HCMC Dining Guide

Monday, June 20, 2011

Alleppey: Back in Time

Updated with promotional images provided by Kerala Tourism!
The black line indicates our journey west, then south, from Munnar to Alleppey
Despite the fact that the bus ride from Cochin to Munnar had been completely bearable, we weren't particularly thrilled by the prospect of taking one all the way to Alleppey, which is officially named Alappuzha but, like many places in India, people still refer to it by its old name. The bus would be coming from Tamil Nadu, probably already full of passengers, whereas we had had our pick of seats when we left Cochin. Not to mention it was supposed to take roughly seven hours to get there.

So, we booked an expensive taxi, which was worth it, since we arrived in Alleppey in just five hours, and in the relative comfort of a car. (Although our driver was still insane. And it had a V2 engine. I didn't even know they made V2's!)
We arrived in Alleppey bright-eyed and bushy tailed. The town is known for one thing: its proximity the backwaters. A sprawling network of over 900 kilometers of canals, lakes, and rivers, the backwaters run parallel with the sea for much of the length of Kerala, with just a thin strip of land separating the salty ocean from the fresh inland waters. The backwaters allow boats to cover large distances without having to touch ground, and their scenery is a huge tourist draw. They were the reason we had come to Alleppey, but before I get to that, there is one place within the town itself that deserves mention: the bar.

Drinking in India is a bit of an undertaking, thanks to societal conservatism and high vice taxes. The bars we had visited in Cochin and Munnar had been ghost towns, and we expected more of the same in Alleppey. Imagine our surprise, then, when we walked in and found it absolutely packed. It was as busy as an American bar during happy hour (although there wasn't a single woman present), and the drinking was being done with assembly-line efficiency: men would walk in, slap some cash on the bar, chug a glass of straight liquor, possibly chase it down with Sprite or water, and walk right back out. There was little enjoying or fraternizing - simply enter, guzzle, exit. We sat down and observed, utterly fascinated by the rapidity with which customers came and went. The patrons were just as amazed to see two Westerners inside, and after many drunken greetings we headed back to our guesthouse. In the morning, our houseboat cruise would start.
If the backwaters are the main draw of Kerala, houseboats are the main draw of the backwaters. These kettuvallams, or rice barges, first became popular around 20 years ago, when backpackers showed up and decided to hire out a boat and a crew so that they could go out on the water and smoke...perfectly legal substances. Since then, the industry has exploded, and now there are over 600 ketuvallams operating within the backwaters. I can only imagine what kind of traffic jams there are during the high season, when tourists descend on Alleppey en masse. Luckily, we were there during the low season, so the waters were relatively quiet. Why was it the low season? Allow me to mention the monsoon again.
India's vaunted monsoon supposedly begins June 1, in Kerala. Everyone warned us of this, but we brushed it off. On May 31st, I stupidly said, "It won't be like someone turns on a faucet at midnight on the 1st." Right around midnight on the 1st, it started to rain. Amazingly, it paused just as were walking to the boat, but it then proceeded to rain for about 20 of the next 24 hours. Lesson: never doubt nature's potency.
Just a light drizzle
Fortunately, the rain wasn't too much of a nuisance, since we were on a covered boat. The boat, by the way, was amazing. Ketuvallams are built without the use of a single nail; instead builders bond the wooden planks together using natural adhesives. We had a living/dining room at the front, a bedroom and a bathroom in the middle, and a kitchen in the back. There was a crew of three: the captain, navigator, and cook, although I'm pretty sure two of them ended up cooking the amazing food. We pushed off at 11 am, and wouldn't return to land until 9 am the following day.
our boat

The backwaters were serenely quiet, and it was enthralling to observe life by the water: longtail canoes delivered cement to new houses; the morning "school bus" was a small canoe packed with students; and fishing was clearly the primary occupation of the local residents. I imagine most of the area looks just as it did hundreds of years ago. The complete lack of modern amenities on our boat (which is what we wanted), only served to enhance that feeling.
the backwaters

At one point a boat came by - it was towing about a dozen little canoes, packed with plants and people under umbrellas
At about 2 pm we were treated to an absolute feast, something that was repeated for dinner and breakfast. There was fried fish, rice, lentil curry, and two vegetable dishes that were fantastic. For dinner, we had fried prawns, chapati, an incredible fish curry, more rice, and a couple more vegetable dishes. Breakfast consisted of a vegetable omelette, a stack of toasted bread, and an extremely fresh pineapple.
lunch for two

Dinner - hard to get a good pic by candlelight

As night fell, the crew moored the boat to a tree, and we settled down to relax. The boat had a limited supply of electricity, so the lights were only kept on for a short while. And, when you're in the middle of the backwaters, miles away from any cities, it gets dark. Hanging out on the boat that night revealed the one negative of the trip: there was no beer on board, and there are few places better for talking over a few cold ones than a blacked-out boat with miles of nothing around you.

The next morning, after our breakfast, we untied and headed back to where we had started the previous day. The trip was supremely peaceful (except for the moment we discovered a massive spider in the bedroom right before we were about to go to sleep), and really could not have been more enjoyable, or unique. The day on our ketuvallam also served as a perfect come-down from the insanity of Munnar, and by the time we left Alleppey we were ready for more adventure. Unsurprisingly, there was plenty more of that to come, as we hit the road south again.


  1. Enchanting view of the backwaters and the mystical experience of the greenery under the blue sky and thats not all a chance to experience and interact with the locals in here by staying in a comfortable homestay in Kerala. What else do you require to make your vacation a memorable one.

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