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Discovering Sikkim: A Travel Guide for India's Best-kept Secret

Never heard of Sikkim? Don't worry.


Out of India's 29 states, those in the northeast of the country are relatively off the radar. Sikkim especially has so much Tibetan and Nepali influence it feels like you've stepped into a different country and time altogether.


In this travel guide to Sikkim, I will explain how to get there and travel around, offer you advice on local customs, and suggest awesome places to stay and things to do.



CONTENTS




 


About Sikkim


Up until recently, Sikkim was its own kingdom, ruled by Buddhist monarchs called Choygals. The last of these was deposed in 1975, through an uprising of the people, who subsequently voted to become part of India. This new-ish state now represents the smallest and least populated nugget on the map of this incredible country.


A whopping 1/3 of the state is a Biosphere Reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site - which is home to the Earth's 3rd highest peak; Mt Khangchendzonga. The four official languages are English, Nepalese, Sikkimese, and Lepcha, showing a patchwork of cultures and ethnicities.


The food of Sikkim is distinct, the landscape is dramatic, the streets are clean, and the atmosphere feels tranquil.



A street dog, or fallen monk, and five friends strolling around the village of Yuksom in Sikkim
Fallen monks and friends in Yuksom

 


Why Sikkim?


When the idea of visiting Sikkim first popped into my brain, I knew next to nothing about the logistics of going there, and I decided for once to just 'rock up and see'. I felt confident I would be able to travel directly from Kolkata and I had the contact of a guesthouse owner in Gangtok; the state's capital.


This decision may not have been the wisest, and if I were to do it again, I would plan a trip to Sikkim more carefully. So I am going to share what I learnt in this Sikkim travel guide. Here goes...



 


A Travel Guide to Sikkim - India's Best Kept Secret



Getting to Sikkim



TRAIN FROM KOLKATA


The first stop in this travel guide to Sikkim is likely to be a big Indian City with an international airport, and for me that was Kolkata.


I booked a night train from Kolkata to New Jalpaiguri station. I organised the train tickets the day before I was due to travel. Remember that tourist quota?


Interstate trains book up well in advance, but some tickets are reserved for tourists and they can be purchased the day before departure. These can be bought at the train station itself (the best option, if convenient) or from one of the gazillion, travel agents dotted all over the city. I chose the latter, there was a commission, I think it was an extra 300rs each.


The tickets were 1340rs for a Second-Class AC sleeper - so I paid about £17 in total for the 11-hour night train. The berths were as expected, fold-down double bunks and quite slim-fit for a grown person. This is where a little sleeping bag and pillow would come in handy. I think I used towels to cushion myself and a sarong as a cover.


Keep your belongings on your bed! Keep your small valuables bag by your pillow as train thievery is common, although I have never experienced it. For a step-by-step guide on how to take the train in India, check out my guide: Train Travel in India for Tourists & Train Classes.



WARNING!
Kolkata station is not a pretty site. This is where I saw some of the most destitute people, including children and women, sleeping on the platform. Some of them clearly couldn't even afford a piece of cloth as they were half naked, which is quite a rare sight in such a conservative country, where even the poorest women take pride in their personal hygiene and grooming. Don't stare, but also don't look the other way. This is life, after all.


You can buy snacks, chai, and bottled water at the station, or on the train. People will run along the platforms at each stop selling these things so have your money ready. My companions and I played cards to pass the time, only in hindsight did I recognise why so many people gawked. Gambling is illegal in this part of India and even though we were not playing for money, that fact is not obvious to onlookers.


So, if you get in a pickle, don't forget that magic question...


"How much is the fine?"


= A subtle and effective way to pay a quick bribe to get yourself out of a lot of hassle with local police.


*I have only ever paid bribes if I am actually doing something wrong. E.g. Riding a motorbike without a helmet or in this case, 'gambling' in public, as it makes the problem go away quickly. If officials are asking for bribes for a made-up reason, I would rather not pay and wait them out.



Inside a sleeper express train from Kolkata
Inside a sleeper express train from Kolkata

Train travel in India is really fun. Don't be timid to engage with other passengers, Indians are notoriously nosy, and proud you're visiting their home. It's good fun to chat with the local people, you will probably get invited to their home or even an upcoming family wedding (it happens!)



THEN TAKE A TAXI


From New Jalpaiguri train station you can easily get a taxi to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim and a great base to plan the rest of your trip. Taxis are a fixed rate here - I think I paid about 3000rs for the 4-hour long trip. This price includes the stop and wait time to get your permit.



 


PROTECTED AREA PERMIT

Something important to mention in this Sikkim travel guide is the Protected Area Permit.

Your taxi will need to stop on the way for you to purchase your tourist permit, they know how to do this. I stopped at the Sikkim Tourism Office in a town called Rangpo.

YOU WILL NEED your passport, visa, and passport photo, pre-cut if possible. The permit is free and lasts 30 days. It took about 45 minutes to get this sorted. I got caught in the most torrential rain I've ever experienced in this town. Not fun in flip-flops! This leads me to my next piece of advice...


 


When to visit Sikkim


As I explained in my post: A pre-departure checklist for travelling India - seasonality is hugely important!


According to the Sikkim Tourism Board, the best times to visit are between March and May and September to mid-December.


Winter: January - March | -5 to 7˚C

Summer: March-May | 5 to 25˚C

Monsoon: May - December | 4 to 17˚C


That's a lot of monsoons!


I went to Sikkim in May, and it pissed down with rain the entire time. Initially, the rain was a nice respite from the sweltering heat of Kolkata and Rajasthan, but it made it difficult to explore all of the outdoor activities.


If you don't mind being constantly drenched, then the plus side of going in the off-season:


  1. Fewer tourists

  2. Lower prices


 


Getting around Sikkim


Once you get into Gangtok you'll see a lot of 4x4s, the white ones are tourist vehicles. The roads are BAD. I mean really, really bad.


If you're prone to travel sickness I would take every precaution under the sun. Even in 4x4s, you will get thrown about (this is not an exaggeration, even with a seatbelt my head hit the car roof every 5 seconds). On one particular leg of the journey, it took us 5 hours to drive 10km as the crow would fly.


I repeat the roads are BAD. For this reason, don't be too ambitious with how many places you want to see. Sikkim may look itsy-bitsy on the map, but it is not well connected.



Buddha Park Sikkim

 

A Travel Guide for Sikkim


Arriving in Gangtok


Something we learnt here...


Okay, so we took a taxi from the train station to some kind of terminal in Gangtok, where we were told we must change vehicles to go into the town. It was raining a lot and we were being quoted an extortionate amount.


When I asked a local guy what the regular price was, he said something much less, but all of the drivers refused to take us unless we paid the 'tourist price'. The situation was quite hostile, we were soaking wet and didn't see any other option. It was here I also got shouted at for lighting a beedi (Indian roll-up), as it's illegal to smoke on the street in this state.


Who knew?


It's also illegal to pee and spit in public, but I hope you wouldn't do that anyway.


Sikkim is very very very clean, a reputation they want to fiercely uphold.


So, I was shouted at, reluctantly parted with 2000rs for a 10-minute car journey and had all my bags strapped to the back of a 4x4 where every single possession I had got soaked through to the bone. Not good vibes so far.


**In Sikkim plastic water bottles and styrofoam are also banned, which is a huge move for Mother Earth! So, make sure you bring a reusable water bottle**



 


Where to stay in Gangtok


We finally reached our accommodation which was called 'Tsechu Homestay'. We were hosted by a family who were so warm and welcoming, such a relief considering our interactions so far.


We as a group of 5 booked two rooms for one night, the price was 3145rs. You can find plenty of last-minute and budget-friendly accommodation options through booking.com - a site I have found incredibly handy whilst travelling in India.


Our next mission was to walk to 'Tag Along Backpackers' to see if we could do a bicycle tour I'd seen advertised online. The young lad of the family helped us hail a cab - an extremely complicated process with designated stopping points and one-way systems we couldn't understand.


If you want to avoid all of this hassle you can stay at Tag Along itself. It was slightly above our budget, but in hindsight, it would save all of the hassles with taxis as it's very central. They also offer heaps of activities and give great advice on navigating Sikkim.


Damn...OK, so the bicycle tour we wanted to do was not available in these rains. They look crazy good though, so if you're there at the right time check it out!


The hostel manager (my contact) named Manisha was really friendly, she advised a 5-day itinerary for us with a 4x4 and a driver. This would set us back 25,000rs including fuel and food/accommodation for the driver. Between 5 of us that was £50 each and seemed quite reasonable. She booked our onward accommodation and arranged for the driver to collect us the next day.



 


One Evening in Gangtok


There are quite a few cool bars in the town, some with live music. You can find these on TripAdvisor or just have a stroll, I found the place easy to navigate. Remember, don't smoke, pee, or spit outside, okay? I ate a Nepalese Thali which tasted hella fermented and not entirely to my taste. The momo's on the other hand were great!



I Dream of Mangoes at a waterfall in Sikkim


When leaving Gangtok be sure to visit Rumtek Monastery: This was actually really cool. A living, breathing, monastery where you are invited to look around, and even observe a prayer session. It was really interesting to get a peek into the actual daily motions of a Buddhist monk, rather than just looking at endless bronzed-up monuments of the Buddha. Don't get me wrong I love the Buddha, but he wouldn't want to be glorified like that!


If you'd like to know more The Darjeeling Tourism site has heaps of detailed information here.



Tibetan Peace Flags


Have you read Siddartha?

This is a book by Herman Hesse about the becoming of the Buddha. It's a really lovely read, which gives you a bit of insight into his life and his philosophies. (Yes, he was an actual person, not a god).

I would also recommend watching a movie called Samsara (2001) - a silent movie based on the spiritual journey of a Tibetan monk. It's a really easy watch, quite touching in parts, and may help you understand this life path a little better.


 


Next Stop: YUKSOM


The next stop in this Sikkim travel guide is a gorgeous town called Yuksom.


We stayed at a place called 'Mama's Kitchen', recommended by Manisha. This was a charming homestay/café, the food was superb. We arrived late in the evening, it was pelting down with rain (as it did the entire time we were there), we were so hungry, and the kind host prepared us some noodles, cake, and tea before bed.


We stayed for one night only and paid 700rs per person for a dorm-style room. They had western toilets, cold showers, and thin mattresses but with nice thick blankets (it was chilly!)


 


One day in Yuksom


My advice? Get lost!


After a breakfast of delicious 'Poha' (rice flakes with peanuts, onions, coriander and spices) with a side of Yak cheese (just to try!) we went wandering.


The main road leads to winding pathways, woodlands and temples. I was accompanied the whole way by an array of big shaggy street dogs. One would stay by your side for a while, then when their territory ends you were picked up by another. It felt like the dogs were walking me! They were so friendly and followed us around everywhere, fallen monks perhaps?


I never felt like I was trespassing, there was always a genuine wave and smile from the local villagers and the scenery was draped with countless tattered Tibetan peace flags, worn with time. They are hung up high so that the prayers are caught by the breeze, to increase fortune, health, wealth, and life for all sentient beings.



A yak in Sikkim


From Yuksom we took another bumpy journey that took multiple hours to drive a minuscule distance.


I'm normally pretty good on long journeys. I've taken a bunch of bus/train journeys on cracked-up roads. My longest was a 30-hour bus down the length of Vietnam. BUT THIS JOURNEY WAS HARD. A real test of my nerve. I'm so glad I had my bubbly friend Elisa in the back with me so we could do our best to make light of how truly shit this journey was.



 


Next Stop: PELLING


Our guesthouse here was arranged by the lady from Tag Along Backpackers in Gangtok. She suggested we stay here for two nights, with a few stops scheduled in each direction.


- Kanchandzanga Falls: A pretty roadside photo opportunity.

-Buddha Park: Lots of Buddhas.

-SKYWALK Pelling: Mad panoramic views.


Pelling is a great base for hikes. We went on a few little rambles, but it was just too rainy.


The guesthouse was so good though. It was really communal as we were all served dinner together, and afterwards, we tried a fermented, millet-based drink called Tongba which was served in a massive bamboo stein. It's odd, it reminded me a bit of the palm wine I drank in Cameroon called Matango. It's milky in colour with a bit of an off-pineapple juice tang, it takes a few sips to adjust!


Friends drinking Tongba in Pelling in Sikkim


The guesthouse was 700rs a night per person, including dinner and breakfast. It had cold showers and western toilets, but no mattresses. I used towels to bulk up!



Monks in Sikkim


 


Next Stop: SILIGURI


After a few peaceful days in Pelling, and as this travel guide for Sikkim comes to a close, we made the last leg to Siliguri, where we had to sleep for one night before catching our plane to New Dehli.


Our driver, Telochan, took us to a little bar which had two rooms for rent upstairs. It was only 300rs, and I can see why.


It was scary.


It was so dirty, mouldy, and dark, it felt like the ceiling could have fallen in on us at any moment. There was no running water, the sheets were filthy, there were no mattresses, and it stank. The toilet made me gag - no joke. The street outside was loud and busy, and if I was alone I would have crept the eff out. It just didn't feel right.


I had pretty much wiped this night out of my memory until typing this right now. Telochan said there was no other option. I felt bad for turning my nose up, so we left our bags and asked him to show us a place to get a few beers to calm our nerves. If I was going to be able to sleep in the shack of grime I was going to need a bit of alcohol in me.


The next morning, we took a different taxi to Bagdogra airport - which is in West Bengal. Something about the 4x4 only being registered to Sikkim and not being allowed to cross over state lines?


It was pretty hectic, to be honest, we were so scared about the crumbling roads and how long it would take so we got to the airport about 5 hours early and had to sit there very dirty (remember no running water?) until our plane arrived.


 


A Summary of Sikkim



POSITIVES


This may not have been the most eventful, activity-based trip, but it was absolutely worth the effort to reach there for the scenery alone.


Sikkim is beautiful, interesting, and unlike anywhere else I have ever been. I feel like I would have created better memories with more time to meander up north, with much less rain, to really make the most of nature's offerings. That's the real draw here, so think carefully about the time of your visit.


When planning your trip to Sikkim it's worth checking the tourism board's calendar of events.



Views of mountain trails in Sikkim
Beautiful views in Sikkim

NEGATIVES


It's really difficult to get around, and I spent much more time being thrust around in the car than I would have liked.


We found the people a little unwilling to help in some places when we didn't understand the Gangtok taxi system for example. (I'm not expecting a red carpet rolled out, I'm just trying to be honest.)



The unrelenting downpour made it pretty hard to do anything outdoorsy.



 


Where did I wish I'd gone as well?


  • Lake Tsmongo (yak trekking!) It looks unreal and it was just out of reach. Check out what it's all about here.

  • Ride the Silk, a cycling tour of Sikkim, getting to the real heart of the region. Find out more about this here.



 


Thank you for reading my honest travel guide for Sikkim! If you enjoyed the read, please consider subscribing to my blog where I post articles every week about my current travels.


For more India inspiration, check out my article: Visiting the Taj Mahal and Rajasthan without a guide.


Looking for something more off-beat? Read my post on Visiting Calcutta and the Sundarbans Mangrove Forest!



Happy Travels

xx



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I Dream of Mangoes is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, which means that if you purchase anything from Amazon.com through this site, I earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. This is the only way I make any money through my travel blog, so I appreciate all of your support! That being said, I only link to products I use and love.


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