How to Visit Sikkim and Have the Time of Your Life
Sikkim is a state in India that offers profound beauty to those who seek it. With most of the state covered by mountains and forests, Sikkim’s charm is surreal. The state thrives on two things – the agriculture and the tourism. Sikkim is the first state in India to make agriculture a 100% organic. Their natural resources are well-preserved. And as for the tourism, the factor that pulls people in (from all over the world) is Sikkim’s authenticity. The nature is natural – which can’t be said for a lot of tourist destinations today.
Why visit Sikkim
The lure of Sikkim is a combination of multiple superlatives. There are vast expanses of forests of all kinds – sal, palm, maple, chestnut, rhododendron, orchids – all adding to each other’s grandeur. A wide range of animals and birds can be spotted – black bears, brown bears, red pandas, blue sheep, Tibetan antelopes, eagles, quail, pheasants, partridges, Himalayan cuckoos – to name a small percentage. If you can’t catch them in their natural habitat, you can steal a glimpse at numerous sanctuaries in Sikkim. The local people of Sikkim will make you feel like one of their own. You won’t feel like a tourist, engulfed in their warmth.
So, where is Sikkim? Well, it is a small state in the north-eastern part of India. The capital city of Sikkim is Gangtok. Sikkim is the door to the Eastern Himalayas. Two-thirds of the state are occupied by perpetually snow-clad mountains. The jewel in the crown of Sikkim is Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain peak in the world. This magnificent peak can be seen from almost anywhere you choose to stand. It is considered by the locals as the abode of gods. They worship it and hold it more valuable than anything else; so much so that they consider it a form of god in itself – Kanchenjunga is their holy guardian.
Sikkim is pretty close to perfect – whether you want a trip that is packed with adventure or you want a trip that makes for a gorgeous, romantic honeymoon. Even if you are looking for a predominantly spiritual trip, feel free to explore the 200 plus monasteries that Sikkim has to offer.
Food in Sikkim
The food in Sikkim is simple, in a way that warms the soul. The ingredients are basic, but fuse together to become a flavourful dish. Some of the popular dishes are Momos (the momo-soup combination is a chart topper), Thukpa (noodles with vegetables and spicy gravy), Sael roti (rice roti, fried, and served with potato curry) and Phagshapa (steamed pork strips with chillies and radish). You can also try Kinema curry, Gundruk and Sinki, Chhurpi Soup, and their famous local beverage, Jaanr. Most local vendors offer these dishes. Enjoy the cuisine while gazing at the terrific scenery of Sikkim.
Culture of Sikkim
The culture of Sikkim is rich because it is a combination of those of Tibet, Nepal and India. The local people are descendants of these regions and have beautifully managed to carry down their culture with them. Worshipping nature and peace is in their blood, and so is hospitality. Homestays are popular in Sikkim because of their warmth and generosity. The locals practise various religions, Buddhism being the most prominent. The Sikkimese are highly skilled in archery. They also host a plethora of festivals. Many of these are even devoted to Kanchenjunga. Most of the traditional pursuits include dances – mask dances performed by monks, ceremonial swords, dances with priceless jewels – to the beats of drums and horns.
Places to visit in Sikkim
One word to describe what Sikkim has in store for you is: versatility. It has versatile natural landscapes – from snowy mountains to pristine waterfalls, and from rocky deserts to green valleys. There is also versatility in what you can experience over there. You can test your adventurous spirit, get in touch with your spiritual self, reconnect with nature, gawk at the breath-taking beauty and do nothing at all. There is so much to choose from. Better yet, there’s no need for you to choose; you can do it all in one place.
So, how should you go about exploring Sikkim, right? To get you started, here are a few places, waiting for you to visit.
Gangtok, the capital city of the state, is where your Sikkim tourism begins. It is the largest city and it brings together traditionalism and modernity. Gangtok has more stupas than you can count, but it is also a bustling town with an active nightlife. It offers a tranquilizing view of Mount Kanchenjunga in the distance. Gangtok is also the base for trekkers as this is where they get all their permits.
There’s plenty to do in Gangtok. You can go paragliding, mountain biking, river rafting on the Teesta river, or even skiing on the slopes of Mt Katao. For all you culture-admirers, Rumtek Monastery, Tsuk La Khang Palace and Hanuman Tok make for wonderful strolls through religious relics. If you are a water lover, you can pay a visit to the Seven Sisters Falls and Menmecho Lake. If you are seeking one-of-a-kind experiences, you mustn’t miss the Yak Safari and the bird-eye view of the entire city from the cable cars. Also try and catch the sunset from Tashi viewpoint. The Nathu La Pass is a day’s trip from Gangtok. Before you move on to the next destination, pick up a few souvenirs from Lal Bazaar.
Tsomgo Lake, also known as the Tsongmo or Changu Lake, is about 40 kilometres from Gangtok. It is popular (and not exaggerated) because of how it changes colours with changing seasons. It is also believed that the colour of the lake signals the coming of happiness or sorrow. Tsomgo is a glacial lake; water pours directly into it from the snow-capped mountains around it. The lake’s charm is the reflection of its surroundings – green in the summer, colourful in the spring, white in the winter, and lavishly blue year-round.
After Gangtok, Pelling is the most popular Sikkim city. This is because it is at the foothills of, and hence, the nearest city to Kanchenjunga. The essence of Sikkim’s beauty is rooted in Kanchenjunga, and Pelling offers the best view of this deity.
In Pelling, there is the Pemayangtse Monastery, the oldest and most famous monastery in Sikkim. Right opposite it, is Sangachoeling Monastery, the second oldest in the state. These symbols of tradition are enveloped by snowy mountains and dense forests on all sides. You can also walk up to the helipad for yet another mesmerising view of the lofty beasts. If the weather allows it, pack a picnic basket and take it up to the Rimbi river. Another view to enjoy is that of the Kanchenjunga Falls, about 30 kilometres from Pelling, on the way to Yuksom.
Yuksom was the first capital of Sikkim. ‘Yuksom’ translates to ‘meeting place of the three learned monks’ and thus, it is no surprise that Yuksom is packed with Buddhist heritage. Some of the monasteries to visit are Tashiding, Dubdi and Kartok. They are placed among lush greens and some of them are said to be visited by the Buddhist Guru Padmasabhava himself. The number one spot in Yuksom is the Khecheopalri Lake. This sacred lake is a pilgrimage site and is located within a forest; it makes for a peaceful walk, with birds chirping in the distance and the wind brushing across your face.
Further ahead on the tour is Ravangla. Not only does Ravangla offer an uninterrupted view of Kanchenjunga, but it serves as the starting point for the trek to Maenam Wildlife Sanctuary. Birdwatchers would consider it to be paradise – rare species like satyr tragopans, verditer flycatchers, dark-throated thrush and grey bushchats are commonly spotted, sputtering about in orchards of colourful rhododendron and orchids.
Apart from the restful monasteries, you can visit the Buddha Park, the Temi Tea Estate and the old Kewzing market. The hot springs of the area, such as Borong and Ralong hot springs, are said to have healing properties. You can also watch the sun rise and shine over the mighty mountains from the Rayong Sunrise View Point.
Namchi is quickly becoming a popular and quaint pilgrimage site. It is home to the biggest statue of Padmasambhava in the world, located on Samdruptse Hill. This hill is also known as the Wish Fulfilling Hill as it is a dormant volcano and has maintained its dormant status owing to prayers and offerings devoted to it. Namchi is also popular because it has a replica of the char dhams of India. It also acts as the base for the Chief Minister of Sikkim, and has the Baichung Stadium, dedicated to the beloved footballer, Baichung Bhutia. It all sounds exotic, but beware! Namchi is said to be haunted by the princess who was killed for poisoning one of the monarchs, many eons ago.
Khangchendzonga National Park
Khangchendzonga National Park should be pretty easy to find – it covers about 35% of the state of Sikkim. It is listed as a Mixed Heritage Site (first in India) in UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, meaning it has both, natural and cultural significance. The Khangchendzonga National Park is situated in the heart of the Himalayas, and has over 19 majestic peaks, including Kanchenjunga. Naturally, it makes for a mountain-lover’s ultimate destination. Rich in flora and fauna, the park also has various trekking activities you can dabble with. There are high bridges, narrow passes, milky rivers, dense forests, rocky trails – nature, at its best. The Khangchendzonga National Park is a beautiful means to pay a tribute to nature as well as heritage.
Goecha La Pass
Deep into the Khangchendzonga National Park is the Goecha La Pass, a must-have trekking experience in Sikkim. Unlike other major treks, it has the view of not 1, but 15 mountain peaks. Envision yourself amidst the vast green meadows, pink rhododendron forests, trekking on unscathed steep trails, alongside swift streams, with cold breeze gushing past you, and you walking right towards the sun between the mountains, leaving the world behind. That is the experience of Goecha La Pass. You might even spot the legendary Yeti, called Nee-gued in Sikkim, on the slopes of Kanchenjunga!
This 11-day trek is guaranteed to recharge your spirit. The rush you get is not only from all the trekking, but from the ancillary experiences you can have. There are designated spots for witnessing the rays of the sun at the crack of dawn (Tshoka), for getting lost in the star-filled night sky (Thangsing), for beholding the panoramic view of the lovely summits (Dzongri), and many more.
Lachung and Yumthang
Lachung, also known as the Small Pass, is located on the extreme north border of Sikkim, almost into Tibet. The Lachung valley is a tourist attraction as it is at the confluence of the Lachung and Lachen rivers. This valley is blessed with fruit orchards and rich flora because of numerous water bodies like little streams and perennial rivers. The Lachung valley is one where the local tribes celebrate their culture very seriously. They have colourful festivals – a wide display of ceremonies, art and delicacies.
Lachung valley is usually visited, combined with Yumthang and Zero Point, as one destination. Yumthang is the adjoining valley, also known as the ‘Valley of Flowers’, and rightly so. It has endless stretches of incredible flowers, especially rhododendrons. Yumthang also has many hot springs, which are a treat in the cold weather. Zero Point (Yume Samdong) is named so because beyond this point, civilians aren’t allowed to drive further. This is where the road ends. But this also means that the view from here is unmatched.
While Lachung is the Small Pass, Lachen is its counterpart, the Big Pass. Lachen is the best place to tap into local tribal culture through the many festivals and the general way of life. The people here have a unique form of self-governance called ‘Dzumsa’. They also hold an annual yak race (Thangu) in summers. Much like Lachung, Lachen is also known for its orchards and flower-filled valley. It is a popular site for birdwatching and adventure sports. The Lachung monastery here is less frequented, which only adds to its serenity. The must-see of Lachen is the Gurudongmar Lake. You can also trek from Gurudongmar Lake up to Tso Lhsmo Lake with the permission of the army.
Zuluk is a town on the far eastern border of Sikkim. It is the remotest spot in the Himalayan region, and hence, is widely unknown. So much so that it has no hotels, no guesthouses. You have to arrange to stay with the locals, but that is the beauty of it. Homestays are what make it warm, even amid the cold climate. When here, do visit the Kupup Lake (Elephant Lake). A drive through the town of Zuluk is exhilarating; its winding roads are the most charming ones you’ll ever see.
So, as it turns out, the entire appeal lies in the smaller details of Sikkim. Enjoy those long drives, meditate in those quiet monasteries, warm your soul with that delicious food, dance along to those lively beats, and rediscover yourself.
Weather and best time to visit Sikkim
Sikkim is in full bloom in the summer months of March to June. The flowers come out and add colour to the white of the mountains. The average temperature is 5 to 25 degrees. Even in summer, the nights are frosty. This is the best time to visit for adventure junkies – trekking, mountaineering and rafting under the warm sun.
The months from July to September are struck with heavy rainfall and an average temperature of 4 to 15 degrees. Despite the continuous rain and slippery slopes, many tourists find this to be the best time for birdwatching and catching the compelling view of cascading waterfalls. Trekking is not advisable during this time.
September-October is the festival season of Sikkim. Culture admirers are welcome with open arms by colourful festivals and Cherry Blossoms. The average temperature is 15 to 20 degrees. This is a great time for Sikkim sightseeing, and is also a good time to put your trekking boots to use.
The months of November to February are prone to extremely cold weather, with temperatures ranging from 4 to 7 degrees. Although the snow-covered fields and frozen lakes have a charm of their own, many roads are blocked as landslides are common. Sikkim state tourism (especially trekking) during this time is not advisable because of the biting cold and unpredictable terrain.
So, the best time to visit Sikkim really depends on what you’re looking for. You can go from March to June for a spring vacation, and from September to November for a snowier vacation. In either case, Sikkim’s splendour won’t disappoint.
How to get to Sikkim
As Sikkim is located in mountainous terrain, there are no railways here. The nearest railway station is New Jalpaiguri in West Bengal. There is one airport at Pakyong. The best way to get to Sikkim is by road from West Bengal – jeeps, taxis and buses are abundantly available. For internal travel, the only option is to take a bus or drive a jeep, Or trek.
Once you’ve seen Sikkim for yourself, the next time someone asks you to close your eyes and go to your happy place – this happy place is going to be a green meadow, enveloped by the snowy mountains of Sikkim. For many years to come. So, what are you waiting for?
Keep up the travelling,