Travel to North East India - Sikkim


Itinerary, tips, what to shop for, where to eat and things to know before you go for a 10 day trip to North East India including the states of Meghalaya, West Bengal and Sikkim.



The North East has been blessed with natural beauty - the towering Himalayas, the clear rivers, white waterfalls, varied wildlife, diverse fauna, clear blue skies, fresh hilly air, and clouds. Ever since my first visit in 2009, I had been craving to take Raj there. And finally, we made it this year. And we have some more trips planned based on our current experience.

This travel post (like all my travel posts) is divided into 3 parts so that I can detail out our itinerary, the sights to see, places to eat perhaps, our plans and misses, and how I would replan it for the future.

Our overall itinerary:


Day 1 - Travel from Bangalore to Guwahati by flight. Then drive down to Shillong.
Day 2 - Sohra (Cherrapunji) sightseeing
Day 3 - Mawlyngong and Dawki
Day 4 - Drive back to Guwahati. Fly to Bagdogra. Hire a cab to Darjeeling.
Day 5 - Kalimpong sightseeing
Day 6 - Darjeeling sightseeing
Day 7 - Take a cab to Gangtok.
Day 8 - Nathu La Pass
Day 9 - Gangtok sightseeing
Day 10 - Take a cab to Bagdogra. Fly back to Bangalore.


This post details our travel and stays in the state of Sikkim. Read about our stay in Meghalaya and Darjeeling.

Sikkim

Sikkim was one of the last princely states to join the Indian union. It is a small, but very beautiful state located in North East India. Gangtok is the capital city. Located in East Himalayas, Sikkim is home to Mount Kanchenjunga, the third-highest peak in the world. Sikkim shares its borders with Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan.

Sikkim is the first state in India to have 100% organic produce.

View on the way to Nathula



Day 7: Travel to Gangtok



The drive from Darjeeling to Gangtok took us 3hours. The traffic was almost nil as it was a festival day, else, we've been told to expect the drive to take 4 hours or more.
We booked GoZo cabs (highly recommended) for the drive. We were picked up right on time by Mr. Bikash Chhetri (+91 7029706909/7797836186), and driven safely to our destination - Summit Denzong Hotel on Kazi road. The taxi was slightly more expensive as Mr. Chnetri had to be called from Siliguri to drive us, as most of the locals were unavailable due to the festival. But we didn't mind the extra cost as the drive was comfortable.

I suggest not planning much for the first day if you are driving in from either Darjeeling, Siliguri or Bagdogra, as traffic can be unpredictable and you may miss your appointment.
Instead, use this day to book your tours for the rest of your stay in Gangtok.

We reached the hotel at 11am, which was a lot sooner than their check time of 2pm. So, we parked our luggage at the reception and decided to check out MG Road. Read about my review of Hotel Summit Denzong here.  The hotel was a short downhill climb that took us around 10 mins. The walk uphill was a different story. The distance is short, but the hill is very steep and definitely not meant for the elderly.

MG Road in Gangtok is the best MG Road ever! The only word that comes to mind for this road is Cute! It is a wide stretch of road that is blocked for vehicular traffic. It is lined with benches and bushes in the center with shops and restaurants on both sides. Vegetarian and Non-vegetarian food is easily available here. Local food is predominantly non-vegetarian, but there are several North and South Indian restaurants that have vegetarian food. We bought souvenirs, had lunch and checked out the local market at Lal Bazaar. Lal Bazaar is a multistorey local market that has fresh produce on the lower levels and clothes, shoes and other things on the higher levels. There were some unique and indigenous vegetables and ferns available there that I have never seen or tasted. We picked up some glass noodles really cheap.

View from our room


MG Road

Day 8: Nathula, Tsomgo Lake, Baba Mandir, and Flower Show


We chose to go to Nathula pass on our second day in Gangtok. We had prebooked this tour from Darjeeling through Tenzing (+91 9733147740/ 9434257036) from Patola Travels. He was very helpful and organized a Mahindra Xylo to take us around, very comfortable.



Nathula is a mountain pass up in the Himalayas that connects India to the Tibet Autonomous Region. This Indo-China pass was a part of the old Silk Route. It was opened up for trade again in 2006. Only Indian nationals are allowed to the pass, that too, after obtaining a permit from Gangtok. The pass is open for public from Wednesday to Saturday, plan accordingly. The pass is situated at an altitude of 4310m, which is almost half the height of Mount Everest. Due to the altitude, the air is thinner up there. People with hypertension or hypotension may experience dizziness or other symptoms. Talk to your doctor before visiting. Those with altitude sickness may also need medication. If you feel extremely unwell, inform your taxi driver or the army personnel at the pass and they will take you to the closest medical center. The weather at those altitudes is also very unpredictable. When we were there it was 2 degrees C and sunny. But by the time we left, the weather was already getting cloudy and we got rain on the way back. Go prepared for rain and cold. Wear warm clothing, shoes and carry a cap and gloves if possible. Also, carry either a raincoat or an umbrella. It wasn't snowing when we went, but there was snow on the mountain peaks. Once it starts snowing in winter, the pass is open for public only if the weather is good that day and the Army allows you. There have been instances when they have turned back tourists because of bad weather.

This is one place that is more about the journey than the destination. The pass just had 2 buildings, one Indian and one Chinese and a small platform where you can see vehicles entering and leaving. But it does arouse a sense of patriotism when you see the harsh conditions that the Army lives in to protect our borders. Photography is prohibited in certain areas, please respect it, else you may be forced to delete them by the Army. There is a stall where you can buy a certificate that says you were there.

The journey through the winding roads with a row of green hills and clouds below us was breathtaking. At one point you can see Darjeeling, ask your driver to show you. There are lakes on the way - manmade and natural, waterfalls along the road and just plain scenic beauty wherever you turn your eyes. Since we went in October, we saw fall colors and they were so beautiful - shrubs of all colors lined our way - red, green, yellow, orange and brown. That's a sight you rarely see in India. Also, to keep you entertained, Border Road Organization (BRO) has painted witty quotes and proverbs along the route.

There are also Army bunkers and training centers along the way where photography is prohibited, please refrain from clicking photos.

Permit:


  • Only Indian nationals are allowed to visit Nathula. 
  • To obtain the permit one needs to submit 1 passport sized photograph and a copy of a Government issued ID proof like election card or passport. Aadhar was not accepted, so carry some other document as well.
  • The documents have to be submitted by the agent organizing your tour one day before the planned travel within 10am.
  • The permit is per vehicle as well and we heard that there is a limit of the number of vehicles allowed per day, hence the travel agents have come up with a sharing option. More about that later. Your taxi driver will come with the permit when he picks you up for the tour.
  • Please carry your original document too, the army folks at the booth, ask for it.
  • Private cars/Self-drive cars may not get the permit, please check with at the Tourist Information Center on MG Road. We did see 2 motorbikes though, but we also saw them frown when someone wanted to get a permit for a Zoomcar (I don't think they got it). The roads are narrow and due to landslides in the region, there are parts of the road that literally don't exist, hence I believe the discouragement to non-local folks.


Firstly, I mentioned that the documents have to be submitted by 10am the previous day and we only reached Gangtok by 11am and yet we got the permit. Mr. Tenzing made it possible. We sent him all the required documents over WhatsApp and he managed to get us the permit. He was very resourceful and thus, we recommend him. He got us the permit when the driver, Arjun, came to pick us up. We also paid him then for the tour.

Secondly, about the shared option - the Xylo took us as close as 3kms from Nathula. At this point, we were asked to move to a different vehicle with another family for the short 3km drive and that vehicle had our permit. We didn't mind this as the ride was very short and our cost of the trip reduced to almost 60% because of this. Since the terrain is not very hospitable, small cars are not allowed to go to Nathula, only SUVs and 4 wheel drives are allowed. An exclusive car for just the two of us for the entire tour (including the cost of permit) was around Rs. 9000 when we went. We heard the spike in prices was due to the influx of tourists for the holiday season. Mr. Tenzing arranged the same for us for Rs. 5000. In nonpeak season, the rates may be lower, call up different travel agents before finalizing. The sharing option isn't bad if it cuts your costs.

After the pass, we moved to our designated taxi, the Xylo and continued in it for the rest of the tour. We went to Baba Mandir next.

Baba Mandir is a temple dedicated to a late Army soldier - Harbhajan Singh who died in 1968. The army personnel in the region believe his spirit protects them in the inhospitable and harsh conditions of the Himalayas. There is a canteen near the temple that sells veg momos and tea. There is also a souvenir shop.

A little beyond the parking lot is a beautiful waterfall and a huge white statue of Lord Shiva. The mountains were covered with shrubs of all colors, the waterfall cascaded down to a squeaky clean river and there were clouds moving high up on the mountains. It was a beautiful and calming spot that we just loved!

After stuffing ourselves with the momos and tea, we headed towards Tsomgo lake or Changu lake. This is a sacred natural lake that changes its color with the season. The lake is serene and is surrounded by mountains. The lake is frozen in winter and the mountains get covered with snow. In summer, this snow melts and feeds the lake. You can opt for a boat ride, sit on a yak and take photos or ride the cable car across the lake. The cable car is operational from 8am to 3pm. Let your taxi driver know in advance if you are planning for this. Tsomgo lake is open to foreign nationals as well, but they need a special permit to visit.

We stayed for a short while here as it started raining. We then headed for a lunch of hot Maggi noodles and tea.

Since we completed our tour early, by around 4pm, we asked Arjun to drop us near Whitehall and went to see the flower show. If you are used to large shows like the Lalbagh Flower Show in Bangalore, you may be underwhelmed by this one. But the flowers are different and the ticket is only Rs.10, so no harm in visiting it. From there we walked to our hotel.

Fall colors near Baba Mandir

Shiva statue near Baba Mandir


Waterfall near Baba Mandir

Tsomgo Lake

Tsomgo Lake

Day 9: Gangtok


We decided not to book any tour for the last day of our vacation. We listed down just a few spots that we wanted to see and took a local taxi to them. Since our hotel room gave us a mesmerizing view of Mount Kanchenjunga, we did not plan for any of the viewpoints. Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world, is famous for hiding behind a veil of clours. Remember, how I said that we barely got any view of it from Darjeeling? Sikkim was a little better. We got amazing view of the mountain at 5.30am. By 7am, the cloud cover was back.

We went to Ganesh Tok and Enchey Monastery. While the zoo was right next to Ganesh Tok, we couldn't visit it as it is closed on Thursdays. Plan accordingly.

Things to see/do in Gangtok:


  1. MG Road - Stroll down this pretty road in the heart of the city. Shop/eat while here.
  2. Ganesh Tok - Temple dedicated Lord Ganesh that has a spectacular view of the hills. Dress up in the local Bhaku dress and take pics.
  3. Zoo - Visit the zoo to see Himalayan animals local to the region.
  4. Hanuman Tok - Temple dedicated to Lord Hanuman that is also famous for the view it provides.
  5. Tashi Viewpoint - Offers a beautiful view of Mount Kanchenjunga.
  6. Enchey Monastery - Buddhist monastery in the heart of Gangtok.
  7. Institute of Tibetology
  8. Banjhakri Waterfall
  9. Ranka/Lingdum Monastery
  10. Rumtek Monastery - This is almost 22kms from Gangtok. It is the biggest monastery in Sikkim.
  11. Do Drul Chorten Stupa
  12. Gangtok Ropeway - You can glide over the city in a cable car.
  13. Bakthang Falls
  14. Helicopter rides - You can take a 15mins joy ride in a 5 seater helicopter for 15 minutes. The joy ride costs Rs.9000 for the entire helicopter. You can also book a 1-hour helicopter ride to East, West and North Sikkim. The longer ride seats 4 and costs Rs.18,000. Photography is prohibited.

Flower Show

Ganesh Tok

Dress up in local clothes at Ganesh Tok
Enchey Monastery

Window at Enchey Monastery

Beautiful walking trails

Day 10: Travel to Bagdogra and Fly back to Bangalore


Our flight to Bangalore was from Bagdogra International Airport in West Bengal. The drive from Gangtok to Bagdogra takes around 4-5 hours. We were asked to start at 6am for a 12pm flight to account for the traffic on the way. Luckily we didn't encounter any traffic, however, the bad roads definitely slowed us down. We contacted Mr. Chhetri to book our taxi to Bagdogra. He sent Mr. Gagan (+91 7872709898) to drive us to Bagdogra. We started at 7am and due to the holiday season, we did not get much traffic. Mr. Gagan is a friendly, jovial and enthusiastic person who kept us entertained the entire drive with stories of the region. I highly recommend him and Mr. Chhetri if you want an intercity ride in the region around Siliguri, Bagdogra, Darjeeling, and Gangtok.


If we were to replan:

  • Number of days - 2.5 days is definitely not enough to absorb the beauty of Sikkim. If we were to replan, we'd add in at least 3 more days to the trip and include a visit to North Sikkim at least. North Sikkim houses the beautiful sacred lake Gurudongmar and the beautiful Yumthang valley. To visit these places, you are suggested to stay at Lachen and Lachung respectively. They are 6-7 hours drive away from Gangtok. If you have more days at your disposal, you can visit the char dham replicas at Namchi in South Sikkim or trek through Khangchendongza National Park in West Sikkim, a UNESCO world heritage site. 
  • Time of travel - The ideal time to visit North Sikkim seems to be in Summers when the weather is more pleasant, hence we would plan for that. Also, the rhododendrons would be in bloom then.

What to buy:

  • Buddhist artifacts - There are several shops around MG Road that sell these.
  • Tea - Sikkim has only one tea plantation at Temi in South Sikkim. You can buy this tea at Chai Chun. You can also buy Darjeeling tea here.
  • Wooden masks
  • Crockery with dragon designs
  • Glass noodles, Chhurpi cheese, local vegetables, and ferns.
1) Souvenirs, 2) Chhurpi, 3) Local fern 4) Local vegetable

Where to eat:

  • Nimtho - Famous for local cuisine among locals and tourists. It also has a decent array of vegetarian food on the menu. It was closed for Dashain when we were there, hence missed eating here.
  • Baker's Cafe - Head here for a dose of baked goodies - savory and sweet, They also serve burgers, pasta, teas, and coffee. One of our favorite places to eat and enjoy the view. Their Mushroom Puff was heavenly.
  • Rasoi - Veg restaurant above the Tourist Information Center. The food here was good, however, the service could be improved.
  • Laxmi Sweets Bhandar - We satisfied our craving for Masala Dosa here. Very good dosas here.
  • Roll House - Head over here for a wide variety of vegetarian rolls. Try out their Aloo Dum with Sel Roti, we did and loved it.
  • Taste of Tibet seemed famous with the non-vegetarians. 
  • You will also get momos, chowmein and thukpas in a lot of places and that is considered local cuisine. 
Goodies at Baker's Cafe
1) Rose tea at Chai Chun, 2) Baked goodies from Baker's Cafe, 3) Maggi near Tsomgo Lake, 4) Burger at Baker's Cafe, 5) Dosa at Laxmi Sweets Bhandar, 6) Aloo Dum and Sel Roti at Roll House


Things to know before you go:

  • Sunset happens very early in Sikkim . Expect it around 4-5pm in the winter months. Sunrise is early too, it was sunny by 5.30am in October. 
  • Restaurants close early - 7.30pm to 10pm. Head for an early dinner.
  • Language is not a problem at all. English is the official language of the state and almost everyone speaks Hindi.
  • Google maps may show you that the distance between two places is very short, but be aware that these may be uphill and may involve long steep staircases.
  • Sikkim is India's first organic state, so enjoy your chemical free food!
  • You will need a permit to visit Nathula. See above for details.
  • Weather in North Sikkim and at higher altitudes like Nathula is unpredictable, be prepared for cold and rain. The air around here is very thin, so if you have altitude sickness or blood pressure issues, talk to your doctor before visiting. Young children below the age of 6 are not allowed at Lake Gurudongmar.
  • Roads to North Sikkim may get snowed in for winter. Do not plan these areas for winter months.
  • Gangtok has an airport, but it was closed for commercial operation when we travelled.


Useful links:

Sikkim Tourism Website - http://sikkimtourism.gov.in/
Our favorite website to compare flights - https://www.cleartrip.com/
Our favorite website to book hotel - https://www.agoda.com/
GoZo cabs - https://www.gozocabs.com/

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