Sedate, serene and surreal. Kerala, in southwest India is an antidote to the tedious trappings of commercialization and chaos of the northern parts of the country. This palm-fringed state was once a major spice exporter in the olden days. Comprised of 14 Malayalam-speaking districts, Kerala is draped by mind-boggling topography, one of the reasons why it is referred to as “God’s Own Country”.
But what really placed Kerala in the tourists’ radar is its distinct water maze, mainly covering four districts of the state namely, Kochi, Kottayam, Alapuzzha and Kollam. Its 900 kilometers of backwaters wind higgledy-piggledy down to a labyrinth of 5 larger lakes, lagoons, estuaries, deltas and canals fed by 38 freshwater rivers gushing into the Arabian Sea.
(Kollam is part of the international spice trade since the time of Phoenicians and Romans)
On our recent visit to India, we explored the under-the-radar beauty of Kollam (formerly Quilon), the cashew paradise of Kerala blissfully sitting on the shoreline of Laccadive Sea. It was once a leading trading capital since the time of Phoenicians and Romans; part of the ancient international spice trade. This historic city even caught the attention of legendary Italian merchant traveler Marco Polo and Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta.
(Local performers at Welcom Hotel Raviz Resort and Ayurveda Spa )
Since thirty percent of the city is clad by Ashtamudi Lake, a sixteen kilometer lake composed of eight channels making it the second largest lake in the region; it is dubbed as the gateway to the splendid backwaters of Kerala. The lake is believed to house six migratory and fifty one endemic species of avifauna.
(Chinese cantilevered fishing nets dappled across Ashtamudi Lake. They were brought to Kerala by the court of Kublai Khan, the Mongolian King.)
The eight hour houseboat voyage from Kollam to Alappuzha is one of the most sought after cruises in Kerala that you can avail through Kerala tour packages. Our group sailed through the enormous Ashtamudi Lake; basking in the tranquil atmosphere of the spectacular lakeside dappled with cantilevered fishing nets aboard a luxury houseboat, locally known as kettuvallam. This comfortably furnished vessel is equipped with modern amenities such as air-condition, hot and cold shower, oven and refrigerator. The Kerala houseboats were originally the main cargo vehicles in the olden days for transporting staple crops in the country such as rice and coconuts. The posh lakeside hotel of WelcomHotel Raviz Resort and Ayurveda Spa in Kollam arranged our houseboat cruise in Ashtamudi Lake. On board the kettuvallom, we savored a delightful spread of Kerala ethnic cuisine.
(A luxury houseboat, known as kettuvallam, cruising along the palm-fringed Ashtamudi Lake)
Snake Boat Race
Luckily, we also witnessed the iconic Kerala snake boat race before our houseboat docked. In this event. The 100 foot long boat can accommodate 100 oarsmen, 25 singers and 4 helmsmen. The main singer stands in the middle of the boat while the other singers follow him as he sings. The oarsmen row their snake boat in unison, swaying their brawny bodies to the fast rhythm of full-throated singing. Meanwhile, the 4 helmsmen are responsible for controlling the balance and direction of the vessel. Snake boat races on Ashtamudi Lake are typically held on the harvest festival of Onam in autumn such as the President’s Trophy Boat Race celebrated every November 1st, marking the birth of the state of Kerala.
(Cheer the fastest side as teams of 100 oarsmen row their snake boat!)
In Kollam, we stayed overnight at The Quilon Beach Hotel that has rooms with a breath-snatching view of the Arabian Sea. A leisurely walk at the back of the hotel, offers visitors a glimpse of the coastal village life at day break. Though the golden sands and cerulean waters of Kollam Beach may not rival the tropical beach clichés of the Philippines, I find it appealing as it exudes with local character. Cattle egrets and crows flock the glimmering shores as the fishermen singing in harmony haul the fishing nets in unison. Some areas of Kollam Beach are also flanked by cantilevered Chinese fishing nets, Chinese water pots and sampan-like boats.
Undoubtedly, Kollam is a growing city where emerald green backwaters, magnificent golden coast and wealthy culture overflow with timeless beauty.
(With the Kathakali performers. Kathakali is a classical Kerala dance-drama noted for the detailed facial gestures, attractive make-up and elaborate costumes of its performers.)
How to get there:
By Air: Nearest airport is Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram). There are flights from Manila to Trivandrum connecting via Singapore.
By Train: Kollam is an important railhead of the Southern Railways.
By Ferry: The ferry station is adjacent to the Central Bus Station (3 km from the railway station).
Where to Stay:
The Quilon Beach Hotel is a luxurious business hotel at the heart of Kollam city located on the coast of Kollam Beach.
*This is the unedited article of the “The Water Wonderland” story that appeared in Cruising Magazine #Going Places June 2014 issue.
Disclosure: Our India trip was made possible by Kerala Tourism through Kerala Blog Express where 27 bloggers, writers and photographers from 14 countries explored the state ( from Trivandrum to Cochin) last March 9-26, 2014 .
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