After spending a few days in Darjeeling it was time to head further into the foothills of the Himalayas. Sikkim lies just 20 km north of Darjeeling and is the gateway for adventures in the mountains. A permit is required to visit Sikkim and can easily be attained in Darjeeling. There are permits for different regions in Sikkim and the further you want to travel into the mountains the more money it will cost. Our permit was free since we only had time to just cross the border into south Sikkim. It took us an hour and a half to get our permit and involved going to two government offices, the FRO just down the hill from the clock tower and then the magistrate office past the sumo stands.
We also found out when we left Darjeeling that we could only enter Sikkim in two locations, Melli and Rangpo. Our first stop was a small village called Ravangla so we decided to enter Sikkim at Melli. Unfortunately there were no direct sumos going to Ravangla so we had to travel there in small segments. We got dropped off in Melli and crossed the border on foot. We reached a check point where we had to register with the government. Since there was no share taxi stand at the border we had to wave down a passing vehicle. It took us about 20 minutes before we got picked up and the guys at the border crossing really helped us out, talking to every car passing by and asking them if they had two extra seats.
We caught a sumo to the village of Namchi but only stayed long enough to catch the next jeep ride to Ravangla. We checked into the 10 Zin Hotel right next to the jeep stands but we should have looked for a better one. Ravangla is home to supposedly the only Bon Monastery in Sikkim, , but when arrived for a visit it seemed to be more Buddhist than Bon. The monks were friendly and welcomed us to take pictures of them chanting inside the monastery. One even asked us to help him with his Facebook page.
There is also a giant Buddha statue in the Buddha Park (50 inr) in Ravangla and another monastery near by. The Meanam Wildlife Sanctuary (50 inr) is another nice place to go for a hike and escape the noise of the city. There are red pandas close to the top of the hill but that involves climbing close to 1000 meters and being incredibly lucky. When we asked a local hiking if he saw one he told us he saw one two months ago. The main street in Ravangla runs along the ridge towards the wildlife refuge and the Buddha Park so good views of the mountains can be had virtually everywhere in town. Getting transport out of town is easy but don’t expect the local bus to run every day. We ended up getting a ride to Gangtok (130 inr) in a share taxi.
Gangtok is the capital and main transport hub for Sikkim. It is also a nice place to spend a few days exploring. Most of the buses terminate a block down the mountain from M G Marg, the main commercial center. A block further up than that is Tibet Road where most of the budget accommodations are located. The Ridge is located at the top and offers some spectacular views of the surrounding mountains, when it’s clear that is.
Gangtok has several Tibetan Buddhist monasteries with the most famous being Enchey Monastery built in the mid 1800s. The Institute of Tibetology has a lot of great information explaining the beliefs, traditions, gods, and historic figures in Tibetan Buddhism. It is located 2km south of the main jeep stand. The entrance is located to the right of the rope way where all of the prayer flags are. The Doduci Chorten and monastery is also a short walk away and worth a visit. Unfortunately the rope way is merely a tourist attraction worth skipping and doesn’t go all the way to the top of the Ridge like all the maps show.
While we were in Gangtok it happened to be at the same time the Red Panda Festival was going on. There was a stage set up at the end of M G Marg with bands and performers playing all day. There was also another area where traditional food stalls were set up by the various tribes around Sikkim. We stumbled across the Limboo tribe and found then to be very welcoming. They introduced us to Tongba, an alcoholic concoction brewed with local organic grains served in a bamboo cup and sipped through bamboo straws. The harder, distilled version of this was Lokse which is akin to the rice wine we had in Vietnam last winter. Momos or dumplings were served in nearly every stall along with local sausages and meats. We were also strongly encouraged to dance with the locals while a few tipsy men kept the beat on drums.
Perhaps the best part of the Red Panda Festival was the opportunity to go paragliding. It was something Rachel and I had never done before so when the opportunity presented itself we went for it. The platform we took off from was several kilometers outside of Gangtok and a few people from the tourism board in Sikkim went too. The starting elevation was around 2,100m and we finished at around 1,100m well below Gangtok.
Sikkim was definitely a highlight of India for us and we wish we could have stayed longer. We met several people who raved about the Kangchenjunga Ridge Trek and we heard the mountains further north towards Tibet were stunning as well. It’s a place we’ll head back to again with more time alloted for trekking.