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Traditional Kettuvallam houseboats are to Kerala’s backwaters what gondolas are to Venice’s canals and punts are to the waterways of Cambridge and Oxford. Their presence on the water was once a means of transportational necessity. Nowadays, they are a vacational necessity for any discerning visitor to Kerala.
What are they?
Their delightful appearance is of a thatched cottage floating on water. Made from local naturally occurring products, the wooden hull is made from planks of anjili, an evergreen local tree that is comparable in quality with teak. The anjili planks are sealed using coir, the natural fibres on the husk of a coconut, and dark brown resin made from cashew nut oil. Traditionally, no metal nails were used in the boat’s construction. The arched upper part of the boat is made from further natural materials with a bamboo frame overlaid with tightly woven palm leaves, and fastened using coir rope.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, the literal meaning of Kettuvallam is ‘bundle’ or ‘package’ boat: Kettu means “tied with ropes,” and vallam means, “boat,” in the local language, Malayalam.
They once plied the backwaters carrying rice and other produce. However, modern transportation methods are now more affordable and have taken over. The Kettuvallam had been left to idle. That was until a bright spark refitted a boat to carry tourists, in order to reach the tranquil and remote backwater idylls. The lush green palm-fringed waterways have long been uniquely accessible only by boat and the Kettuvallam houseboats have now become a staple part of a Kerala itinerary.
Choosing Your Boat
Most cruises start from Alleppey (Alappuzha) on the banks of the Vembanad Lake, near the, “Finishing Point” – named after the location of the finish line for the monsoon season festival of Snake Boat racing. The accepted wisdom has long been to not book ahead and simply walk the lakeside on the morning you wish to depart, perusing the moored vessels until you fall for one of the wonderfully crafted boats.
My romantic notions of this were quickly dissipated, however. The path, such as there is one, is narrow, peppered with litter and somnolent stray dogs. Picking our way over the numerous mooring ropes, the boats we saw varied in size but were uniformly low grade and well-worn. Had we been forced to choose a boat from among them, we would have been sorely disappointed.
I am not saying this approach will not work for you but it did not work for us.
Having stayed at CGH Earth’s eco retreat Spice Village in Thekkady, we had become their new biggest fans, sold on their reassuring quality, service levels and environmental ethos.
We spent the night in the deeply underwhelming Ramada hotel, situated opposite the Finishing Point, and searched the internet for better looking houseboats and emailing their owners. The vast majority replied within hours, including CGH Earth. We decided to go with what we knew and loved, so ‘reserved’ (no money changed hands at this point) with CGH Earth for one of their three Kettuvallams.
My advice is to find some good looking houseboats online and arrange a viewing the next day or in the days ahead. This can compliment your window shopping wander along the Vembanad lakeside. The usual hotel websites such as Trivago are as good a place to start your research as any.
Do not wire any money whatsoever to supposed boat owners before you have inspected their boat in person. The chance of getting scammed is too high: either no such boat exists or is a paltry imitation of what you saw online. Moreover, there are hundreds (reportedly thousands) of kettuvallams that serve the backwaters. You will never find yourself without a boat; plenty of boats will find themselves without customers.
CGH Earth’s Spice Coast Cruises
CGH Earth have a small private mooring for their boats in Muhamma, about 10 mins drive north from the Finishing Point. Operating under the brand name of Spice Coast Cruises, it is quite hidden away unless you are specifically looking for it.
Having checked the boat over, confirmed any dietary requirements and our preference for wines / beers to have onboard, we attempted to pay by credit card. Their machine did not accept any of our cards and clearly was malfunctioning. In a sign of great faith, though they did have copies of our passport details, they let us take a full board two night, three day cruise without prior payment. We tried the credit cards on our return to no avail and ended up paying successfully with the same cards at CGH’s Marari Beach hotel.
Most Kettuvallams are laid out in variations of the same theme. At the front sits the driver with a wheel and simple forward / back thruster. Exposed to the elements, his only shelter was an umbrella to shield him from the rain or sunshine.
Behind him, open to the sun, we had a day lounger mattress, with a fresh white sheet put in place each day, a couple of cushions and coffee table. Under the palm woven roof, was our dining table where each meal was taken. By night, they dropped a fully enclosed mosquito net, which was not entirely necessary but a welcome addition, nonetheless. Add to that a ceiling fan, a few plugs to charge mobile phones and a couple of lamps and lights. It was basic but wonderfully complete.
With a short and narrow corridor on the left had side, the only enclosed room was our bedroom. Fitted out with a large and comfortable double bed, mosquito net, air conditioning, a couple of plug sockets and small ensuite toilet and shower room, it was exactly the standard of comfort and cleanliness for which we were hoping.
Behind our room and bathroom was the surprisingly large kitchen, with gas stoves, sink and food preparation area, with two large cool boxes stuffed full of fruit, drinks and fresh ingredients.
The small open area at the rear of the boat was home to the air conditioning unit and not much further space. On the larger vessels, large generators were often strapped into place here.
The classic design of the Kettuvallam allows for panels of the lattice palm leaves to be wedged open with bamboo struts, letting light in and allowing the air to circulate more freely, further adding to their distinctive shape.
The shallow draft of the vessel allows for navigation of the smaller canals and an intimate journey into another, lusher and more peaceful realm of India.
For a full report of how our own three day cruise went, click right here!
The author travelled independently and at his own cost throughout this trip.