The small northeastern state of Sikkim was once rightly dubbed ‘the hidden kingdom’ after a book (1971) by the same name by Alice Kandell. The mighty Kanchenjunga, considered a benevolent protector, dominates the region, making itself visible from various points within the state. Take a tour around the highlights of Sikkim.
Begin at Gangtok
What to do
Walk up and down the pedestrian-only MG Road, stopping for hot momos and chowmein at one of the various cafés on the street.
Make a day trip to Tsomgo lake (called Changu by locals), located in the middle of snow-covered mountains. Here, you can ride on a docile yak or pose for photographs next to one. From there, head on to Nathu La pass (open to Indian visitors only on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday), on the Indo-Chinese border to play in snow and wave at Chinese soldiers on the other side.
Pay a visit to the monasteries in and around Gangtok, in particular, the stunning Enchey and Rumtek.
Take a ropeway ride (8.00 am – 4.30 pm) up to the highest point in Gangtok for fabulous views of the town and the surrounding valley.
Where to stay
Go West: Pelling
What to do
Pelling is really not for active vacationers since there is nothing much to do here but take long walks on shaded mountain roads and gaze in awe at the Kanchenjunga. The views are spectacular especially after the monsoon, between the months of October and February.
A must-visit in this region is the Pemayangtse monastery, one of the oldest in Sikkim, founded in 1705. If you are lucky and the skies are clear, the Kanchenjunga may be visible clearly from here.
Visit the Khecheopari Lake, also known as the ‘wishing lake’ and considered sacred by the Sikkimese. Indeed, this is a place of worship for both local Hindus and Buddhists, and surprisingly clear of tourist traps. The path to the lake is studded with prayer wheels on either side while colourful prayer flags whirl in the wind closer to the water.
If you happen to be there on a weekend, look out for local haats (markets) where farmers from the area bring in their produce for sale; it makes for a lively and colourful morning
For those really bitten by the travel bug, a trip to Yuksam village (38 km away), the starting point for the tough trek into the Kanchenjunga National Park is recommended. Spend your day ambling down the narrow main road, snacking on chilli-cheese toast and tea at Guptaji’s small café, and watching the clouds play hide and seek with the mountains surrounding you.
Where to stay
In Pelling, stay at the Elgin Mount Pandim Hotel, close to the Pemayangtse monastery. It also comes with a spa in case you want to soothe those aching muscles after long drives on the mountain roads.
Go North: Yumthang Valley and Gurudongmar Lake
What to do
This is the most popular circuit among visitors to Sikkim, Gangtok to Yumthang Valley and Gurudongmar Lake in the north.
The first morning, wake up early and head to Gurudongmar lake situated at a (literally) breathtaking 17000 feet. Most vehicles take a compulsory halt for an hour at Thangu village at 14,000 feet for breakfast, and more importantly, to get you acclimatised to the altitude. Enjoy the ride thereon through a surreal moonscape path, which affords plenty of photo-ops. Go prepared with layers and layers of woolies and the idea that you will feel disoriented at that height and for perhaps a couple of hours after you descend.
The next morning, make your way to Yumthang, a mere 24 kilometres from Lachung and at a (relatively) more comfortable altitude of 12,000 feet. The road leading to Yumthang, known as the ‘valley of flowers’ is well laid and lined with rhododendron trees on either side. This area comes under the protected Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary (home to over 24 species of this flower) and is especially pretty during the summer months when the ground is covered with flowers of all colours. Yumthang is the stuff of picture postcards, with snow-capped mountains on all sides, with the crystal clear Yumthang river flowing through the meadow.
Where to stay
Lachung and Lachen villages are the base for Yumthang valley and Gurudongmar lake respectively. The Fortuna is one of the most popular and comfortable hotels in this area. Accommodation otherwise is mostly basic and not very luxurious there – discuss your options with your tour operator before you leave. The friendliness of the locals, the pure mountain air and the fresh water springs all around more than make up for any mild discomfort you may experience.
Note: You cannot rent or drive your own vehicle in Sikkim since many places require special permits. Therefore you need to arrange for excursions through an authorized tour operator in Gangtok. For North Sikkim, it is best to take a package that includes your travel, stay and food from one of the authorised tour operators who line MG Road.