India 2015 · Travel writing

Houseboats In Alappuzha: A Watery Paradise

Alappuzha, known as Alleppey under British rule, is a tiny town in south Kerala. The town itself is a dusty collection of streets and markets, but behind it is an Eden: a vast network of waterways that stretch for miles and are absolutely, completely, utterly stunning.

I have been to a few places in my life where no matter where you look, the view is picture-perfect, and this is at the top of the list.

I have been to Alappuzha twice. The first time I went, I stayed in a hotel, and I know now that this is a really bad idea. If you go to Alappuzha, you need to stay in a house-boat: they gather in a huge pack at a jetty in the east of town, belching smoke and pop music, and they are often over-priced. When I went the first time, I thought that they were unnecessary and stupid, and travelling on my own, I didn’t feel like sitting on one alone. I went on a state-run public boat instead, and it was nice, but it was very short and getting back was a pain. I made a promise that I would return to the town with someone else, and give it the attention I knew it deserved.

And when I returned to Alappuzha for the second time in January 2015, my friend Jess and I pushed the boat out (ha!) and hired a houseboat for one night. From 11am on Wednesday to 9am on Thursday, we were free to lounge around on a beautiful boat as it chugged up and down the glorious backwaters.

I have never experienced anything like it. Our room had a double bed, shower, flush toilet, electricity, fans, and plenty of space to relax (and read Harry Potter). The prow of the boat had a big table and lots of cushioned seats where we could lie and stare at our beautiful surroundings.

The best thing about the experience was the food: it was absolutely transcendental.

Everything from the sweetened lemon juice we were offered on our arrival, to the banana leaf ‘meal’ lunch, to the banana fritters, to the chicken, prawns, chapattis and curries of dinner, to the idli sambar of the morning. It was some of the best food either of us have ever eaten.

The places that we went to were great, too: it’s hard to find a view that isn’t postcard-perfect in the backwaters. I loved watching kids and commuters board the government bus to get to local towns and men gather around toddy parlours as the afternoon wore on. We docked for the night by a rice paddy, and were able to walk alongside it, watching birds come home to roost in the trees as the sun set.

Sleeping on a boat that gently rocked was also a highlight. When I woke up, I rolled over, opened the windows, and saw the sight below.

How many times am I going to see a sight as beautiful as this upon waking? Unless I marry Benedict Cumberbatch, I suspect it will be very few.

However, there are two less-than-perfect things that I want to mention about our houseboat experience. The first one is that our crew — the chef and captain — were there solely to take care of Jess and me, and that felt very strange. The captain in particular had a really eager smile, but didn’t speak fantastic English. I thanked the chef in Malayalam when he served us, and he seemed very surprised that I could speak his language. It felt very awkward to be relaxing and enjoying the view, knowing that there were two men whose sole job was to wait on me for almost 24 hours. (This is why I hate going to expensive accommodation or restaurants when travelling).

Secondly, the first afternoon was partly taken up by trips to different places along the canal-side — fish markets, smaller boats, ayurvedic centres — and our crew persistently tried to get us to buy things at exorbitant prices so that they could get commission. I didn’t mind too much — I would have done the same if I were in their shoes, and with the amount that we paid for the houseboat, it was clear that we were relatively rich — but it was still a little unpleasant being treated as a walking wallet.

Other than that, our houseboat trip was so beautiful, so relaxing, so delicious and so worth it.