It’s not usual that you come into a new place with one itinerary and end up doing something quite different, often changing plans while traveling as you learn about new places and gather new experiences. But this is exactly what happened as I explored Sikkim with Paradise Unexplored this monsoon - we started with an itinerary that they had suggested, but we kept customizing it all through the one week I spent there, down to the last day.
I know many of you have been enchanted with my travels as you followed me on my journey through Sikkim on Instagram, and here’s now the full and detailed itinerary that you can follow too. Of course, you can do it all by yourself, but my journey was so special because I had Anand who made the time in Sikkim so worthwhile. Being from the region itself he knows everything that you might need to know like history, politics, folk tales, religion, and also spots for photography. Since I like to shoot at sunrise, we always started our days at 4am, and Anand was always around to make and update new plans based on the weather. It’s rare that I heap so much praise on someone, but he really is very good!
So getting on with the interesting bit now - the itinerary. I would suggest a minimum of one week, but if you have more days, it’s better. Before I go into details, let’s me share some practical details first:
So without much ado, here's my personal one week itinerary for Sikkim!
Land at Bagdogra and come to Gangtok in a cab. Seriously by the time you reach the capital city, you will be exhausted and would just want to take some rest. However, on the way, do stop by and admire the mighty Teesta river - it’s truly a sight to behold. If you are with Anand, ask him lots of questions for the long journey from the airport. The road is quite good, and it’s the only road that I found to be so good.
If you have energy in the evening, head out to the MG Marg - that’s where everyone from the city gathers to hang out. It has cafes and a few book-stores too - it’s nice, but not exactly my kind of place.
Alternatively, go to the spa and take a nice and long message and you will be fresh as daisy the next day :)
Where to stay in Gangtok?
I stayed at The Elgin Nor-Khill and would absolutely recommend the place. It’s a heritage hotel and absolutely lives up to it. The only downside is that the view from the room isn’t something to write home about. If you do want the view, stay at Denzong Regency - it has a great view of the city as well as the mountains.
Since you will be already a little tired due to the travel the previous day, I recommend planning a trip to Nathu La in the first half of the day, and then spending the second half exploring a bit of Gangtok.
So Nathu La is a historical mountain pass which was the part of the ancient silk route between China and India. During the Indo-China 1962 war it was closed and opened again during late Atal Bihari Vajyaee's reigh. It's now both a pass for vehicles to take goods between the two countries (apparently Parle G is one of the most desired Indian product in China) and also a place for tourists from India to come and see. Frankly there isn't much to see (except a sneak peek into China and some pretty hideous Chinese architecture) but the road-trip from Gangtok is beautiful. If you are traveling during tourist season make sure you go early and get a pass else you can be stuck in the traffic for a long time!
While you are going or coming back, make sure you stop at the gorgeous Tsomgo (or Changu) lake. Do take a walk around the lovely lake and enjoy the views. If you are going in winters, the whole area is covered in snow and the view is something to behold!
On the at back to Gangtok, stop at Bakthang waterfalls. There are many tea vendors as well there, so maybe you can have a hot cup of chai as well.
If you didn’t go to the MG Marg the previous day, do it today. Have a cup of coffee there and a late lunch (I recommend The Coffee Shop) and then head over to Rachna book store if you like books (like I do). To watch the sunset head over to Denzong Regency hotel - make sure you reach a little in advance so that you can have some chai and then watch the sun go down.
As you might have figured out already, this trip will not give you a lot of time to rest. So if you want to be more relaxed here, I would suggest spending another day in Gangtok and basically enjoy the city. Walk around the neighborhoods, talk to the locals, go watch a football match (it's truly an obsession here), drink local chai and eat local food (not just in the hotel) and maybe get a massage as well.
However, I had only limited time and very ambitious plans, so I started off from Gangtok towards a town called Pelling with numerous pit-stops on the way. This was the most tiring and also the most fulfilling day of my journey.
If you are leaving Gangtok, I would suggest leaving really early in the morning. Request your hotel for a packed breakfast and eat it when you are at Rumtek Monastery - one of the most well-known from the state. It's a gorgeous monastery, but it's story is even more fascinating. Today's it's better known for the controversy surrounding the place.
To better understand what’s known as ‘Rumtek controversy’, let’s quickly understand a bit of history. Now Tibetan Buddhism has four chief schools, and one of them is Karma Kagyu. Dalai Lama also heads a specific school, but is considered the supreme leader by all. The head of Karma Kagyu is known as Karmapa.
Anyway, when China invaded Tibet in 1959, Dalai Lama made a dramatic escape from #Lhasa via Tezpur (Assam) to India. Along with him, the 16th Karmapa also escaped and he set up his monastery in Sikkim - at the Rumtek Monastery, then in ruins.
Traditionally when a Karmapa departs from the world, he tells his followers about his reincarnation through a secret note. Some believe this secret note was tampered with and after his death, two different Karmapas emerged who staked claim to be his reincarnations.
Even today both of them continue to stake their claim to head the order. More controversy followed when one of the Karmapa was accused to be a Chinese spy. Due to the controversy and sometimes violent clashes between the two groups, the Indian government disallowed any one of them to take over the Rumtek Monastery.
So the monastery hasn’t had a leader after the 16th Karmapa. To prevent any of the Karmapas to establish themselves at Rumtek, heavy army bandobast is there. India’s position on the Karmapa isn’t exactly very clear and we’ve done our best all these years to simply maintain the status quo.
You can easily spend an entire day here - learning about the place and immersing yourself into the local culture. However, if you do not have the time, head on towards Pelling.
Temi Tea Gardens
We stopped a few more places, and the most interesting of them was the Temi Tea garden. Now tea isn’t something people connect Sikkim with, but believe it or not, Sikkim also makes its own tea and is actually fairly renowned for it! The history of tea in Sikkim isn’t very long though - hang on and you will learn something new today.
So when tea came to India, or was rather smuggled here, it was a masterstroke by the British. Britain already loved tea a lot and China made a killing with it, so when the Brits figured out a way to grow tea in India, it was a huge economical win!
But Indian tea started with Darjeeling (which is actually Sikkim, though we’ll talk about that later), and then went on to win fame and money for the region. I must mention that people from Darjeeling absolutely love their tea, and think nothing of the Sikkhmese tea.
Tea in what we know as Sikkim today came only in the 1960s, but even that has a strong China connection. When China attacked Tibet in 1959, India took in hundreds of thousands of refugees (can you imagine that happening in present India), and many were resettled in Sikkim. Suddenly there was a large workforce, but no work and this is typically a recipe for disaster. So the king of Sikkim (it wasn’t a part of India then) decided to start a tea estate to provide work - and Temi Tea Garden was born! It’s a fairly large tea estate and a lot of tea produced here is also exported. Unfortunately, I didn’t get an opportunity to try the tea there.
We also stopped at Ravangla which has a huge golden Buddha statue with mountains as it's backdrop. It's a stunning scene, but somehow recently made large scale statues isn't something I really enjoy, so won't quite recommend visiting here unless you have a lot of extra time.
Finally, before reaching Pelling, we also stopped at a rice terrace field. I was there right after the plants were sowed, and it was a sight to behold! You can't really do much there though, except take pictures - and that's exactly what I did.
We reached Pelling after sunset and after dinner I simply crashed in my bed.
Where to stay in Pelling?
Pelling is a small yet charming town which is also very popular with the tourists - which means that there are more hotels than homes, and also hotels of all budgets. If you are on a budget travel, I would recommend walking around in the town main street and picking a hotel there. However, the place I would recommend is called The Elgin Mount Pandim. Overlooking the mighty Kanchenjunga peak, it's a heritage luxury property and really beautiful too.
Pelling as a town is place to relax and enjoy nature. Not just one, you can actually spend a few days here and rejuvenate.
Start your morning with a cup of chai in the beautiful back garden of the hotel (Elgin) and then head out to Khecheopalri Lake. It's a scared lake and it's a short walk away in the forest after you park your vehicle. I reached here quite early in the morning and it was just me and Anand (my guide). This was perhaps the most peaceful part of my trip - just sounds of nature and rustling of prayer flags.
I would also suggest stopping by at the Rimbi Falls - the majestic falls are on the way and worth exploring. You can't possibly swim here during or right after the monsoon as the water is really strong, but you can surely get close to it. I actually had fever that day, but still loved getting wet in the splashes of water :)
Have lunch at the hotel or a local restaurant, and then head out to one of the most significant monasteries in the history of Sikkim - Pemayangtse monastery. It's actually rather close to the Elgin hotel and you can even walk up to it.
Later in the day, enjoy the town by walking around the local market, interacting with the locals and by just chilling in the back garden with your cup of chai, or maybe some local beer.
As always, start your day early in the morning so that you can make it on time to Darjeeling to use some time exploring the city as well. Don't rush if you are tired (which you will be) because the journey to Darjeeling is in one word - exhausting!
I was actually down with fever when I got up in the morning, so the trip was even worse. The roads are almost non-existent after a point even after you enter West Bengal. Except an interesting incident when the border patrol guard rejected my passport and insisted on a voter ID card, there wasn't anything memorable about this journey. I believe we passed a few beautiful gardens too, but I was too weak to look outside!
Anyway, once you reach Darjeeling, check into your hotel and head out to the Mall Road to get a quick introduction to the city. By the way, did you know that Darjeeling was originally a part of Sikkim and was loaned to the British? When India gained independence, the King of Sikkim wrote to the GOI requesting that their territory be handed back to them. And what did we do? Oh...we ignored it.
Even today Darjeeling is far closer to Sikkim in language, culture and people, just more aggressive - or so I’ve heard. In fact when I asked if Sikkim skill wanted Darjeeling back, the answer was a no - they were worried about the trouble the region would bring with it!
Where to stay?
I stayed at the The Elgin - again a heritage property and like the others in Gangtok and Pelling, I can safely recommend this one as well. The view of the city from my room was simply to die for - so if you stay here, do ask for a room which overlooks the valley.
I ate most of my meals here as well and the food was good too. Eating here almost feels like eating in pre-independence India with the British!
Start your day at 3am and by 4am you must be out and on your way to the Tiger Hill. No, this is a different Tiger Hill than the one in Kargil, and this one is famous for gorgeous views of the mountains, including Kanchenjunga and Mount Everest (on a clear day). As promised, the views are indeed captivating from up there. In fact I saw Kanchenjunga for the first (and only) time from here and so would forever be indebted to this place.
I've been told that the jams here can get so bad that it can take hours to get down. Thankfully, I was there in the non-touristy season and had no such challenges.
Once you are down, eat some English-style breakfast and then head out to the railway station for a ride in the toy-train. You can ride in a steam engine as well as a diesel engine train, though during non-touristy season, the frequency is fairly limited.
Later, head out to a tea garden to drink the 'best tea in the world' - as the locals prefer to call it. It takes a while for chai drinkers to appreciate the taste of real tea, but it can certainly grow on you easily.
Come back to the city in the evening and explore the markets, and the lively streets.
On the final day, head out to the airport at Bagdogra based on your flight time! I know it will be difficult to say goodbye to this beautiful region, but then you must certainly plan to come back again to explore the northern part of the state which I didn't explore at all due to excessive rains there.