Cafe: Locals like it, everyone recommends it. It is a nice cafe. They have art works installed at the front. I was however pressed for time and straight went for coffee and a pastry. The pastry was huge, way too many calories I say. It was yum too. When I asked if they had wifi they said no. It has a nice ambiance. People were sitting there with books and e-readers. So it is a place to hang out, no one is in a hurry to throw you out.

South Indian Thali

South Indian Thali

9. Eat at Krishna Restaurant: Guess what was the cost of the South Indian Thali I had at Krishna Restaurant? It was a royal sum of Rs. 35. And it was eat as you much. They also had a dish listed at Rs. 15. I can’t remember when I paid so less for a meal. My auto driver for the day, Sabu Babu took me there. It is a local place. That coffee bill at Kashi was many more times than the food bill.

Paradasi Synagogue, Kochi, Kerala

Paradasi Synagogue and the Shops, Kochi, Kerala

8. Visit the Paradesi Synagogue: I only walked through the Jewish Street and saw the exteriors of this synagogue as I was there on a Friday. The synagogue is closed on Friday and Saturday. I had an interesting experience in the lane full of shops on the way to the synagogue. Everyone invited me to their shop. I told them I was not shopping. They said I could just walk in and have a look. I parried it by saying- on the way back. And on my way back they reminded me I had to visit their shops. It was all done nicely and in good humor. In the end I bought a t-shirt and dresses for my daughter and niece.

Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica, Fort Kochi

Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica, Fort Kochi

7.  Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica and St. Francis Church:  Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica is ancient and have gone through a lot of destruction and reconstruction (read more about it here). When I visited it, I was the only person inside the church. St Francis Church is also almost as old as the basilica. It is said that Vasco da Gama was buried here before they moved the body to Lisbon.

A Theyyam Artist, Fort Kochi

A Theyyam Artist, Fort Kochi

6. Watch a Cultural Performance: I am not much of a culture person. And yet I was completely mesmerized by the dance performances put by the artists from the Greenix Village (read the complete article on the Kathakali and other dances). It was right opposite my hotel, The Fort House. You can pay only to watch Kathakali or you can pay to watch the entire show. I strongly recommend that you watch the entire show.

Ancient Shiva Temple, Muzris

Ancient Shiva Temple, Muzris Heritage Trail

5. Go on the Muzris Trail: Muzris used to an important port during the ancient times. It was part of the famous spice route. It can no longer be physically located. One theory is that it got submerged within the sea. But its approximate location is seeped in history. There are synagogues, temples and mosques nearby, all of them a  few centuries old. If you are interested in heritage this is a must do (you can read a detailed account of my experience).

The Local Dhobi Ghat, Fort Kochi

The Local Dhobi Ghat, Fort Kochi

4. Hire an Auto and Let Them be your Guide: That is how I explored Fort Kochi. The deal was for Rs 100 per hour and I can avail the auto services for as many hours I wish. It was a lot of fun. That is how I discovered Krishna Restaurant. At one point I asked Babu to take me someplace where I could buy chips. He took me to a  local shop and I was really sad when all the chips got over finally. They were quite good. He also took me to off beat places like CTD Temple and the local Dhobi Ghat. Other off beat places were a ginger processing unit, a candle making factory and a local shop which sold nice soaps and tea. We of course did the regular attractions as well.

Chinese Fishing Nets, Fort Kochi

Chinese Fishing Nets, Fort Kochi

3. Watch Sunset Over the Chinese Fishing Nets: The Chinese Fishing Nets lend a unique charm to the sea shore at Kochi. Sunset is when the magic happens and it is a beautiful time to take stroll along the shore. The locals do it too. You can eat stuff from road side vendors. I do not eat fish but they can make it for you fresh out of the water! I wish the area was cleaner though (want to read more about them?)

Breeze Backwater Homes, Alappuza

The Hammocks and My Room at Breeze Backwater Homes, Alappuza

2. Stay at a Backwater Homestay: Forget hotels, I would say even forget houseboats. This time choose a homestay. I stayed at Breeze Backwater Home Stay in Alappuza. It is about 2 hour drive from Kochi. My room was literally 5 steps from the lake. They have only four rooms, so pre-booking is recommended. Their food is awesome. There are hammocks in the courtyard. They own a houseboat and  a canoe, both of which are rowed with bamboo poles. They were quick to point out that it was much more eco-friendly. It is a great place to unwind. I would say just put up your feet and do nothing here.

Kayaking in Kerala Backwaters

Kayaking in Kerala Backwaters

1. Go Kayaking: If you are even mildly adventurous type, kayaking is one activity you cannot miss. A kayak can go to all those canals where a houseboat cannot. You sit this high from the water, almost touching it. There are bridges that you can cross only after ducking or lying flat on the kayak. It is just too much fun. Put it on your list. Go do it and read more about my experience.

OK here is bonus tip. The good folks at the Breeze Backwater can arrange for a cycling trip for you as well. I say do that too!

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When the good folks at Travspire put Kayaking on my agenda it was another instance of an adventure chasing me, on my own I don’t think I would have thought of it! And what an adventure it was! It was a early start on July 28, I woke up at 5.15 am and we headed to Alleppey before six.

Alleppey Backwaters, Kerala, India

Alleppey Backwaters, Kerala, India

This was my first trip to the Kerala backwaters. Nothing I read prepared me adequately for it. Vembanad Lake is huge with many smaller canals around it. Venice springs to mind as the natural analogy. Houseboats look amazing, as they gently rocked in the morning breeze.

However, we had to find Binu our kayak expert first. The canoe boat was waiting for us and soon Binu arrived too. So four of us, the boatman, Appu (who drove me to Alleppey) Binu and I were on our way for an awesome adventure.

Beautiful Kerala BackwatersBeautiful Kerala Backwaters

Binu reassured me that no prior experience was required. He asked if I could swim, which I can, only I was not sure how would I fare in a lake. After all, my entire swimming experience is confined to swimming pools, some of them less than 4 feet deep! We were on the way to where the kayaks were stored. I got out barefoot and followed Binu to the Kayak. Just before entering it I hesitated for a moment. With Binu’s instructions I managed to enter without toppling it. After that everything fell in place. I didn’t even remember to get afraid I was so busy having fun.

Kayaking in Kerala Kayaking in Kerala

Paddling didn’t feel very difficult because I had an expert with me. I asked him, “How did you get the idea to offer Kayaking?” Binu said he wanted to take people to the smaller canals where the big houseboats can’t go. One way is to go in a smaller canoe but kayaking is more intimate. You are this high from the water level and you can touch the water when you want. It splashes you a little but I didn’t need any change of clothes.

We rowed for 30 minutes in the main body of the lake and after a few strokes itself my shoulder particularly on the left side started hurting. Binu told me I could row as little or as much I wanted. He had a dry bag so I could carry my camera with me. After thirty minutes we tied the kayak to the canoe which went ahead of us. We headed for breakfast at a local tea shop. After rowing for thirty minutes against the current I was eagerly looking forward to it.

Breakfast at a Local Tea Shop, Alleppey, KeralaAppu Engrossed in the Map of the Lake in front of the Tea Shop

I had paratha and chana with vada and coffee and it was gobbled up with some speed. I asked Binu where he got his kayaks from and he said they were imported from New Zealand. He also mentioned they could do up to five night trips in a kayak. After the paddling for the day, they stay with house boats or home stays. It sounded so incredibly exciting. I also asked him if people fell into water. He said yes to that. He added that it mostly happened when people were chatting with each-other across kayaks and not paying attention to instructions given to them, mostly couples; Indian couples. Once breakfast was over it was time to head to the smaller canals.

Visiting the Smaller Canals, Alleppey, Kerala

Visiting the Smaller Canals, Alleppey, Kerala

It was a little easier to paddle on a full stomach. And it was a pleasure to visit the smaller canals and see people going about their daily life. Kids were going to school, some walking, some in a boat. People use the canals to wash vessels and bath. One women said something to Binu and he told me, “She is saying tell her life is tough here, it is not easy to live.” In some ways where ever you go in the world this seems to be true in one way or the other. There were areas in flood too, where water entered the homes and life at that moment was doubly difficult.

If you peer in the picture above you can see a low lying bridge. Larger boats cannot across it and we had to duck to cross it. At one point I had to go flat on the kayak to cross an obstacle! It was fun. After exploring the first small canal we went back to the main body of the lake. The kayak was tied to the boat and we tugged along it. And then we spotted it!

Practicsing for the Boat Race, Alleppey, KeralaPracticing for the Snake Boat Race, Alleppey, Kerala

There was a snake boat in the water for a practice run! It was fascinating to watch 110 people in one boat shouting and rowing in tandem. And this was just one boat! I can only imagine what it would be like on the actual race day. I was lucky to watch them on their practice run. Binu told me that the prices for hotels are even higher at the boat race than in season. Also you would not find a single room vacant if you did not book beforehand.

A Larger Boat, Alleppey, Kerala BackwatersA Larger Boat, Vatican No Less, Alleppey, Kerala Backwaters

After going through two smaller canals my shoulders were actually looking forward to the end of the trip, I however wanted more. The shoulders won and with hindsight it was a good thing. Later in the evening I was catching a flight back home. Next morning I was to be at work however tired I was, in order to save leaves. The kayak got tied to the boat again and we stopped at a tender coconut stall. Vatican had dislodged a boat full of people ahead of me who were also after tender coconut.

The Kayaking TeamThe Kayaking Team (from left to right) Appu, Our Boatman (pity I didn’t ask his name) Binu and Me

Our boatman took matters in his own hand and cut open a tender coconut for me. We walked back to the boat and Binu produced a fat, juicy Appam for me. It was just  what I needed after spending four hours in the beautiful backwaters of Alleppey. With that we headed back to where our car was parked. This is one trip that is going to stay with me for a long time.

Somewhere in the middle of the trip Binu told me I was the first Indian woman who kayaked with him alone. Now that could be some sort of distinction but what is it with Indian woman? Get out and travel alone, I know it is not easy but it can be done.

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