Indian Experiences – offbeat and truly rewarding


It is time that India starts selling her possibilities as an adventure destination, trekking, horse riding, white water rafting, or its off-beat boutique destinations where you truly discover the heart of the country, its culinary diversity or its art and crafts – Philippa Kaye

Philippa Kaye’s heart is in India, but her family belongs to Yorkshire with its beautiful greens. Having lived in Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and Jaipur for several decades now, to her, India is “frustrating, illogical, often hilarious, humbling, surreal but never, ever dull. I have ridden priceless Marwari horses, been invited to royal weddings, threatened by the local mafia, trekked mountains, rafted white water, been wined and dined by maharajas, slept out under the stars, driven vintage cars, messed around in tuk tuks got caught up in Holi and ended up with hair dyed a permanent shade of green. Best of all, I have got to know its people and discovered that in India, anything is possible.”

The draw of the Taj Mahal continues and Philippa says that most people who visit India want to do the Golden Triangle, some the Taj and Tigers, some will want to do Kerala, some are drawn by the majesty of Regal Rajasthan “but that is because it is what they have heard of, it is what is marketed.  Other than these, I don’t think that most first time travellers to India know exactly what it is that draws them to India. They have a sense of the exotic, spirituality, mysticism, some people may say the food, but not many can put their finger on exactly what it is that appeals.”  

Philippa first came to India in connection with her work as a tour operator. The owners of the company she worked for had a policy that “if you hadn’t seen it, you couldn’t sell it” and “so when we were planning on launching India I had to travel around Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. That was my first ever trip to India in 1998.”

She wrote back then of her six week stay that she “liked the good hotels, was amazed at the temples, and my first experience on a houseboat on the backwaters blew me away. But after five weeks on the road, either looking at temples or being stared at and begged at, sometimes all three, I still wasn’t feeling the love. I liked India, but I couldn’t appreciate why people fell in love with it.”

She spoke to a receptionist at a hotel, Manoj and told him that “I just wanted to see an India where I didn’t get viewed as a meal ticket, or just have to look at a building.” He immediately invited her to his home village, 30 kms away and Philippa says this experience has stuck with her in the 21 years she has been in India.

“The first people I saw were three ladies, sitting on a verandah, their faces covered by a yellow paste. They smiled at me and put their hands together in a traditional Namaste, seemingly not aware of how strange they looked. Manoj told me they had covered their faces with a mixture of Sandalwood and turmeric, sandalwood for its cooling properties and turmeric for its anti-ageing properties, basically a traditional sunscreen.

Around the corner there were two women sitting on another large step.  One lady, who looked to be about a hundred, was looking at a collection of small shells, scattered on the floor, the other much younger lady was looking at her intently. I had stumbled across the village wise woman or soothsayer who told fortunes with a combination of etched palm leaves and sea shells.

By this time I had gathered a bunch children who were literally jumping up and down, shrieking and giggling with uncontrollable excitement. I paused to photograph them and a brave one came up and touched my skin, they had never seen freckles before, taking her cue from her older brother, a girl came up and touched my hair, auburn isn’t a colour they were familiar with. Before long I was being pawed by 7 or 8 of them. Attracted by the noise, people started coming out of their houses. The children were batted away and in the next instant I was invited into a home. Now this wasn’t a wealthy village by any stretch of the imagination, but this was to be my first experience of true, genuine Indian hospitality, where ‘Guest is God.’ I was shown around their simple home, offered water and then buttermilk. Naturally I was torn between getting ill and insulting these wonderfully kind people, who had very little but wanted to give me what they could. I took the plunge, sipped at the water and drank the buttermilk. They were delighted. We then had a conversation in sign language about families, numbers of children and whether they were boys and girls. Word spread further and the man from the street food stall sent me some of his snacks to try and having finished with her client, the village wise woman asked me if I wanted to have my fortune told. No one would take a rupee for any of this. In fact I was told it was insulting of me to offer. By the end of my two hours there I was captivated. This is where the true India lay, in the hearts of its people,” wrote Philippa in her blog.

The second time she came was on a 6 month sabbatical in 2006, to run a lodge in Kanha National park and then stayed on in India pretty much for next 13 years!  “Life in India is so diverse, it’s not always easy, far from it, but it is always interesting. My job also means that I get to travel and explore and discover a lot, I’d be on the road at least once a month for a week or more. It’s a never-ending journey, I always say about India that the more you discover, the more you discover that there is to discover. I am very lucky to have had this opportunity.”

When asked what she would recommend to tourists who were on a first trip to India, Philippa replies – Their India. “India is so diverse, so extraordinary and yes, somewhat baffling but it is also can be a personal experience. Most people have no concept of the possibilities of what a journey around a small part of India can offer and how this can be tailored to their specific likes and expectations.”

In a recent article, Philippa says that most people who think of travelling to India don’t know much about it.

“They only know what they have heard about – which I understand is a ridiculous statement to make, but hear me out. People have heard of certain destinations and some monuments and these are what they ask for when they are enquiring about a holiday to the country. What they haven’t heard of, necessarily, is India’s possibilities as an adventure destination, trekking, horse riding, white water rafting, or its off-beat boutique destinations where you truly discover the heart of the country, its culinary diversity or its art and crafts, the list goes on.”

How India is portrayed needs to be corrected, says Philippa. “India is portrayed as monuments, not adventure, cities rather than countryside, standard sightseeing and shopping rather than true heartfelt experiences; imagine how many more tourists could be attracted if the real message was put out there effectively. It is not thought of as a family destination, but in fact it is excellent for this, with a booming population and the massively increasing spend and mobility of the middle classes, family travel is increasing massively. I appreciate that the nerves of the inbound tourist prevent them from thinking of India when planning a family holiday, but those who have braved it have found it immensely rewarding, my own nephews and niece aged 10, 15, 18 and 20 still rate it 10 years on as the best holiday they ever had.”

When Philippa was selling holidays, she would try to connect the tourists’ interests to the destinations. “What are your interests, hobbies, is it food, photography, the great outdoors, do you like wildlife, where did you go on holiday last year, what would you do if you were to go away next weekend?’ Then the cogs would start turning. “Well, yes, my wife loves Indian food!” or “My son is an amateur photographer” or “My daughter is training to be a vet” or, “We love architecture/horse riding/walking/fashion”; this is when you can truly start creating a truly tailor-made holiday.  Armed with this personal information, you can plan excursions and activities, even within the Golden Triangle that will make it unique to that client and, in addition to the sights, give them the insights into the country that they will appreciate. This is tailor-making and through giving clients a truly enhanced experience that appeals to their sensibilities, repeat business will ensue.”

Philippa quotes the instance of a couple who wanted to visit Shimla for the toy train ride, Agra and a journey around Rajasthan. When she spoke to them, she found out that that the husband was into horse racing, and actually had 6 of his own horses.

“Which got me thinking, why not spend a day at the races in Calcutta? I could pull a few strings, get him to meet some of the owners and trainers and have a proper show around. It could have been a bus man’s holiday but he was delighted. His wife was into art, and so we threw in Lunch with Bomti, a local resident, socialist and art dealer, as well as a couple of art galleries. Calcutta in itself is fascinating so it’s not too hard to impress. Of course then the toy train ride then became the one to Darjeeling and time spent there which they loved, a few days at Glenburn and then followed Rajasthan and Agra. Was it the most logical routing? No, of course not, but this didn’t bother them one iota because they were actually doing a trip that was uniquely tailored around them, their preferences, their likes and dislikes, rather than a standard circuit.”

Another couple contacted her saying they had 8 days and wanted to see the Golden Triangle. They were heading to Nepal to trek up to Everest Base Camp.  “It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to deduce that they were quite active. Mr Jones was an anthropologist, Mrs Jones an amateur photographer, they both quite liked wildlife. I asked them if they were really bothered about the Taj Mahal (as I would) and they didn’t seem overly enamoured. It was then decided that I would send them two options, one a Delhi, Agra, Jaipur tour with added extras, a half day trek in Jaipur, a photo tour of Old Delhi, that kind of thing and a couple of nights in between, Ranthambhore or more ideally Ramathra, and then one itinerary where my imagination could get involved. This was a Jodhpur (see the fort but then head off to a private camp in the middle of the Thar Desert and visit the more remote villages and tribes that one rarely gets to see), Kumbalgarh with the trek through the Kumbalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary, a romantic step well dinner and of course the Ranakpur Temples.  Then onto Jawai for the chance to see the Rabari tribals as well as a couple of obliging leopards and ending with trekking from there to Udaipur, visiting the City Palace,  experiencing a walking tour of the old city, a cookery demo at their hotel and a half day trek into the surrounding hills. They were sold on option 2, all of a sudden they didn’t care about the Taj, they had been given an option that appealed to their senses and sensibilities and booked it by return mail. They then went on to recommend us to a several other couples.”

Asked if foreign tourists like travelling on their own, Philippa says that not initially or on a first trip. “Most tourists, even ones who are confident when traveling in other countries, are slightly more hesitant when it comes to traveling around India. It really is the unknown and unfathomable and it is difficult to know where to start when planning.  For this reason, most travellers to the country appreciate planning their trip and like the safety of knowing that they will have someone to meet them on arrival, the right hotels to choose and the reassurance of know that there is a local office if they need it.  But, do they need someone to accompany them? No. Most independent travellers will appreciate local guides in destinations and like meeting local people but they don’t need anyone accompanying them.  Group tours are slightly different as accompanying guides can take care of logistics and timings and keep everyone together – it’s not always easy!”

One hears of Vegan tours to India, but Philippa says that it is never the sole reason for someone to come to India.  Would it be the sole reason that people decide to travel to India? No, I don’t think so. Would it be something that may help them make the final decision? Yes, knowing that vegan and vegetarian food is as common, if not more so than non-veg would perhaps be one factor which would help to sway them.”

India’s antiquity, the monuments, temples, have been much publicised in tourist brochures, and many promoters are also looking at the newer side of India. For Philippa, “It’s not necessarily a case of offering something from a more recent history, it’s about showcasing a different India, one that isn’t just the monuments in well-known cities, it is also about being more experiential and immersive. Take people on a walking tour of Old Jaipur or Old Agra and tell the stories, that’s what people want, to learn about the place, the people, the food. Try seeing Jaipur from the perspective of a hot air balloon rather from within a fort or a museum, go on a cycling tour around the countryside around Udaipur, these are the experiences that people are looking for even in the mainstream destinations.” 

Philippa says they are always on the lookout for people who want to showcase their little bit of India. “Our experience providers don’t look at what they offer so much as a business, rather a way of showcasing their destination to a traveller in a way that is meaningful, both for the local people and the travellers. Aside from mainstream destinations, we love finding people who promote offbeat destinations, rural India, take people off into the villages in remote Rajasthan or Himachal to name just two. This not only provides a unique experience for the traveller but showcasing how the rural population can make a living out of tourism also encourages them to stay in their villages rather than joining the mass exodus to the cities. We also love people who are passionate about adventure and who want to showcase this aspect of India, from white water rafting in Uttarakhand to trekking and cycling in Kerala.   But there is also India’s phenomenal natural history which isn’t done justice to.   By doing this, by showcasing that India is so much more than just her (albeit magnificent) monuments, we hope to start encouraging a younger generation of people to visit; a crowd in between the luxury culture vulture and the budget backpacker.” me=”Gri

(Philippa has been a specialist in travel to India for twenty years. She has been responsible for establishing Indian divisions for various UK based travel companies including Ampersand Travel, Real Holidays and Experience Travel Group. She has lived in India for over ten years and has consulted for various hotels and Indian DMC’s. She is passionate about showcasing ‘A Different India,’ beyond the mainstream destinations. She established Indian Experiences in order to provide consultancy services to the Indian travel trade. The team works with hotels in India, DMC’s and UK Tour Operators in order to enhance their experiential offerings, service levels, product development, content and social media. She also has a blog about India, www.memsahibinindia.com)

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