2 weeks exploring Sikkim

Travelling to Sikkim was a dream of mine ever since I started heavily researching Nepal about 4 years ago. Sandwiched between Nepal and Bhutan, landlocked Sikkim was an independent state until 1975 before integrating into India. I was intrigued about the people and really excited at the thought of being back in the foothills of the Himalaya.

"Welcome to Sikkim" - entrance gate into Sikkim.

I expected entry into Sikkim to be a challenge (bureaucracy in India is a joke) but obtaining a permit is simply a formality. I filled out a form the morning I wanted to leave from Darjeeling and had a permit in my hand 5 minutes later… for free! Very un-Indian. 

The road from Darjeeling to Joerthang, a busy transport hub across the border in Sikkim, was a bumpy but enjoyable ride through tea plantations clinging onto the vast valleys. From here I jumped into another sumo (converted jeep) for Pelling, where I would spend my first night in Sikkim. Apparently, to increase popularity and deflect interest from the Chinese, the Indian government invested heavily in infrastructure and development here.  That can be seen in the roads, after crossing the border it went from bumpy to occiasionly bumpy

Rabentse near Pelling - the old royal capital of Sikkim from 1670 to 1814.
The main reason for visiting Pelling is for dawn views of Kanchenjunga – the world’s 3rd highest mountain. Unfortunately the weather conspired against me, as it had done in Darjeeling, and only clouds were visible. I decided to move on quickly and hope when I came back things would improve (it didn't). Sikkim is small, approximately 80km east to west and 100km north to south, and very mountainous. Donning a backpack and trekking up and down the valleys is a great way to travel between villages and avoid the uncomfortably cramped transport. 

Small mountain villages everywhere. Very useful when you get lost and with the quantity of zig-zagging paths, it's easy.

Curious kids in Sikkim.

Mountain village.

On the way to the lake.
Just a 5 hour walk from Pelling, passing through lush forests and tiny mountain villages is Khecheopalri Lake. On top of the hill (after a final steep 20 minute uphill walk) I found a little slice of paradise, something I’m always looking for but can be quite hard to find. The trees on top of the hill have been cleared and an extended family of 4 generations carve out a living through farming and tourism. The small community are almost entirely self-sufficient and with no road access it feels isolated, in the best possible way. 

Coming here is well on the backpacker circuit of Sikkim but it still feels like a special place, the people here are among the happiest I’ve met anywhere on my travels and thankfully the constant stream of tourists hasn’t diluted their magic. It will be a while before I forget the 85 year old Lama dancing into the night and attempting to coerce his audience to join him for some breakdancing. Good accommodation, 3 amazing hearty meals a day  and the surreal experience of living up here…. All for £4 a night! A big highlight.

Khecheopalri Lake. You can just see the plateau where I was staying, on top of the hill above the lake. 
Cool farmland on the way to a cave in the hills. 3 foreigners were living in said cave meditating for 40 days. Weird.

Eerie looking trees.

Jungle lollipops.
After 3 nights at “The Lake” I needed to drag myself away. I was slowly falling into the trap of this excellent hospitality and the longer I stayed the harder it would be to leave. The hardest part of my days when travelling is choosing what to eat in restaurants, I didn’t even have to do that here!

Home made chillum for a natural taste.

Now is the season for flowers. Loads of Rhododendrons and these little beauties. 
The next leg of backpacking through Sikkim was a 4 hour walk to Yuksom. Yuksom is the jump of point for treks further north to Kanchenjunga. Unlike other trailheads, Yuksom is quiet, historic and pretty cheap… this winning combination made it easy to stay 4 nights. Once the capital of Sikkim, the first king was coronated here, spending a day walking to the old throne and nearby lake were lovely. Unfortunately any trek further north requires paperwork and guides so I decided to continue trekking between the villages where no additional permits are necessary. Plus, it’s always a good idea to leave a reason to come back to a place, especially one as beautiful as Sikkim.

Amazing forest walks with no-one but locals.

I saw lots of women hammering stones, it's a never ending task.

Phamrong Falls. Really impressive and fun trying to get as close as possible by climbing the boulders.

Kathok Lake in Yuksom. Anointing waters were taken from here for the original coronation. 

A bridge about to collapse on route to Tashiding. 

After eating my way through the menu of our favourite restaurant, Gupta’s, I trekked from Yuskom to Tashiding, highly recommended in the Lonely Planet. It was another beautiful walk with memories of my treks in Nepal coming flooding back as I climbed up and over valleys with the hue of green and brown in all directions. The reward for reaching Tashiding was a reunion with the travellers I had met along the way and a belated birthday party. This is a sleepy town but every other shop seemed to sell hard liquor and 8% beer, needless to say we painted the village red and parted ways in a haze of rum. 

People can make a place great, this great place was made even better by the people I met along the way. A big thanks those who made it so special, particularly…. Ani Bravas, Mr Mustachio, Shanigga, 'Apple's and Pears' Neel, ‘Fast Hands’ Sergei and the Swiss dream team of Remco and Andrea.

Colourful carving in Tashiding Monastry, and lots of them.

Terraces near Rabangla.

The final leg of my inter-Sikkim village super trek was between Tashiding and Rabangla in search of a big Buddha statue. On this route people were genuinely surprised to see 3 foreigners hiking in their back gardens and I got the feeling this was the least trodden path of the lot. ‘Namaste’ was called from all directions and a much welcomed invitation for tea and biscuits was accepted.  

Rabangla is on the tourist circuit due to a 41 metre Buddha statue in a huge park. Trekking here meant I could see the statue well before reaching the town, adding some suspense. Only 3 weeks ago the statue was consecrated by Dali Lama and apparently cost $8.5 million to build. From far away it looked brilliant but up close it looked poo, this is coming from someone who travelled hundreds of miles around Australia in a campervan for ‘The Big Things’ and being genuinely elated by them (ah the Ned Kelly). The Buddha’s face looked like it was suffering from leprosy or something. Which, thanks to the numerous signs around India I now know is curable.

The 41 metre high Buddha statue in Rabangla
Sikkim didn’t feel like the rest of India, the Sikkimese have a strong identity and don’t call themselves Indians, they appear more affluent and are super happy. There seems to be a big push for keeping Sikkim green, plastic bags are forbidden and renewable resources are big here. Makes the mountain air extra sweet.

Despite coming for mountain views and not getting any, everything else I found here more than made up for it. Now I definitely need to come back for the views of Kanchenjunga.

Cool kid in Khecheopalri Lake.


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