The Kerala region of India is the country’s best kept secret. This Southern Indian area is a complete contrast to the madness of India’s large cities and it is undoubtedly one of the prettiest and most peaceful parts of this vibrant and diverse country.
I started my three weeks in India in Kerala before visiting Goa, Delhi, Agra, Orchha and Varanasi before crossing over into Nepal and it definitely started my trip off on the right foot.
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How to get to the Kerala Backwaters?
Kerala is serviced by the Cochin International Airport and many airlines service the region, making the airport the fourth busiest for international travel. Cochin (also known as Kochi) is a major city in the state of Kerala where you can base yourself before exploring the backwaters.
To get from Cochin Airport to Alleppey, the entry point for the Kerala backwaters, there is a very cheap bus that runs from directly outside the airport– though it is quite unreliable timing wise.
You can also catch the train to Alleppey from Kochi’s Ernakulam Junction which will take around an hour and a half. The cost of the train journey will set you back around $2 AUD one-way.
Though I wouldn’t be game enough to drive in India, this is the quickest way to get out to the backwaters, taking only 50 mins from Kochi. If you’re not feeling confident enough to drive the unpredictable Indian roads, a taxi will set you back around $25 AUD. That way you can sit back and enjoy the scenery rather than stress about the roads, too.
If you’re feeling a little bit adventurous like me, then the best way to experience this region is to join a day-trip cycling tour from Kochi all the way out to the backwaters. The total cycling trip covered around 30km for the day – so be warned that you’ll need to be up for the challenge if this is your chosen way to see this incredible part of India.
I did my one-day cycling tour with Urban Adventures. However, at last check the day tour does not appear to be running any longer. Avid cyclists may be interested in their multi-day tour brand, Intrepid Travel, which offers an eight-day cycling journey through South Western India, including a houseboat stay on the Kerala Backwaters.
Non cyclists wanting to experience the Kerala Backwaters and Kochi might be interested in Intrepid Travel’s South India Revealed tour instead.
Where to stay to visit the Kerala Backwaters
It is possible to stay in Kochi and cycle out to the backwaters like I did, or stay in the backwater region itself. Use the map below to search for accommodation options to suit you.
A Day Cycling the Kerala Backwaters
I don’t think in my wildest dreams I was prepared for the huge day ahead in Kerala. I left Fort Kochi around 8am and didn’t get back until around midnight due to the incredible hospitality of my tour guide Raj and his friends. The cycling tour takes you through Fort Kochi to the more rural, agrarian areas of Kerala with serene rice paddy fields stretching as far as the eye can see.
The first stop Raj took me to was a quaint and humble local restaurant called Antony Tea Shop where I was presented with a traditional Indian breakfast of curry (that you eat with your hands), hard-boiled egg, Indian bread and tea.
This was quickly followed by what looked like a doughnut, but I quickly learned that it was actually called Vada – a savoury south Indian food made from either dahl, potato, lentil or gram flour.
Then it was back on the bike and the lengthy ride out to the backwaters of Kerala really kicked off, littered with a few stops along the way to see how traditional wooden canoes were made and to watch the fishermen and their boats on the Arabian Sea.
The final (and most dangerous) stop before lunch was at a local Toddy bar in the middle of a serene expanse of harvested rice paddies. Toddy is a drink made from fermented sap of the palm tree – if you have fresh Toddy (drink on same day it was harvested) then it’s a pretty light drink.
If you decide to be a little more naughty and try yesterday’s Toddy then you’ll find it’s highly alcoholic and you may have trouble standing up after drinking a great deal of it. I started on fresh Toddy and then a group of local fishermen came over and handed me “yesterday’s Toddy”.
They spoke barely any English but they were so friendly and insisted I take photos with all of them & gave me their addresses so that I could pass on the photos. After a good couple of hours of Toddy drinking, getting back on the bike seemed like a terrible idea but determination kicked in and on I went.
The thing about Kerala, particularly the backwaters, is that everyone is incredibly friendly. People would ride along beside me on their motorbikes and ask where I was from and what I was doing in the area. Literally everyone smiles and says hello.
My tour guide Raj took me to his local village and his self-styled “Robinson Crusoe Island” and walked me all around the area giving infinite wisdom about the flora and fauna of his village.
I saw local kids playing games with bits of broken glass and shells, I canoed on the lake in the centre of the village, I relaxed on Raj’s secluded island in a hammock and finally ended back up at another Toddy bar – this time I started with “yesterday’s Toddy” and a plate of tapioca.
Following another few rounds of yesterday’s Toddy, Raj insisted I stay and have dinner on his island. When I tried to politely refuse saying that I should get back he told me that they’d already started cooking dinner for me and had already gone to by beers from town. A pretty hard offer to turn down.
Thanks to Raj’s hospitality, I got to eat an incredible dinner of okra, mackerel, rice and beetroot under the stars on an island floating in the middle of a lake with a new friend.
As if he hadn’t done enough, Raj offered to host me for the night which I had to refuse as I was due to fly out the following morning. All the same, I was absolutely struck by the generosity and kindness of my host who refused to even accept a tip as I was considered a friend not a client.
A long day, an exhausting day but a day that I will never forget. Even though we haven’t stayed in touch, I often think of Raj on his man-made floating island and I know I’ll be grateful for the experience he gave me for the rest of my days.
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