Sikkim is a small State with a Big impact! Home to Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world at 8586 meters, Sikkim is a great destination for a quite holiday. It's the home of over 250 monasteries of mostly the Nyingma-pa sect. Sikkim is also rich in flora and fauna. About 450 varieties of orchids, over 600 species of butterflies, 500 species of birds along with red pandas, snow leopards and other animals are found here. The cuisine is also unique and read on for a recipe for the tantalizing Momos!
If you have a week, I would suggest Gangtok, Tsomgo Lake and a farm stay at Yangsum farm in west Sikkim.
The first place to start your holiday would be from Gangtok. The capital of Sikkim is also the largest city in the state. It’s a melting pot of different cultures. Being on the lower Himalayas, it offers some breathtaking views of Kanchenjunga. While there are many places to stay in Gangtok, Hidden Forest Retreat is a good choice. It is spread over three acres of lush green garden with all kinds of trees, bamboos, ferns, flowers, shrubs, lilies and orchids with a variety of birds and butterflies making this their home. The retreat is an extension of the flower nursery which specializes in Tissue Culture, breeding Orchids, Lilies, and Azaleas for over two decades.
You can start your Gangtok sojourn with Do-Drul Chorten. Built in 1945 by Trulshi Rimpoche, Do-drul Chorten is one of the most important attractions in Gangtok. The beautiful milky white stupa has a revered golden Shikhara containing 108 prayer wheels which makes a highly religious place. Do-drul chorten contains the complete mandala set of Dorjee Phurba (Bajra Kilaya), a set of Kan-gyur relics (Holy books), and many other holy objects including complete Zung (mantras).
The flower exhibition centre is worth a visit. A variety of multi-colored orchids, seasonal flowers as well as bonsai are on display. The entire exhibition is in a well-planned, enclosed greenhouse and is an excellent place to observe the flora or take photos.
Namgyal Institute of Tibetology is another interesting place to visit. The Institute is located in Deorali, to the south of central Gangtok. It promotes research in Buddhism, art, culture and history of Tibetan cultural region. The verandah inside is adorned with a magnificent painting of four celestial guardians kings located in the four directions of Mount Meru. The museum has a precious repository of ancient manuscripts and books on Mahayana Buddhism. The star attraction here is a silver image of Manjushri - the Bodisattva of knowledge.
After Gangtok, I would suggest a visit to the mystical Tsomgo Lake on the ancient silk route. It is at a height of 12000 feet and on the Gangtok-Nathula highway which forms a part of the old trade route from India to China. During the winters the lake becomes frozen. A temple of Lord Shiva is constructed on the Lakeside. It is said that in olden times, lamas used to study the color of the water of the lake and forecast the future. If the water of the lake had a dark tinge, it foreshadowed a year of trouble and unrest in the State. The most fun way of spending time at the lake is to take a Yak ride. Visit the nearby village and have a sumptuous meal of traditional steamed dumplings or “Momo” as they are popularly known as.
A farm stay in rural Sikkim is a fabulous way to experience the land. I would suggest 3-4 days stay at Yangsum farm, located in west Sikkim. The 135 km ride from Gangtok will take you 5 hours. . The farm is managed by Thendup Tashi Bhutia, first cousin of the ace footballer Baichung. The farmhouse was built in 1833 and remodeled in 1966. The organic farm consists of open mixed forest of pine, Himalayan alder, chestnut, magnolia, rhododendrons, cherry and others. Cardamom, avocados, oranges, bananas, pears, apricots, mangoes, cauliflower, cabbage, tomatoes and peas are also grown. During the cultivating season maize, paddy, millet, potatoes, ginger, turmeric, and sweet potatoes are produced.
You can start the first day with a lovely outdoor breakfast facing Kanchenjunga. Go for a long countryside walk. Thendup is a great guide and will ensure you an informative as well as enjoyable trip. During the walk, you will encounter walls in some villages with intricate paintings. These are ancient prayer walls and worth a look at.
A full day sightseeing tour of nearby places is suggested for the second day. Thendup will be gracious enough to pack a nice picnic lunch and you can have it on a helipad! The helipad is situated at Pelling. You get spectacular views of the Mount Kanchendzonga, the Guardian Deity of Sikkim.
After lunch at the helipad, proceed towards Pemayangtse Monastery. It is the most important monastery of the Nyingmapa order and was built in the late seventeenth century by Lama Lhatsum Chenpo one of the revered Lamas to have performed the consecration ceremony of the first Chogyal (religious monarch) of Sikkim. The monastery houses numerous religious idols & other objects of worship. Donot miss visiting the top floor which houses a wooden structure depicting the Maha Guru’s heavenly palace (Sang-tok-palri), considered a masterpiece created by Late Dungzin Rimpoche.
The final destination for the day can be Rabdentse ruins. Rabdentse was the second capital of Sikkim & was established in the late seventeenth century by the second Chogyal of Sikkim. It was abandoned towards the end of the eighteenth century because of the threat posed by Nepal & the capital was shifted to Tumlong. You need to trek about 2 kms from the main road near Pemayangtse monastery through a nature reserve to reach it. The reserve is a sanctuary for 106 species of birds like the Steppe eagle, Chestnut-crowned Warbler, Rufous-capped Babbler, Black-eared Shrike Babbler and Dark-breasted Rosefinch. At Rabdentse, you can have a look at the king’s bed room, assembly hall and kitchen, public courtyard and other palace guards’ rooms.
Sikkim is a mountainous region and all trips are by road. Some people can feel dizzy and uneasy during the hairpin bends up the hills! The best way to handle this is by carrying some chewing gum and pop corn.
Don't forget to read a travelogue in the next page with a personal account of this itenarary.
Our family went on a week long holiday to Sikkim and it turned out to be one our best vacations ever. It all started when my wife’s cousin confirmed the date of his wedding in Calcutta. Since we were travelling all the way from Bangalore to Calcutta, we thought why not explore the north east. We zeroed in on Sikkim! After the wedding reception on Sunday night, we took the Darjeeling Mail to arrive at New Jalpaiguri station on the morning of 16th. New Jalpaiguri which means olives in Bengali, is the sister city of Siliguri and connects Darjeeling to the plains of west Bengal through the world famous Darjeeling Himalayan Railways. We had our transport waiting for us at the station. After a short break at Siliguri where we had our breakfast, we commenced our 4 hour drive to Gangtok on National Highway Number 31A.
We meandered around the scenic hills and over the serene looking Teesta River and finally arrived at Gangtok for lunch. We had made our bookings at the Hidden Forest Retreat. As we checked into our hotel, we realized that the name did justice to the place. It was spread over three acres of lush green garden with all kinds of trees, bamboos, ferns, flowers, shrubs, lilies and orchids with a variety of birds and butterflies making this their home. The retreat is an extension of the flower nursery which specializes in Tissue Culture, breeding Orchids, Lilies, and Azaleas for over two decades. The entire Retreat is connected with stone paved pathways which lead up and down the hill into the dense forest and orchid nursery.
After a sumptuous lunch, we took a short drive around Gangtok. The capital of Sikkim is also the largest city in the state. It’s a melting pot of different cultures. Situated at an altitude of 1700 m above sea level, Gangtok lies in the Eastern side of Sikkim and is the headquarters of the eastern district. Being on the lower Himalayas, it offers some breathtaking views of Kanchenjunga.
Our first destination was Do-Drul Chorten. Built in 1945 by Trulshi Rimpoche, Do-drul Chorten is one of the most important attractions in Gangtok. The beautiful milky white stupa has a revered golden Shikhara containing 108 prayer wheels which makes a highly religious place. Do-drul chorten contains the complete mandala set of Dorjee Phurba (Bajra Kilaya), a set of Kan-gyur relics (Holy books), and many other holy objects including complete Zung (mantras). Two huge statues of Guru Rimpoche (Guru Padamsambhava) adorn the side of Do-drul Chorten that further add to the beauty of the stupa.
Next, we proceeded towards the flower exhibition centre. A variety of multi-colored orchids, seasonal flowers as well as bonsai were on display. The entire exhibition is in a well-planned, enclosed greenhouse and is an excellent place to observe the flora or take photos. The flower shows in different seasons focus on the specific flowers that flourish at that time.
It was just 6 and already dark! So we decided to skip the other attractions and went back to our hidden forest retreat to call it a day.
We woke up at 6 in the morning on 17th, to get ready for a visit we had been anticipating for quite a while. We had submitted our identity proofs and photograph a week in advance to get a permit to visit this place. We were headed for the famed Tsomgo lake at a height of 12000 feet and on the ancient silk route! Tsomgo lake is situated 35 Kilometers from Gangtok, on the Gangtok-Nathula highway which forms a part of the old trade route from India to China. Before 1962 caravans of mules carrying goods used to ply on this route. The stretch of the route just below Karponang, 15 Kilometers from Gangtok was particularly dangerous. Its steepness resulted in many mules slipping to their death into the ravine below. During the winters the lake becomes frozen. A temple of Lord Shiva is constructed on the Lakeside. It is said that in olden times, lamas used to study the color of the water of the lake and forecast the future. If the water of the lake had a dark tinge, it foreshadowed a year of trouble and unrest in the State.
The journey to the lake was very scenic through the snow capped mountains. My 3 year old daughter squealed with delight as soon as we reached our destination. As I turned around to find out what had attracted her, I spotted a pair of Yaks! A couple of Sikkemese Sherpa approached us and offered a ride on the yaks around the lake. My daughter and I rode ‘Shamu’, while my wife got a ride from ‘Hritik’! The Sherpa had indeed named his yak after the famed Bollywood actor after watching “Kaho na pyar hai”. Hritik has been doing the rounds of the lake for the past 9 years after getting a year’s training!
After getting back to our hotel, we had a quick lunch and then proceeded towards Yangsum, a village in west Sikkim and our abode for the rest of the week. The 135 km ride took us 5 hours to cover. We took a break at Jorthang, a small town located in a plain landscape of South Sikkim. In fact we were told it's the only town which has a plain landscape in the whole of Sikkim. The town is known for annual Maghey Sakrati, the important fair festival of the Nepali ethnic Community of Sikkim. Our next halt was Rinchengpong, a small village in the hills of West Sikkim, 6,000 ft above sea level. None other than Rabindranath Tagore had spent a couple of days in this getaway in the 1920s. Rabindranath Smriti Van, the house where the poet stayed and enjoyed the scenic view of the Himalayas, is just 2 km from Rinchenpong bazaar. It is a major tourist draw and has been maintained well. About 3 km from Rinchenpong bazaar is the Resum monastery. Located at the junction of three hills, this place of worship was built almost two centuries ago by a local Lepcha (original inhabitant) and is still under private supervision. The place offers an excellent view of the mountains, especially of the sunrise from behind the Kanchenjunga. A 30-minute walk through the jungle will take you to a popular tourist attraction of Rinchenpong — The Heritage House. The stone and wood construction, which came up in 1860, was used to host the British governor, a regular visitor. In the semi-darkness, the interiors reveal multi-cultural influences, including wall paintings and wood carvings of the traditional Tibetan school. One of the oldest monasteries of Sikkim, the Gey-Sanga-Yangtze Gumpha, is also a walk away from the main bazaar. It houses a statue of Ati Buddha with a lady embracing him. This unique religious icon of the Nyingma sect of tantrik Buddhism symbolizes the power of lust.
We arrived at our home stay at Yangsum farm by 6pm just after dusk. We were greeted by Thendup Tashi Bhutia, our gracious host. Thendup who hails from the Tsechu Tharpa family manages the 60 acre farm with his wife. They have a lovely six month old daughter Mingur Yangden which means “forever lucky”. Thendup has a famous first cousin, Baichung Bhutia, India’s most famous footballer. The farmhouse was built in 1833 and remodeled in 1966.
We had a couple of hours rest in the beautiful cottage which was furnished in the traditional Sikkimese style before dinner. Dinner was served in an exotic and mystically furnished room in traditional style. The room was full of family photographs, albums, porcelain ware, dolls and toys. My daughter jumped out of my arms as soon as she saw the room and it was like letting loose a cat among the pigeons. Her immediate fancy was a pair of stuffed bears-mother & baby. She ensured the two were served prior to having anything!
After the tiresome road trip from Gangtok, we woke up long after day break on 18th. We had a lovely outdoor breakfast facing Kanchenjunga. Thendup took us on a nice walk shortly afterwards. The countryside was beautiful. We saw lot of road work happening providing employment to the rural folks. The Govt. of India has started a new programme, namely the Prime Minister’s Gramodya Sadak Yojana for rural connectivity. Under this programme the Govt. has mainly constructed footpaths, foot bridges like suspension bridges, steel foot bridges, RCC foot bridges, log bridges etc. in rural areas for inter-village communication.
The government has also focused on providing financial assistance to the rural poor for construction of dwelling houses We saw a long stretch of wall in one of the villages which had intricate paintings. Thendup told us that these were ancient prayer walls. We also saw some old heritage houses build in traditional style on the way.
Soon our legs were acting funny and famished, we returned to the farm for our lunch. The afternoon siesta extended to well past sunset. And after waking up we went straight for dinner! We were delightfully surprised with the menu as it was local cuisine. It was a heady mix of a clear soup called Thukpa and Steamed dumplings or Momos as they are popularly known as. Momos were served with fiery Sikkimese tomato chutney. My wife was keen to try a hand at making Momos and so we got a recipe.
Ingredients required to make a set of 30 Momos were 4 cups of Wheat flour, Choice of vegetables, 2 large Onions, chopped, 1 thumb-sized Ginger, finely chopped and 1 spoon salt
We woke up on 19th at dawn to show our daughter milking of the cows in the farm. Draped in blankets we looked like 3 ghosts as we made our way across the farm to the cow shed. Arundhati also played with the goats, ducks and hen in the pen nearby. After breakfast we started for our full day sightseeing tour. We had packed a nice picnic lunch and our driver took us through a scenic route, where we stopped at every waterfall on the way!
Our first stop was at the helipad at Pelling, a quite village. The driver couldn’t have selected a better spot for our picnic lunch. We got spectacular views of the Mount Kanchendzonga, the Guardian Deity of Sikkim. Situated at an altitude of about 2105 mtrs/ 6840 ft., Pelling was originally known as Pemalingpa. The name Pemalingpa is derived from Pemalingpa monastery. There are many beautiful waterfalls situated amidst the green forests nearby Pelling.
Our final destination for the day was the Rabdentse ruins. Rabdentse was the second capital of Sikkim & was established in the late seventeenth century by the second Chogyal of Sikkim. It was abandoned towards the end of the eighteenth century because of the threat posed by Nepal & the capital was shifted to Tumlong. The Rabdentse Palace lies in ruins now. We had to trek about 2 kms from the main road near Pemayangtse monastery through a nature reserve to reach it. The reserve is a sanctuary for 106 species of birds like the Steppe eagle, Chestnut-crowned Warbler, Rufous-capped Babbler, Black-eared Shrike Babbler and Dark-breasted Rosefinch. The ruins are now being preserved by the Archaeological Survey of India & have been declared as a monument. After the restoration one can now visit the king’s bed room, assembly hall and kitchen, public courtyard and other palace guards’ room etc.
We returned to our farm by 5 in the evening to cherish our final hours in Sikkim. We were leaving the next morning back to the urban chaos of Bangalore. So we made the best of the evening by sipping in the ambience over a bonfire. After dinner, Thendup was kind enough to show us all the photographs taken by his family as well as his guests over the last few years.
It was an incredible holiday, one of the best we have ever had.
For a travelogue on Rajasthan's Camel Fairs and Brahma Temple, visit Pushkar.