As soon as Arjun Bhat started earning a steady income, he bought a second-hand car and drove all over north India. During his journey, he noticed a lack of authentic travel experiences in a country with thousands of distinct cultures. Bhat spotted an entrepreneurial opportunity, ditched his comfy job as a semiconductor engineer, and co-founded Travspire, a company that specializes in meaningful, off-the-beaten-path travel experiences in India. Travspire focuses on short, unique itineraries, such as kayaking though the Kerala backwaters, cooking Goan cuisine with a local chef from Siolim village, or spending a day with a Hindu temple elephant. We interviewed the 30-year-old startup founder on how to mingle with locals, find the best cuisine, and uncover hidden gems in the world’s second most populous country.
Interview by Hannah Wasserman
Quick, where is your favorite place to travel in India?
Ladakh in the Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir. That’s because I feel a different connection with the people there. A lot of Tibetan Buddhists live there—very sweet, very humble people. There is this small village called Rumbak, it takes you full day of trekking to get there, but when you get there the people are so welcoming. They’ll take you into their homes, they’ll serve you chai. I love going there and I try to go that exact same route every time I go. I’ve done the same trek twice now. So Ladakh is my favorite place. Picturesque views, sweet people, good food.
Where’s your next trip?
If I had to travel for my own personal sake, I’d go to Assam, North Assam. I’ve wanted to go there for a really long time, but I haven’t been able to. Assam, situated in foothills of Himalayas is among the most bio-diverse places in the world. The Kaziranga National Park, known for its population of single-horned rhinos, is also a UNESCO heritage site. Assam also produces 25 percent of the world’s tea and it is famous for its high quality silk production. Culturally, Assam is very diverse with many ethnic groups who have distinct dialects, food habits, textile patterns, music, and dance.
When you get to a new place, what’s the trick to finding the hidden gems?
I try to read up as much as possible in terms of history, culture, and what are things people like to do there, but the best experiences I’ve had happen by chance. I’ll be eating at a restaurant and meet some traveler who will have a lead. One of the things I like to do is start conversations with locals; often those are the best leads. Based on intuition and experience I decide which leads to follow, and this works for me most of the times.
What is your favorite way to travel in a new country?
Usually whenever I travel I always try to see if I know somebody in the host country. I try to stay with them and get them to show me around. That usually turns out the best. You can do all the research you want, but sometimes it’s best to explore with a local.
In your opinon, which region of India has the best food?
Oh, that’s a very difficult question. I think I’m a little biased. I will say Konkan cuisine from the West Coast of India is my favorite. To be honest you’ll have to invite yourself to someone’s home to try the best. If you can’t get an invite, try Kanua (6/2, Kaikondrahalli, Sarjapur Road, Bangalore; 91-80/6537-34471; from US$20 for two people) in Bangalore. A few examples of Konkan cuisine are khotto, a steamed rice dumpling in jackfruit leaves served with spicy coconut chutney, pulimunchi, a spicy–sour fish dish that goes with parboiled rice, and chicken sukha, a semidry dish with grated coconut base that is served with neer dosa or pundi. People also eat a variety of vegetables, flowers, leaves, and fruits that are uncommon in rest of the country. I cannot do justice trying to explain this cuisine.
Many of Travspire’s experiences include interacting with locals. How do you get in with the locals?
First step is to do the research to determine what is “local” about this destination. Once we figure that out, we try to find a local operator who also knows a lot of people. These people tend to be proud of their heritage and want to share it with outside world.
What is your favorite place for outdoor adventures?
It depends on the type of activity I want to indulge in. Each destination offers something different. For trekking, Ladakh, Lahaul, and Spiti [in the Himalayas] are my favorites. For white-water rafting it’s Rishikesh [on the Ganges] in Uttar Pradesh—I’ve used Garhwal Himalayas for rafting. For kayaking, try the backwaters of Kerala. The best jungle safaris are in Ranthambore National Park in Rajastan.
Where do you go to get away from the bustle of India?
Anytime I get out of the city [Bangalore] I feel relaxed. Even if I’m taking a six-hour drive to Coorg or Hampi, the drive is more relaxing than being in the city. It makes you realized how green the countryside is—and what we are missing in this crazy city.