Getting the Kerala feeling in Penanti’s backwaters

The padi field, meandering river and fishermen’s village in Kampung Terus, Penanti resemble a typical village in the Indian state of Kerala.

BUKIT MERTAJAM: A meandering river surrounded by vast padi fields and a forest reserve popular with bird watchers may become a “mini-Kerala” complete with similar houseboat cruises.

The idea came to Penanti assembly member Norlela Ariffin when she visited the south Indian state of Kerala in 2016. The Alleppey area reminded her of Sungai Terus, which irrigates padi fields in her constituency.

“Allepey and Kampung Terus are nearly alike. Green padi fields and coconut trees, fishermen’s villages along the lake and more.

“I think this would be a great way for the kampung folk to benefit through an eco-tourism boost and at the same time, empowering women,” she said in an interview with FMT.

Houseboats are a major tourist attraction in Allepey, or Alappuzha, a district in Kerala known for houseboat cruises where visitors stay a few nights on the slow-moving barge taking in the serene backwaters lined with coconut trees.

Norlela Ariffin with Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow walking through the padi fields of Kampung Terus during the Penang International Padi Festival last year.

Norlela said she was impressed by Kerala’s entrepreneurial women who carried out traditional trades along in the houseboat region. She hopes to encourage local women to emulate their Kerala counterparts.

Last month, she invited a Kerala houseboat cruise operator to visit Sungai Terus, and he was similarly amazed by the “pretty” green scene there.

Norlela said her guest was so impressed that he went on the entire stretch of the river, including the Perai river, of which Sungai Terus is a tributary.

She said her guest also offered to train locals in building the houseboats using bamboo shoots, a process that usually takes three to six months to build two such barges.

A girl sits on a bicycle fashioned out of jerami, or padi chaff, by the rice fields of Kampung Terus in Penanti, Penang.

“Although our rivers are less wide, compared to the large lakes of Kerala, the houseboat operator feels the Sungai Terus would offer visitors to get closer to nature,” she said.

Norlela said a estimated three-bedroom barge, with quarters for cooks and a large dining area, would cost close to RM2 million each.

“We are also looking to build a boat villa station not far away from the Kg Terus fishermen’s jetty,” he said.

She said she would seek investments in the form of grants from the government, and private investors chipping in for a joint venture with the villagers’ cooperative.

An aerial view of the vast padi fields by the Sungai Terus area, which contributes a significant portion to the national padi output.

“The boats need not resemble the designs of the one in Kerala, but with designs matching more local designs such as the Minangkabau and other styles,” she said.

Norlela said the Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest and a 20-odd acre wetland park are next door, and nature lovers could moor there to watch rare birds or just walk in the padi fields to see how rice is grown.

“We already have record crowds coming to Kampung Terus for our annual International Padi Festival,” she said.

The Sungai Terus river is bounded by padi fields and four villages, namely Kg Guar Jering, Kg Terus, Kg Labuh Banting, and Kg Kubu and are inhabited by about 5,000 people.

The villages were once home to Kedahans fleeing persecution by the Siamese in the 1800s. The villagers sought refuge at the area south of the Perai river, which was controlled by the British colonial authorities.

The Perai river served as the original boundary between Province Wellesley (now Seberang Prai) and the Siamese-influenced Kedah to the north up to 1831.

There are 1,105 acres of padi fields in the area, which produce 7 tonnes per hectare a month, the second highest padi output in the country.

The area is also home to fishermen who ply the river to fish for lobsters.