If you’re feeling jaded by the heat and hassles of India, Sikkim is the perfect antidote. It’s clean (plastic bags are banned) and the mountain air is fresh. Best of all the people are among India’s most friendly, with a charming manner that’s unobtrusive and slightly shy. To really savour some true Sikkimese atmosphere, visit a village tongba-bar for some local millet beer: it’s a bit like warm Japanese sake. Plunging mountain valleys are lushly forested, interspersed occasionally with rice terraces and groves of flowering rhododendrons. Tibetan-style Buddhist monasteries (gompas) add splashes of vermilion to the green ridgetops and are approached through atmospheric avenues of colourful prayer flags set on long bamboo poles.
Straddling the Sikkim–Nepal border is Khangchendzonga (Kanchenjunga; 8598m), the world’s third-highest mountain. Khangchendzonga’s guardian spirit is worshipped in a series of spectacular autumn festivals and its magnificent multiple white peaks can be spied from many points around the state.
An independent kingdom until 1975, Sikkim has long been considered one of the last Himalayan Shangri Las. But hurry. In the last few years a tourist boom has seen ever multiplying numbers of visitors, mostly middle-class Bengalis escaping the Kolkata heat. Every year more concrete hotels protrude from once-idyllic villagescapes and most towns are already architecturally lacklustre huddles of multistorey box-homes.
Fortunately, although Sikkim is tiny, its crazy contours make road construction very tough. So for now, finding the ‘real’ Sikkim is just a matter of hiking away from the metalled roads. Just watch out for those infamous leeches.
Best places to stay in Sikkim
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