Sikkim: travelling where nature smiles

Updated January 2020 (originally published February 2018)

Northeast India is the most underexplored area on the subcontinent and government restrictions on foreign travellers still remain for some states. One of those states is Sikkim, one of the least populated areas in India and famous for being home to the third tallest mountain in the world, Mount Kangchenjunga.

Sikkim was a small Himalayan Kingdom until it became an official part of India in 1975. It still has a strong Buddhist culture with an increasingly strong Hindu influence, making it a unique place to visit in Northeast India.

It’s considered the cleanest and greenest state and has been all organic since 2016, begging some comparisons to neighbouring Bhutan’s environmental and conservation policies. Although it’s quite easy to reach from West Bengal and permits are not too difficult to get, it remains one of India’s least explored areas.

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When to go

I visited in February, towards the end of winter and cloudy skies and cold weather meant I saw very few other people, hotels were closed down and views were mostly obscured. However, it was also quite cheap to travel there at that time too.

The best seasons to go are April and May, with warmer weather but also peak crowds, and October to December, when the skies are clearest. Prepare for cold weather at any time of the year and freezing temperatures in winter.

Getting a travel permit for Sikkim

It’s only one of two states left in the Northeast (the other being Arunachal Pradesh) that still requires foreigners to get a travel permit. I grumbled about the paperwork and office visits that are required to get one, however, I actually don’t think it’s such a bad thing. The government often claims it’s for security reasons, as the state borders politically sensitive areas with Tibet and Nepal. However, in the interests of protecting the incredible mountainous and pristine natural areas of the state, restricting tourism is not necessarily a bad thing. The Sikkim Tourism Department claims Sikkim is where nature smiles and although a bit of a cringey slogan, it’s far from wrong.

Foreigners need to obtain an Inner Line Permit (ILP) for visiting Sikkim. However, North Sikkim (and a couple of other places in east and west Sikkim on the borders) requires a further Protected Area Permit (PAP) and these can only be obtained through a registered travel agent. They can be arranged either inside or outside Sikkim.

Trekking permits are also required and can be arranged in Gangtok, Sikkim by any authorised trekking agency.

ILP can now be applied for online here. However, it’s also possible to get them in person at approved government offices.

I arranged my Sikkim Inner Line Permit in Darjeeling, which allowed me to travel for two weeks. You can apply for up to 30 days at a time and then extended once you are in Sikkim if you need.

The permits are largely painless endeavours and are free. You will need photocopies of your passport and visa and a couple of passport photos. You can apply and receive them at the following places:

  • Deputy Commissioner Office, Darjeeling
  • Tourism Office, Siliguri
  • Sikkim Tourism Office, Kolkata
  • Sikkim House, New Delhi
  • At entry check posts into Sikkim (Rangpo and Melli)
Gangtok from the cable car

Gangtok

You can’t really call it a city, but it is the most populated place in Sikkim and the state capital. It has some nice restaurants, a market area and monasteries dotting the surrounding hills. It’s a mountainous state and it’s evident as soon as you arrived in Gangtok, as the city sprawls over the slopes of the rolling hills. There are a few good lookouts around the city and on a clear day it’s even possible to see the tip of Kangchenjunga. It’s actually quite an interesting and fun city, with a very different vibe to the rest of India and I really enjoyed my time there.

For a more comprehensive guide to Gangtok, see this post on 20 things to do there.

Gangtok was one of my top places to visit in Northeast India in an article I wrote for Lonely Planet. You can read it here.

Where I stayed

I stayed at a beautiful little hostel near the central mall area and it felt more like a cosy homestay than a hostel. The family running the small place was gorgeous and the owner was able to give so much practical and local knowledge about Sikkim. It’s called Go Hills Backpackers Hostel and its on M.G. Road.

How to get around Sikkim

State-run buses do exist but only run a couple of times a day and to be honest I hardly saw any of them after leaving Gangtok. The main way to get around the state is by shared jeep or sumo, which only leave when they are full with 10 passengers. They usually congregate in a parking lot with various booths selling tickets to major towns in the state. The roads were both horrendous and spectacular. Most were unpaved, all were full of potholes and they were generally only wide enough for one vehicle or two if you squeezed within inches of each other. There was road construction everywhere and when I mentioned it to a local guy he said, “It’s continuous. Never stops.”

There’s no flat land in sight in Sikkim and so the roads are either winding up the mountain or coming down and so land slides are extremely common meaning that there’s never any point in putting the earthmoving machinery away because clearing rubble is a constant need. The twisting, mountainous roads resulted in half the jeep rides ending with young children spewing out the window, but on the bright side the views were spectacular. If you’re prone to motion sickness, I’d recommend bringing something to help ease or stop it.

Travelling to India? You can read my guide for navigating transport in India here.

Shared jeep parking lot

Namchi

From Gangtok I travelled to Namchi, which is famous for having one giant Buddhist statue and one giant Hindu statue on opposing hills. I decided to walk the few kilometres to one (Char Dam) and caught a taxi to the other (Sandruptse) but both had clouds hanging around the top and so the Mount Khangchendzonga view was hidden from sight. Samdruptse Hill is where you’ll find the 45m high statue of Guru Rimpoche, which has beautiful views of the third highest mountain in the world. Char Dam is the other main sight, which is kind of like a Hindu theme park with temples and statues inside a large complex, just 5km from Namchi.

I stayed at Hotel Khangjong in Namchi, only a 10 minute walk from the jeep and sumo parking lot. It can’t be booked online but I was recommended it by the hostel in Gangtok.

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Char Dam
Char Dam

Pelling

After Namchi, I caught a jeep to Geyzing and then a shared taxi to a town called Pelling. Pelling is known for having unrivalled views of the world’s third tallest mountain Khangchendzonga. Unfortunately when I was there, I was only just able to make out the mountain from underneath the cloud early in the morning.

There was only a couple of small restaurants in Pelling dishing up the same few menu choices to only a handful of local people. I struggled to even find little snack shops and when I asked if there was somewhere I could buy snacks all I got was, “No, not really.” So don’t expect a wealth of infrastructure and facilities.

Other than the view, I walked out to Pemayangtse Monastery and Rabdentse ruins. Being winter, the ticket offices were closed but the gates were open so I went in anyway.

Where I stayed

The town had plenty of hotels but most were closed for the winter. In fact I didn’t book any of my accommodation in Sikkim whilst I was there and just walked in to places to ask about prices upon arrival. I stayed at Hotel Viewpoint in Pelling and would highly recommend it for budget travellers. For dormitory prices, I had a large private room with a bathroom and the balcony had beautiful views of the cloudy mountains. The manager was also extremely friendly and helpful, breakfast was included and they could also cook dinner upon request.

Yuksom

I then wanted to go to a small town called Yuksom, which is at the main entry point into Khangchendzonga National Park and has some nice monasteries to explore. I was assured by both the hotel manager and the tourist office in Pelling that I would get a jeep passing through Pelling to Yuksom between 12.30-1.30pm so I sat and waited in the middle of town until around 2.30pm when I decided to give up.

The next day I gave it another shot, except this time I decided to travel back to the bigger town of Geyzing from Pelling in a shared taxi in the hope to guarantee a jeep from there. In Geyzing, I found a jeep with Yuksom on the dashboard and the guy let me in. The jeep was empty so I knew I would have to wait until it was full. Three hours later, after the driver had bought me chai because he felt so bad, the jeep was finally full and off we went towards Yuksom. It took two hours to drive the 40 kilometres of countless hairpin bends to the small town.

Yuksom

I thought Pelling had been quiet but Yuksom was even more so. The town was pretty much shut down for the winter and just a few locals were out and about. There was only one restaurant in town open during the few days that I was there. It had an extensive menu but I figured out after asking for various things that she could only really make a few items. So fried rice it was for lunch and dinner just like in Pelling. Luckily I like rice because that’s basically all I ate in Sikkim. Except for the last night in Yuksom, when I walked into the same restaurant prepared for more fried rice and the lady beamed at me, “Chicken is possible. Chicken curry and rice?”. I definitely didn’t say no to that.

There are a handful of hotels in town along the main road. After arriving late from Pelling, I walked into one of the first hotels but there was nobody inside. Then a lady yelled, “He’s coming!”, and I saw a guy running down the road. I decided to stay after he said 300 rupees, I don’t think I could have got a better price elsewhere.

Where I stayed

I stayed at Hotel Demazong, a basic, budget friendly hotel near the start of town. For 300 rupees (AUD$6) I got a private room.

Booking.com
Dubdi Monastery
Dubdi Monastery

The next day I hiked a steep 2km to Dubdi monastery which also had an empty ticket office. It was a beautiful clear day and I finally had a perfect view of the snow capped mountains in the national park. Then I walked back to town and out to Coronation Park where the first king of Sikkim was crowned back in 1642, which was really beautiful. The town was dead quiet all I could hear were my feet hitting the pavement, some street dogs barking and a guy cutting firewood. I never thought I’d find somewhere like that in all of India.

View from Dubdi Monastery

Ravangla

There was only one jeep leaving Yuksom at 7am heading towards a place called Legship where I changed jeeps and headed towards Ravangla which is perched on top of a beautiful valley. It has an impressive gold statue of Buddha that was only completed in 2013. The ticket price was hefty for foreigners but the park is beautiful, although you can see the statue from outside if you don’t want to pay.

I stayed for one night in the small town just so I could walk out to the statue and back. There’s not a whole lot more to do in town or the immediate area and I realised I could have just kept going on to Gangtok in the same day.

There’s a few hotels around, but I just walked into an old rundown looking place at the start of town and got a private room. It’s name is Hotel 10 Zing and although it was listed in Lonely Planet as the main budget place in town, I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s very rough and one of the worst places I’ve probably stayed, still it was bearable for the night.

Buddha Park, Ravangla

I returned to Gangtok to end my Sikkim trip. I was pretty happy to return to the beautiful family and plentiful food choices of Gangtok before continuing on to explore more of the Northeast. I took a jeep back to Siliguri through the Rangpo checkpoint (although my jeep driver never stopped to go through exit formalities, probably because I was squashed in the back and he knew no one would see me, so I never officially ‘left’ Sikkim according to my passport).

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