Tim Roxborogh explores Kerala's captivating backwaters on a rice boat.
It all began with a taxi conversation in Auckland. I'd been chatting with my Indian driver about how I'd always wanted to see his country. Having paid and about to jump out, the driver yelled "WAIT!" He then whipped out his iPad and began flicking through photos of the one Indian state he insisted I visit above all others. I think he even turned the engine off.
Prior to this, Kerala hadn't really been on my radar, but photos of old rice boats gliding down palm-tree lined rivers had me hooked. "Look! Middle-class homes too!" said the driver. Indeed they were. And although adventures in Burma, Thailand, US and Australia would happen in the intervening couple of years, I did finally make it to India late last year. As promised, it was Kerala, on the southern tip of the subcontinent, where I landed first.
Occupying the same latitude as Sri Lanka and Phuket in Thailand, Kerala is a slice of India drenched in tropical greens. At 39,000sq km it's roughly the size of Canterbury, though there's a much stronger New Zealand link. Turns out Kerala has frequently been promoted throughout India and abroad as "God's Own Country."
Much like New Zealand, the "God's Own" moniker is down to the natural beauty of the place, blessed with beaches, mountainous jungles, waterfalls and national parks. "Kerala" reportedly means "land of coconut", and even densely populated cities like the capital Thiruvananthapuram are awash in coconut palms.
Kerala is also proud of its outstanding colonial architecture (some of the oldest churches in India), relatively high standard of living ("middle-class homes!"), its education record (literacy stands at 94 per cent) and the fair treatment of women. But apart from all of that, it's arguably the lure of the backwaters that's drawing the ever-increasing tourists in search of a tropical destination a little different from the rest.
Having swum in the Arabian Sea at Kovalam (only okay but with a spectacular lighthouse) and Varkala (much nicer with cliff-top accommodation and steps to beaches below), it was a tuk-tuk, two trains and another tuk-tuk northbound towards the backwaters.
The backwaters are a 900km network of waterways that criss-cross through rice fields, rubber plantations, the ever-present coconut trees and tracts of bush. Whereas once upon a time the rice boats were purely for agriculture, they are now almost exclusively used as floating boutique hotels.
From the hub of the town Alleppey, we boarded a boat resembling a giant floating wicker basket. En route to a village homestay, we had five hours of doing a whole lot of nothing, but in the best possible way. The main activity was a massive banquet lunch to rival the dinner I'd enjoyed on the boat to Mandalay in Myanmar the year before. What is it with meals on boats in Asia? That Halong Bay, Vietnam meal in 2008 was pretty epic too.
As we dipped naan bread into assorted curries and sampled the local "toddy", the hours disappeared with the languid absorption of the passing river life. Women beat clothes clean on steps, water buffalo ploughed their fields, children walked home from school, pesky cellular companies advertised with traditional billboard garish-ness and the beauty of nature still won the day.
Comparing your rice boat to others also became a fun game and it was soon clear our vessel was merely three-star compared to some of the rivals. Roof-top sun lounges, four-poster beds, butler service - all of it possible depending on how much you want to spend.
Long forgotten questions of how to pass time changed to the disbelief of, "Are we here already?" as the boat moored and our Intrepid Travel tour group was split in three for a one-night riverside homestay. I've traditionally only found homestays fun (not to mention worthwhile) after the fact, thanks to those awkward, language barrier-afflicted conversations. "What do you do for a living?", "How long have you lived here?" and "Is that your daughter in the graduation photo?" always seem to morph for me into "These are good biscuits" and "That's a nice door you have".
After relieving our hosts of further inane yet carefully enunciated small-talk, we discovered that our very middle-class home, with the river out front and rice-paddies behind, had a rooftop much like some of the fancier boats. Sitting on the roof amidst the trees, the river scene and the humidity, this was quintessentially Kerala. Beautiful. It would've made that taxi driver very, very happy.
Getting there: Emirates flies from Auckland to Thiruvananthapuram via its Dubai hub.
Details: Intrepid Travel and Flight Centre has a 16-day South India Unplugged Intrepid Tour from $1280pp, twin share. Departs Thiruvananthapuram and takes in the sights of Varkala, Kerala, Kochi, Periyar National Park, Madurai, Mysore and Hampi before finishing in Goa. Airfares additional.
The writer travelled courtesy of Intrepid Travel, Flight Centre and Student Flights.