One of the Himalaya’s best-kept travel secrets, Sikkim is a welcome diversion from all conventional notions of an Indian holiday. Far from Rajasthan’s royal trail, Goa’s beaches and Kerala’s backwaters, this tiny Indian hill state prides itself on pristine alpine forests, lofty snow-capped mountains, craggy landscapes dotted with quaint villages and a rich tribal culture brocaded with vibrant Tibetan Buddhist accents.
A fantastic adventure off the beaten track, Sikkim is a place waiting to be explored. Here are 15 excellent ways to get under its skin.
Visit Rumtek Monastery
Considered one of Tibetan Buddhism’s most important centres, the magnificent Rumtek Monastery is a repository of countless invaluable artefacts (precious metal statues, gem-studded cenotaphs, exotic ritualistic paraphernalia) stacked within its cavernous portals. The official – though currently vacant – seat of the revered Karmapa Lama, the monastery is especially attractive during the Mahakala Dance in February, when giant figurines of protector deities raise hell in the courtyard and fight off evil demons.
Trek to Goecha La
Many hardened hikers consider this week-long adventure to be the best trek for sighting Mt Khangchendzonga (8586m), the world’s third-highest peak. Starting from the outpost of Yuksom in West Sikkim, the trail cuts up a sylvan alpine terrain to finally peak at a gravity-defying 4940m, from where you can take in sweeping views of the snows towering above. April and November are best for photo ops.
Explore North Sikkim
Sprawled across a remote northern region of the state, the sublimely beautiful valleys of Yumthang and Tsopta are scantly visited. Frequently ravaged by landslides and earthquakes, these mountains are tricky territory to travel in. But then, isn’t that what intrepid travel is all about? So jump into a sturdy four-wheel-drive and hit the bumpy road to paradise. To adjust to the altitude along the way, spend a night in the quaint and scenic hamlet of Lachen.
Sip Temi’s tea
The tiny village of Temi in South Sikkim stands its ground as the only tea-growing region in the state. Producing a mellow and delightfully aromatic brew, ‘Temi tea’ has a loyal following around the world, and the good news is you can now relish the nectar right where it is harvested. Simply schedule an excursion through Temi’s picturesque gardens, and savour grand 360-degree mountain views along with every refreshing sip of the amber beverage (best had without milk or sugar).
Sikkim is poised to become the first state in India to go fully organic in terms of production and consumption of food material. The changeover is already apparent in local markets, where organic produce seems to be trumping non-organic. Needless to say, this is your chance to detoxify, indulge in a nutritious vacation and eat your way to good health.
Drive to Tsomgo Lake
Spanning a valley at a height of 3780m, Tsomgo Lake cuts a pretty picture against a backdrop of rugged mountains rising towards the Tibetan Plateau. The outing (a four-hour return journey from state capital Gangtok) is particularly enjoyable in early spring and late autumn, when parts of the lake are frozen over and the stalls by the lake serve piping hot tea and momos (meat-filled dumplings) to fight the numbing chill. A lakeside joyride on a friendly yak? It's got that too!
Row down the Teesta
Rushing down the length of Sikkim from icy glacial heights to tropical alluvial plains, the turbulent Teesta River promises some fantastic rafting opportunities on its foamy waters. From calm stretches for novices to curling rapids for experienced oar-wielders, the river packs a variety of challenges at every level. Whether raft or kayak, choose your preferred ride and let the adrenaline flow.
Got a thing for antique mountain cultures? Then swing by the fortress-like Namgyal Institute of Tibetology in Gangtok, and familiarise yourself with countless nuances of Tibetan culture and Vajrayana Buddhism. Don’t miss the museum, packed with relics such as ancient manuscripts, thangkas (religious scroll paintings) and Tantric ritualistic objects (human skull bowls and thigh-bone trumpets, anyone?).
Know your morsels
A bowl of steaming sisnoo (nettle soup), a serving of fried ningro (fiddlehead ferns) and, finally, a generous helping of rice with gundruk ko jhol (fermented mustard leaf soup) and fiery pork curry. That’s a traditional Sikkimese meal, delicious to the last spoonful. If the spice gets to you, simply wash it down with chhang, a refreshing local rice beer served in wooden mugs.
Embrace local life
Do you think hotels are characterless and boring? Wonderful. Shun the usual sleeping options and root for an absorbing experience at one of rural Sikkim’s many ambient homestays instead. Mingle with affable hosts, share stories and drinks over kitchen fires in the evening, have fun helping out with farm and household activities, and kill time with a book or iPod for company in the cosy comfort of your tastefully appointed room.
Spirituality is an essential element of Sikkim’s social and cultural grain, and you can amply soak it up during your holiday here. Meditate in an ancient Buddhist gompa, attend a religious ceremony (such as the new year festivities of Losar), or pay obeisance at the many shrines in the temple town of Namchi. If you’re visiting a monastery, don’t forget to light a butter lamp for peace, love and prosperity.
Take a day hike
Sikkim’s mountains are criss-crossed by numerous foot trails traditionally used by locals to commute between villages. For travellers, this means a wonderful opportunity to bushwalk through the serene wilderness, exploring the region’s bucolic scenery and a plethora of plant and animal life along the way. The day walks from Yuksom to Khecheopalri Lake and Tashiding are particularly picturesque, as are short jaunts around the town of Ravangla.
Smell the rhododendrons
Known to foster more than 500 species of rhododendron, the forests of Varsey and Singba (in West Sikkim and North Sikkim respectively) come alive in a riotous bloom sometime between March and May. Vivid shades of red, pink, yellow, mauve and white smear entire hillsides, and a walk under these colourful canopies is an otherworldly experience, to say the least. Mind those pesky leeches wiggling in the undergrowth, though.
Groove to Gangtok’s nightlife
Dusk is a happy time along MG Marg, Gangtok’s social and cultural hub. Snack stalls along the main drag whip up juicy servings of momos, lounge bars come alive with strains of rock and blues, and the appetising smell of freshly baked savouries perfumes the crisp evening air. The booze is cheap, the company is friendly, and the good times keep rolling. Drink, dine and dance the night away.
Glide like an eagle
The newest fix for adventure junkies in the region, paragliding is a fantastic way to enjoy bird’s eye views of Sikkim’s mountains. October and November, with clear sunny skies, are the best months for the sport – this is also when Gangtok hosts the annual Sikkim Paragliding Festival. So put on your helmet, strap on your chute and leap off the hill for a thrilling flight down to terra firma. And don’t forget to snap a self-portrait en route, to secure bragging rights back home.