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8 December 2016 / leggypeggy

Messing around in a houseboat

Kerala houseboat with palms

A picturesque view of a Kerala houseboat

Houseboats in Kerala

A group of houseboats anchored at the bank

If you’ve read Kenneth Grahame’s delightful book, The Wind in the Willows, you might remember Water Rat’s comment to Mole. ‘Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.’

I can’t argue with his words, especially after several fantastic boat rides we’ve had on this trip in India.

We kayaked twice in Thattekad Bird Sanctuary (didn’t see many birds, but didn’t capsize either), had three boat cruises in the Periyar National Park (more soon about the animals we saw), and lazed away most of a day on a houseboat on Punnamada Lake in Alappuzha (Alleppey) in Kerala.

From the time we started this trip back in October, Deepti said we might be able to spend a day (or even a night) on a houseboat in Alappuzha.

Little did we know that houseboats (and boats in general) are a big industry in the community.

In the past, large boats plied the backwaters of Kerala, carrying people and cargo. They played an important part in trade, making a three-day journey to take rice and spices to the port of Cochin. But as road, rail and air transport improved, the boats, known as kettuvallams, fell into disuse.

Fetching water from Punnamada Lake

Everyone is after some water

Then about 25 years ago, the community realised the boats could be used for tourism. Today the houseboats and allied occupations provide one of Alappuzha’s main sources of employment. About 10,000 families benefit directly from the houseboats, and another 100,000 are indirectly dependent on it.

I was stunned to read that the city reckons 1600 tourists arrive everyday to go cruising on one of the 1200 houseboats on the water.

Not surprisingly, we were keen to be among the cruisers. We had a choice of going for five hours in the afternoon, including lunch, or an overnight stay, with meals and a comfy bedroom.

The backwaters are very calm and there’s not much in the way of birdlife. Plus houseboats are obliged to anchor at a bank overnight and only cruise for an additional hour in the morning. So we opted for the afternoon excursion.

It was amazing to see all the houseboats set out about noon. Every direction we looked, we could see scores of boats chugging along with waving tourists, the vast majority from India.

It tickled me to see that our three crew seemed to juggle interchangeable jobs. They took turns cooking, serving and steering. And they kindly let me invade the kitchen for a few pictures.

It was also fun to see village life being played out on the water and the banks.

Along the banks of the Punnamada Lake

Along the shore of Punnamada Lake

About the boats
As we cruised along we saw a couple of boats being built. Our crew explained that all the houseboats are constructed using ancient principles and techniques, and take about six months to complete.

The materials are eco-friendly, including bamboo poles and mats, ropes and thatch. The hull is made of wooden planks (they use a timber called Anjili) that are cut long and carved. These are tied together using coir, with coconut fibres packed in between. The framework is coated in a black resin extracted from boiled cashew kernels.

Tourist boats are fully furnished and typically include a sitting–dining room, an outdoor deck (sometimes on the roof), one to four guest bedrooms with modern toilets and a kitchen. We even saw a couple of two-storey ones.

Once completed, a boat lasts for several generations. I was interested to learn that no one is allowed to live on their houseboat.

A tragedy
With all these boats in one place, there’s bound to be a disaster. In early 2013, four people died when a houseboat capsized as passengers were being transferred from one boat to another. The boat tipped as the whole group of passengers moved to one side. Those who died were trapped in a room. Another 60 were rescued.

As far as I can determine, measures to increase safety have been recommended, but not implemented.

Oberoi houseboat

Our captain said a bedroom for two on this boat is almost A$4000 a night! Most normal boats cost under A$200 a night for two. We paid A$50 each for an afternoon. Bargain!

 

96 Comments

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  1. beetleypete / Dec 9 2016 12:13 am

    Nice to see something I had only heard about. I understand that houseboat holidays are also popular in Srinagar. There’s that health and safety thing again though…
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 3 people

    • leggypeggy / Dec 9 2016 10:20 am

      I would be concerned about safety in Srinagar these days. Too much fighting in that area. But I think the houseboats in Alappuzha are fine. I can see how the one tipped over in 2013. The boat was most likely overloaded—probably at the insistence of the group itself—and then everyone moved to one side at the same time. Recipe for disaster.

      Like

  2. The Whitechapel Whelk / Dec 9 2016 12:16 am

    A fascinating and well-written piece as ever Peggy. Of course, as a child growing up in London’s East End, we couldn’t afford a houseboat. My dad sold our home and purchased a small inflatable dinghy which our entire family of 15 had to pile into before setting off from East India Dock.
    We were poor and we frequently found ourselves floundering in dilute sewage water but by the living Christ we were happy!

    Liked by 4 people

    • leggypeggy / Dec 9 2016 10:22 am

      What no houseboat of your own? Hope you had a rubber duck to go with the dinghy. I suspect the sewage helped keep the dinghy afloat.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. lexklein / Dec 9 2016 12:36 am

    The Wind in the Willows! That book was a staple in my home as a child; my mom read it to all four of us kids multiple times. Your photos capture the languid pace and feel of life along a river – perfectly lovely!

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Newton Froes / Dec 9 2016 12:39 am

    Beautiful!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. lorriedeck / Dec 9 2016 1:21 am

    What a wonderful adventure! I’d love to try that myself.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Andrew Petcher / Dec 9 2016 3:35 am

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Sharon Bonin-Pratt / Dec 9 2016 6:30 am

    So interesting to read about a lifestyle unfamiliar to me. Great story.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Dorothy / Dec 9 2016 6:34 am

    What a great way to recycle the old boats and create an income for so many. They look very nicely fitted out but the overnight charge does seem a bit excessive. I would have opted for the afternoon trip too. Maybe they dont like working at night so the quoted price for overnight is to encourage you to go for the afternoon option.

    Liked by 3 people

    • leggypeggy / Dec 9 2016 10:27 am

      The Oberoi houseboat charges a fortune for overnight, but the others are much more reasonable at about A$180 for two including all meals. That said, it’s much dearer than a standard hotel room which is about A$60 (without meals). Still, it’s about the experience.

      Like

  9. Lynz Real Cooking / Dec 9 2016 6:59 am

    You always bring such interesting pictures and posts to us Peggy!

    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / Dec 9 2016 10:28 am

      Thanks Lynn. I find these places and adventures so interesting, and am always glad when readers find them interesting too.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. IreneDesign2011 / Dec 9 2016 7:26 am

    I have never seen these boats before Peggy, thank you for sharing 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Vicki / Dec 9 2016 8:27 am

    What a great way to observe the local culture and village life, Peggy. But an overnight stay on a houseboat sounds like a ‘rip-off’ to me……whether it be in India or on a canal in the UK. (or perhaps not having travelled o/s in many years, I’m out of touch with tourist prices 🙂 )

    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / Dec 9 2016 10:29 am

      The Oberoi boat is a rip-off, but part of a huge luxury hotel chain. Most of the other boats aren’t too badly priced. Certainly affordable, but we decided the afternoon was enough.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Curious to the Max / Dec 9 2016 11:56 am

    Your explanation of how the boats are built reminded me of a National Public TV program about men who researched how Noah’s arc was probably built and then set out to recreate it. Your description is very close to how they believed the arc was built. (The biggest difference is that they believed the arc was round).

    Interesting and informative post, as ALWAYS, Peggy. Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / Dec 9 2016 1:32 pm

      Thank you. I have some close-up pics of other boats in India made the same way. I’ll post about those soon.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Archana / Dec 9 2016 1:15 pm

    We spent half a day last summer on houseboats and they serve the most delicious meal there!

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Alison and Don / Dec 9 2016 1:22 pm

    Sounds like a dreamy way to spend an afternoon. I know I would love it.
    Alison

    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / Dec 9 2016 1:33 pm

      I think everyone had a snooze, except me! I couldn’t bear missing a moment.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Alison and Don / Dec 9 2016 3:07 pm

        Oh I’d be like you! I can’t bear to miss anything!
        Alison

        Liked by 1 person

      • leggypeggy / Dec 9 2016 4:02 pm

        My mother always said I didn’t want to go to bed at night for fear I’d miss something. I guess nothing has changed.

        Like

  15. gerard oosterman / Dec 9 2016 2:21 pm

    A two bedroom on the boat for $ 4000.- a night? That would have to be for a honey-moon with the Maharajah, surely.
    Lovely trip again.

    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / Dec 9 2016 2:49 pm

      Surely, or someone with too much money and not enough sense! Or maybe the captain exaggerated.

      Like

  16. TheWorryGames / Dec 9 2016 7:56 pm

    It’s like the African Queen. So neat.

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Dec 9 2016 8:25 pm

      Oh wow! I love that movie, but glad I didn’t have to wade through the lake! 🙂

      Like

  17. voulaah / Dec 9 2016 8:06 pm

    So beautiful to discover new thing via your trip Peggy
    Thank you so much for nice sharing
    Have a very nice day
    kisses

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Brenda / Dec 9 2016 11:59 pm

    The “messing about in boats” quote has long been one of my favorites because it so exactly expresses the way I feel. I’m curious, Peggy, as to why bird life was so scarce in the area. Do you know? I’m also curious (sorry) about whether the boat’s toilets discharge directly into the water. With such a large fleet, that would be a significant amount of raw sewage (which might explain the lack of birds). Finally, the photo of the (pregnant?) woman in the sari on the shoreline is brilliant.

    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / Dec 10 2016 8:05 am

      Thanks Brenda, I love that photo too.
      I’m guessing that the boats deter the birds. We also visited the backwaters of Bhigwan (post coming soon) where there are thousands of birds but no motorised boats.
      As for your question about the sewage, I got a lot of the information for this post from an article that appeared in the ‘Times of India’ newspaper a few days after our ‘cruise’. It said there is a system in place for the safe disposal of waste, and also said that’s one of the reasons people are not allowed to live full-time on the houseboats.

      Liked by 1 person

  19. Deb / Dec 10 2016 11:09 am

    Wow how fascinating! The first thing that came to mind when I saw your first picture was Gilligan’s Island. I think all the Palm Trees put me there. What a peaceful, stress-fee job and a lovely way to spend an afternoon or overnight!

    Liked by 2 people

  20. Oz's Travels / Dec 10 2016 4:30 pm

    Kerala is on my list of places to visit, will ensure that a houseboat is a part of the itinerary! You two are really having an amazing adventure! Thanks for sharing

    Liked by 2 people

  21. Nancy J / Dec 11 2016 5:51 am

    I love the photos. Houseboats are cool. Your adventures always thrill me and take me places I cannot go. Thank you for sharing you life with us.

    Liked by 2 people

  22. gallivance.net / Dec 12 2016 9:10 am

    Peggy, I remember seeing one of these houseboats in some movie years ago, but can’t remember the movie title. Anyway, they look way cool, and I’m very surprised that you can’t live on a the boats. Ever since our stay in Amsterdam, we’ve been enamored with the idea of living on a boat. It’s hard (and expensive) to pull off in the US though. Nice post. ~James

    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / Dec 12 2016 2:59 pm

      Living on a boat is super tempting. I think I could do it for quite some time.

      As for the houseboats in Alappuzha, I think the ban on people living on them full-time has to do with controlling sanitation in the backwaters, which is a darn good reason. Impressed someone thought of it.

      Like

  23. sepultura13 / Dec 13 2016 5:11 am

    I have lived on converted fishing boats, an old Chris-Craft yacht, and a “houseboat” of sorts – it was a double-wide trailer built into the hull of an old barge.
    I’ve lived on boats on and off throughout my life…living on the water is an amazing experience!
    😎

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Dec 13 2016 7:20 am

      Wow, how lucky for you. I’ve spent quite a bit of time on boats, but never lived on the water. Maybe someday.

      Liked by 1 person

  24. Bun Karyudo / Dec 13 2016 5:12 pm

    I read Wind in the Willows when I was about ten or eleven and loved it. (Poop-Poop!) I think Ratty may have had other kinds of boats in mind, though.

    The houseboats you wrote about sound a lot of fun. I think I’d enjoy a nice afternoon messing about it one, although from what you were saying at the end, safety might still be a bit of an issue.

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Dec 13 2016 6:34 pm

      The ‘Wind in the Willows’ is a wonderful book and boats are wonderful things.

      I think the houseboats in Alappuzha are really quite safe. They’ve had one accident in 25 years and the disaster in 2013 was when 60 passengers on one boat all moved to the same side of the boat as it started to dock. They were doomed.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Bun Karyudo / Dec 13 2016 8:26 pm

        I remember you mentioning those tragic circumstances in the post, Peggy. I still wonder about it a little, though. I know you said there were a huge number of boats on the river, so in that sense, four deaths is arguably rather a good safety record. On the other hand, you also mentioned the safety recommendations made after the incident were probably not followed up, which would seem to leave open at least the possibility of it happening again. I guess it probably was just a freak accident, but I must admit, if I were going to try a trip, it is something that might give me pause.

        Liked by 1 person

      • leggypeggy / Dec 14 2016 6:23 pm

        Occupational health and safety (OH&S as we say in Australia) is mostly ignored in India. One night we saw 10 men working on the construction of a flyover. They were moving a large piece of concrete into place. There was a crane and 10 sets of hands. As far as we could see, no one had a helmet and only two wore harnesses. But they made us wait to pass underneath, so there was a hint of caution.

        But as far as personal safety goes in India in general, traffic is the worst risk, and we’re so lucky to travel with such a good driver.

        Like

  25. Aquileana / Dec 14 2016 12:02 pm

    Those houseboats anchored at the bank look beautiful …. they add so much meaning to the landscape if you stop to think it. Love the photographs here… thank you for sharing and wishing you happy holidays! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Dec 14 2016 6:24 pm

      Thanks. The houseboats really are gorgeous. Wishing happy holidays to you too.

      Like

  26. annabelletroy / Dec 15 2016 7:46 am

    Quite an experience! Have you ever read “Swallows and Amazons”, since you are “Wind in the Willows” Fan.

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Dec 15 2016 12:10 pm

      Thanks so much for the suggestion. I haven’t read ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I read ‘Wind in the Willows’ to our daughters because that’s one of the books we had when we lived in Burma.

      Liked by 1 person

      • annabelletroy / Dec 15 2016 3:52 pm

        I remember “Wind in the Willows” as a kid, enjoyed it. But I read “Swallows” as an adult…it is great! You’ll love it.

        Liked by 1 person

      • leggypeggy / Dec 15 2016 10:32 pm

        Really, really appreciate the recommendation. At the moment, I’m up to my armpits in a few books, but I’ve added this to my list for my next visit to the secondhand bookstore. I was there two days ago and found four books I was hunting for. 🙂

        Like

  27. jeanleesworld / Dec 17 2016 7:17 am

    Love this! I feel like there’s a story to be discovered with every boat. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Dec 17 2016 9:17 am

      I’m sure there is. Even though they look quite similar, they’re all distinctly different.

      Liked by 1 person

  28. Green Global Trek / Dec 18 2016 5:08 am

    Terrific post. We were in Kerala but did not go on a houseboat and now you have me wishing we had. Lovely photographs of the whole experience.

    Peta

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Dec 18 2016 3:19 pm

      Thanks so much. Maybe you’ll get back to Kerala again. We had a fun time and were glad we did at least an afternoon on a houseboat. An overnight stay is not essential.

      Like

  29. kelleysdiy / Dec 18 2016 5:12 am

    What a adventure!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  30. inesephoto / Dec 18 2016 6:38 am

    The photograph of the pregnant woman is stunning. Interesting experience, great read 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  31. voulaah / Dec 18 2016 9:42 pm

    Have a very nice sunday Peggy
    Kisses back to you

    Liked by 1 person

  32. Forestwoodfolkart / Dec 20 2016 1:48 pm

    I look at your interesting and intriguing photos, and think: I wonder if Peggy would be interested in sharing one of her photos for my Monday Mystery Photo feature next year? They would be a great challenge.

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Dec 20 2016 3:10 pm

      Oh my goodness, what a lovely offer. I’d be thrilled to share one of my pics for your Monday Mystery Photo feature. You are most welcome to choose, and I’ll identify more thoroughly if required. Or I can rustle up something from the archives.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Forestwoodfolkart / Dec 20 2016 6:45 pm

        I shall leave that up to you Peggy. I would love you to choose. You can email me the photo/s and the details and I will post it next year. Email amandamac5@hotmail.com

        Thanks ever so much

        Liked by 1 person

      • leggypeggy / Dec 20 2016 7:49 pm

        Oh my, the pressure. I’ll email you with a few questions.

        Like

  33. bacardi gold / Dec 21 2016 1:54 am

    Where do the dirt of each toilet of each boat go? Into the river?

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Dec 21 2016 9:35 am

      No, the waste is not emptied into the river. An article in the “Times of India’ said there is a clean process for removing waste. I think waste disposal is one of the reasons people aren’t allowed to live on the boats full-time.

      Liked by 1 person

      • bacardi gold / Dec 22 2016 1:59 am

        It’s good to know that waste disposal is strictly enforced along the stretch of the river.

        Liked by 1 person

  34. Maniparna Sengupta Majumder / Dec 23 2016 9:03 am

    It rejuvenated my memory of Kerala. 🙂 A$ 50 was a good bargain… that’s the price for a few hours, normally.

    Liked by 1 person

  35. Christy B / Dec 23 2016 9:46 am

    I liked your mention of The Wind in the Willows! Adored that book as a girl (almost as much as Alice in Wonderland). Great quote you’ve used to tie into the theme here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Dec 23 2016 9:10 pm

      Thanks so much. ‘The Wind and the Willows’ is a great book.

      Like

  36. milliethom / Dec 28 2016 8:44 am

    I read this thinking how much I’d love to go on one of the houseboats, Peggy, until I reached the bit about the tragic capsize. Let’s hope better safely measures are implemented soon because the tours must be a great way for the people to earn much-needed income. What a fantastic experience you had, though, ‘messing about on the river’ and you got some wonderful photos!

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Dec 28 2016 1:24 pm

      We thoroughly enjoyed our time on the houseboat and felt completely safe. Even though there was a tragedy in 2013, it’s important to remember that there’s been only one capsize in the 25 years that the houseboats have been operating. Few travel outfits have such a good track record.

      Like

  37. macalder02 / Jan 25 2017 6:45 am

    At least with your story and the photos, I have a better idea of the city. Fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

  38. artandkitchen / Feb 10 2017 1:33 am

    Oh! It’s so great seeing your picture and remembering the place. We’ve been there in 2003 as less tourists were there and the prices not to high! We’ve spent one day and one night on a simple but great houseboat. A very relaxing place. I remember very well how they prepared the meal for us, many different dishes and so quickly prepared and so good! I really don’t remember how much we paid, more than a hotel + meals, but in any case not a fortune!

    Liked by 2 people

  39. faireunvoyage2017 / May 29 2017 7:05 pm

    Glad you enjoyed visiting kerala..Do come again..

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / May 30 2017 1:06 am

      Thanks. We had a wonderful time in Kerala and hope to visit again soon. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  40. simrenzakariya / Jun 1 2017 1:43 am

    being an keralite never visited house boat…but its a very special feeling to hear something about our land from a foreigner ..thanks mam for ur words

    Liked by 1 person

  41. anjanarag / Jun 1 2017 8:07 pm

    Wow! My place so well outlined with your words. The pictures that you captured is mindblowing. Am damn that this article would surely help a person who have a great urge to visit kerala, especially Aleppey. Hope you had great days in Gods own country! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Jun 2 2017 6:09 am

      Thanks for stopping by and for commenting. We had a wonderful time in Kerala. Hope to visit again soon.

      Like

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