India’s North East is opening up to host an increasing number of travelers. The Dialogue Diaries™, an interview platform by Backpacking Series, is delighted to feature early explorers who have ventured inside the region. Jayashree Sengupta has lived the Sikkimese life. She shares a resident’s perspective in this Northeast India travel guide to Sikkim.
What stands out for you about Sikkim?
For 18 months, I worked as faculty at an engineering college (National Institute of Technology, Sikkim) in Ravangla. The stint allowed me the luxury to explore destinations at my own pace. I have lived in and visited various places in Sikkim and am totally in love with the state for its stunning natural beauty and friendly people.
I especially love the way Sikkim respects women. With almost zero gender bias, I rank it as one of the safest place to visit as a solo traveler. Indeed, a companion would be the cherry on the cake 🙂
How would you guide a fellow traveler to Sikkim, North East India?
Sikkim: A Quick Travel Guide
Sikkim is sparsely populated and is blessed with nature’s inexplicable touch. From lush green slopes to snow-capped mountains – you have it all here. Sikkim is popular for outdoor activities like paragliding, rafting and mountain biking. Then there are some lesser known but locally significant destinations like the Four Holy Caves and special places such as Hee-Bermiok and Rinchenpong for views of Mount Kanchendzonga.
The Himalayan state is divided into four administrative districts – North Sikkim, East Sikkim, West Sikkim, and South Sikkim. Needless to say each district offers numerous places of interest and things to do for a visitor. But North Sikkim remains my favorite and I recommend anyone traveling to Sikkim to keep it in their itinerary.
When to visit Sikkim?
If you are anything like me, visit Sikkim once in December and then in April. In December, you get to witness the traditional Chham dance, the clear skies, Temi Tea gardens, and experience the Himalayan winter.
Whereas in the flowering-season of April, you’d find it easier to get to the high altitude, clear-water lakes. Oh and few routes inside Sikkim cut across rhododendron sanctuaries and the flowered-streets just might keep you delighted!
How long to stay in Sikkim?
For visiting popular destinations of this relatively small state, I would say 10 days are sufficient. However, if you include an offbeat location, please add five more days. In other words, plan a vacation in Sikkim of about 1-2 weeks.
Would you like to offer a sample travel plan for Sikkim?
Sure! I have written few pieces about Sikkim on my blog. For instance, you might want to click here for a sample travel itinerary.
How to get to and move around in Sikkim?
Connecting bus services from the nearest railhead of Siliguri (West Bengal) operate once a day to known popular places in Sikkim like Gangtok, Namchi, Ravangla. Besides, you may now also fly into the recently-inaugurated high-altitude Pakyong airport – just off the state capital Gangtok.
Once in the Himalayan state, shared cabs are the most popular mode. Fares (ex-Gangtok) are displayed on large billboards across Gangtok and, especially for solo travelers I recommend using shared transport. If you choose to reserve a small car for a day of local sightseeing, it would cost a minimum of INR 2.5k to 3k.
What are some must-try culinary recommendations from Sikkim?
Sikkim is famous for momos (dumplings) and you must try it on your next visit. Generally, you’d come across many vegetarian and meat varieties of this delicacy anywhere you go in the state. For meat-lovers chicken and pork are popular options. However, in North Sikkim you are likely to find mostly vegetarian momos.
As a personal favorite, I am happy to recommend a delicacy called Phaley – a type of deep fried bread stuffed with meat of your choice or vegetables. Other than these, you are likely to come across a choice of soupy-noodles such as Thukpa. In the relatively cooler climate, all the food here is designed to keep you warm!
What’s the culture and lifestyle of Sikkim like?
Among others, Sikkim is home to three main communities namely Lepcha, Bhutia and Nepalese. You would notice a beautiful coexistence of Buddhism and Hinduism. As such, culture thrives in everyday life just as it does in the rest of India and it really powers up during the festivals.
For instance, during the Pang Lhabsol celebrations, people honor the guardian deity of Mount Kanchendzonga through well-choreographed masked Chham dance. Here’s an interesting bit – Sikkim is known for it’s colorful traditional attire which you can try for a small fee of INR 50 or so and pose for photo frames!
What are your recommended travel planning hacks for Sikkim, Northeast India?
Well, I always plan my own travels and you could do so too. The only thing I would recommend, as a rule, is for you to make Gangtok your base and then hire shared cabs to explore the places of your interest in any district.
When you ask around for cab rates, you are likely to get standard prices. People rarely quote a higher price or bargain. However, it always helps to research your options and I would recommend direct interaction with cab drivers. Chances are many Gangtok cabbies are active on social media!
What are your travel tips for visitors to Sikkim?
- Permits: Foreigners need to secure the permits before entering Sikkim and anyone, including Indians, need special permits for excursions into specific protected areas of Sikkim. Note by Backpacking Series: For more on the topic, click to read Travel Permits to Northeast India.
- Layered Clothing: Weather in the Sikkim hills can vary a lot, with temperatures ranging from 27C in South Sikkim to 2C in the North. Carry and wear layers of clothing.
- Learn the Language: Pick up useful words and phrases in local language, it helps a lot.
- Respect Local Culture: Avoid arguments with the locals, and importantly, never ever disrespect them or their culture. Note by Backpacking Series: For more on the topic, click to read Dos and Donts in North East India.
What’s your new bucket list for North East India?
At the moment, Meghalaya tops my bucket list. The name itself means an abode of clouds! Mix that with the legendary root bridges across a dense rain-forest, and some of the longest caves (such as Mawsmai). Caves are my new favorites – its just so fascinating to venture inside the earth’s surface!
I also want to visit Arunachal Pradesh and interact with the indigenous communities. Learning about people and their culture always remains high on my list.
Lastly, I would be keen to go back to Sikkim to do the Goechala Trek and experience Mount Kanchendzonga – up, close and personal.
What would you keep on your festival circuit of North East India and why?
My most imminent target is Meghalaya’s Wanagala and Nongkrem dance festival held in the first week of November. Other than that, I want to visit the Sangai Festival of Manipur end of November and then the Chham festival of Sikkim in the first week of December. Why? Simply because I never been and I’ve a high curiosity for these cultures 🙂
Think North East India
For those who do not know, North East India comprises of eight states – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, and Tripura. The Himalayas and its waters define the region’s terrain, climate, rich biodiversity, and the peculiar indigenous lifestyles her people follow.
That North East India is bound by Bhutan, Nepal, and Tibet to the north, Bangladesh to the south and west, and Myanmar to the east hints at the eclectic mix of cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity. This is where elements of Asia come together to do what they do best – cast a spell.
The region’s innate charms have remained under-explored. Travelers, who figure out how to backpack in North East India, find gems such as Dzükou Valley all to themselves. Importantly, the hospitable people of the region make sure that visitors take back the choicest of memories.
Meanwhile, pick up a copy of Backpacking North East India: A Curious Journey. It covers over two dozen places and attempts to answer the question – what is it like to travel in the region? Give it a read and make your own choices.
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Have you been to or live in India’s North East? Come, let’s talk about your experiences and help someone follow your footsteps! Click The Dialogue Diaries™ for details and to get started.
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