By Robyn Quin
For travelers wanting to experience the tranquil and exceedingly beautiful backwaters of Kerala in India there are affordable alternatives to hiring a houseboat. While there are hundreds of kettuvallams (houseboats) available for rent for any period from three hours up to a week or more, this option is expensive and beyond the reach of most independent travelers on a budget. Just as importantly, the backwaters around Alleppey are packed with tourists and the converted rice barges are too wide to enter the tiny canals which are the center of village life on the backwaters.
A cheaper option and one that offers a more authentic experience is to hire a small motor boat in Kumarakom. This is a small town on the eastern side of Lake Vembanad, the largest lake in Kerala. A patchwork of backwater canals, tributaries and streams fans out from Kumarakom and creates massive wetlands which are home to thousands of migratory birds.
Motor boats can be hired from the Kumarakom jetty. Prices are negotiable but do not expect to pay anything more than eight dollars per hour for your vessel. The boats are small enough to take you into the tiniest of the coconut palm-lined waterways which link the villages on the backwaters.
The banks of the canals are constantly busy. Depending on the time of day, locals will be cleaning their teeth, washing their clothes, and rinsing their cooking utensils. The young men throw fishing nets while the older men idly cast their lines into the dark water. Small huts along the banks offer freshly grilled fish and shellfish. The boat ride passes paddy fields, small farms, mangrove swamps and groves of coconuts. Eventually the boat emerges on to Lake Vembanad, and skirts the shores before returning to the Kumarakom jetty.
Kumarakom is also home to a bird sanctuary. The reserve covers more than 14 acres of forest and waterways. Between March and November it is home to many species of migratory birds, including storks, from Siberia. The best way to experience the bird life is to see it from outside the sanctuary, from the water. The fact is that the birds don’t know it is a sanctuary so outside of the nesting season they are more readily seen from the lake and canals.
The simplest way to see the birds is to go to the bird sanctuary entrance, but do not purchase an entry ticket. Outside the sanctuary a dozen or so guides will be offering their services. You can pick up a guide for 250 rupees an hour (about fifty cents). He will pole you in a narrow wooden canoe through the tiny waterways bordering the sanctuary and onto Lake Vembanad itself. Birds are in abundance — waterfowl, darters, woodpeckers, kingfishers, cuckoos, herons, waders, cormorants, ducks, and many more. On the lake curious otters pop their heads up to inspect the canoeists.
Kumarakom can be reached by ferry, car, or train. Kumarakom town can be reached by public ferry from Muhamma (thirty minutes by bus from Alleppey). The journey across Lake Vembanad takes forty minutes and costs less than four dollars. Alternatively the journey can be done by road or by train. The nearest railway station is at Kottayam, ten miles away. From there an autorickshaw will take you to Kumarakom.
There is a range of accommodation available in town or nearby, from clean and comfortable homestays to five star resorts on the banks of Lake Vembanad. This is not a malaria-prone area so homestays with fan-only rooms do not pose a health threat.
The grilled seafood served in the small huts by the banks of the waterways is fresh and delicious. A seafood feast for two costs less than ten dollars. However, it is basic. A banana leaf serves as a plate and you eat with your fingers. No alcohol is available and it is advisable to take your own bottled water.
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