Tips for Attending Nehru Cup Snake Boat Races

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We had tons of questions about the Snake Boat races as we planned our trip and we never really got clear answers. Thus, this is my public service post in the hope of helping others. Note this is based solely on attending the 2014 races, but I hope it can answer for others the questions we had.

1. Get tickets in advance of arriving in-site race day, but know that they won’t go on sale until about 2 weeks before the event. We were never able to find a seating chart/map in advance of our arrival at the event, but the map in the photo above was posted on-site and it will give you a good idea of where the seats are. We worked with a friend of a friend’s brother-in-law, who happened to be a local travel agent, to secure tickets. (Typical way of getting things done in India — if you tell enough people what you need, someone will provide a hook up!) He delivered the tickets to our hotel for us. As we drove through Alleppey, there were several official-looking kiosks/shops selling tickets, too — they had large banners stating as much & seemed easy to find — so that appears to be a viable option if you don’t have local connections. We had gold seats and they were good for seeing the boats in the final stretch, but the judges pavilion blocked our view of finish line. Silver & Rose were more crowded & rowdy (lots of local fans in that crowd, many of whom jumped from the stands into the water and watched the races from there). It’s said that the organisers oversell the pavilions, so you need to get there early to secure your seat; that did not appear to be the case in gold, but silver & rose seemed packed.

2. Arrive early, it’s chaos and it’s very hard to get clear directions on how to reach the Rose/Silver/Gold Pavilions. We asked numerous people (event organisers, police, vendors, locals) in vain for directions. Note that the Rose/Silver/Gold Pavilions are only accessible by boat. I honestly still cannot explain the official way to get the boat that officially ferries you out (but keep reading for the work-around). Of course getting seats up front is great for photos, but note that as the afternoon wears on & the sun shifts, the first 2-3 rows in the outer pavilions are no longer shaded. Bring hats & sunscreen if you want front row seats!

3. There is a “public jetty” under a pedestrian bridge in-land from the race course along the small Vadai Canal that leads to the lake. The jetty is merely 3 steps leading to the water that make it easy to board/disembark, built into the foundation of the pedestrian bridge. It’s literally like a stair well to access a canoe, nothing more –don’t be expecting some grand dock or marina. Rumor is that perhaps one can catch the ferry to the Rose/Silver/Gold Pavilions from there; however, we never saw the “ferry” — a regular cabin-cruiser-like boat with a painted sign reading “Gold”– there. (We did see the ferry trolling around, but never saw it docking at mainland…)

4. Be comfortable — and wear suitable footwear –for walking from boat to boat if you plan to be in the outer Rose/Silver/Gold Pavilions. There isn’t much room to dock, so to get on/off the pavilions (think of them as an island) you will likely need to walk thru 3 or so other boats. Your boat will pull up along side the ones already there and you’ll have to step from boat to boat. Reconsider flip-flops for something more secure. Do not even think of heels or fancy sandals.

5. Along the Vadai Canal that leads to the lake, you will see several of the traditional canoe-like boats (powered by combination of motor & pole) tied up rather haphazardly to saplings, stumps, power poles, etc. (Frankly I could not tell, but perhaps some of these are “jetties,” too.) If you arrive early enough and are willing to pay a small fee (₹50-100 per person –less than $2– was the going rate for tourist), those canoes will take you out to the pavilions. The pavilion ticket is supposed to include transport, but when you cannot find the darn official boat, you do what you have to do. Note that the pavilions are well guarded so you’ll likely have to wave your ticket at the police to convince them to let the canoe dock (or more accurately, to allow the canoe to saddle up along side the other boats docked). To get off the pavilions/island, you do the reverse.

Tourist awareness alert(I cannot call it a “scam” per se, as there is a service provided): the canoe operators will tell each tourist that the fee is ₹50-100 per person (you can negotiate) & try to insist that you pay them mid-stream, literally in the middle of the water. It’s pretty obvious that the locals aren’t being similarly charged. As a rule, I refuse to pay in full for any service until it’s completely rendered , so I negotiated my price and committed to paying it only upon arrival; this was not taken well by the capital, who was clearly disappointed but resigned. (As we were already underway, he didn’t have a great negotiating position — what was he going to do, push me overboard?) As we pulled up to shore, where the police were ubiquitous, I realised why the payment was requested mid-steam: it was away from police oversight. As I disembarked, I tried to make the agreed upon payment and the captain made a very loud & public refusal of my money — clearly a show for the policewoman within earshot. I negotiated in good faith and was happy for the service provided, so felt obliged (even if this was tourist only charge) to make payment. I made a loud comment that this was merely a tip, an early gift for Ganesha’s birthday later this month…. With that cover the captain smiled & accepted my payment. Some other tourist took advantage and jumped off without paying as agreed. {Really people? You’ve had a once-in-a-lifetime cultural experience and you can’t throw a local fisherman a bone on the one day/year he can make a little bonus? Don’t go spending the $1.50 you saved all in one place, now…. Yes, I’m judging you, Bad Tourists. You give all us white people a bad reputation. }

6. The good news is that there are bathrooms at the outer pavilions… For men. Ladies who need to use the facilities cause great confusion. One alternative presented by younger police officer was that a lady could wait until all the men were done, then go in; however, that was promptly & emphatically overruled by a more senior police man who said the men’s rooms were wholly unsuitable for a lady. He escorted the female bathroom seeker across several boats to use the head in a nicer boat, waited for her to finish, then escorted her back to the pavilion. This was in the gold section, and I don’t know how it was handled elsewhere.

7. Bring ear plugs. There is a running dialogue –even before the races start– occasionally punctuated by a cappello songs (crowd favourites which trigger sing-alongs) broadcast via the sound system. This are very loud, headache-inducing loud. Especially since you’ve arrived early to reach your seat… The only time this unrelenting high volume chatter ceases is when the VVIPs are giving speeches, also at extraordinary loud volumes.

8. Later in the afternoon, the sun shifts and it’s hard to get photos pointed at the race course. However, if you go around to the back of the island (e.g., the side not facing the race course) you can get some nice photos of the snake boats with the whole lake behind them. You also get to see them bailing out –some boats take on lots of water– and other post race drama. Do check it out as there is lots of activity other than the races themselves.

9. Water and some food appears to be available at the pavilions. I saw people handing out water (free), but I never did find the source of the food. We brought a backpack with snacks, as did everyone around us. There is a strict no alcohol rule at the event –none on sale and a BYO prohibition, too.

10. Don’t expect your hotel to be helpful. We booked a well rated, highly reviewed hotel which was on the official Nehru Cup website and we trusted that they could advise us appropriately. After all, they are local, in the hospitality business and this is their biggest annual tourist event, by far. However, almost everything they told us about where/how to go when was inaccurate. Once we made peace with the fact that all their suggestions were bad, and decided to just make our own way, we had much more fun. That said, the hotel did provide us yummy snacks & fruit for the day.

It is a terrific event and I highly recommend it. You need to embrace your sense of adventure, be prepared for chaos and be willing to find your own way. Even with the “high end” gold tickets, no one is pampered (except perhaps those VVIPs!) — Nehru would approve 😉

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