Sikkim – the northern Buddhist Indian State at the Foot of the Himalaya

The New York Times named Sikkim as one of the trending travel destinations in 2017. The small Indian state, far in the Northeast was an independent kingdom for a long time and became part of India in 1975. Nepalese and Buddhist influences characterize this area. Sikkim located at the foot of eastern Himalaya front between the two independent states of Bhutan and Nepal. This geographic location makes a unique biosphere and a very own regional character.

Sikkim: A Federal State With No Airport But Extra Visa

At the moment, Sikkim is rather remote. There is no Sikkim airport it can only be reached from Bagdhora in Bengal. A Sikkim airport is currently under construction (Pakgong Airport) is supposed to open soon.Foreigners need and extra visa, called “Extra Permit” in addition to the standard Indian visa to enter the state.

Sikkim is situated at the foot of the third-highest mountain in the world, the Kanchejunga (8586 m). One half of Kanchenjunga belongs to Sikkim (in the Northwest) the other half to Nepal. You find many different valleys there, some of them in larger heights even snow-covered. But all of them are largely undeveloped, mostly even totally untouched, pristine nature, large parts of the area are forested. Flora and Fauna from the Himalayan outskirts can be found everywhere. Subtropical plants from the lower areas of Sikkim and alpine plants from the higher regions exist in close distance. There are also some alpine animals like bears and leopards.

For Indian standards, Sikkim is very sparsely populated: only 600,000 people live here (for comparison: Delhi ca. 19 million, Mumbai ca. 18 million).

West-Sikkim: Pelling and Kanchenjunga

Pelling is on 1900 meters and is, from a tourist point of view, the second most important town in Sikkim. Tourism here booms, there are many hotels in Pelling: Pelling is mainly a long stretch of hotels. All of them have a great view to the Kanchejunga: if weather permits, you can see the sunrise at the mountain. You don’t need to go anywhere, just make sure you have a hotel with a great view.

More information about Pelling can be found in this article.

A very beautiful monastery is the Khecheopari Monastery and its lake which is sacred for both Hindus and Buddhist. Khecheopari is another 30 km from Pelling but you need 1 ½ hours.

This monastery and its lake were my Sikkim highlight. The building was so colorful, so shining; the monks were welcoming us so warmly and friendly.

More information about the monastery can be found in this article.

Yuksom: Starting Point For Hiking Tours But Also End Point for Road Connections

From Khechopari, it’s 30 km till Yuksom, a little village and the end of theroad in West-Sikkim. On the way to Yuksom, you drive by a waterfall called Kanchenjunga Waterfall (30 km 1 ½ hours). Yuksom is a little village, a base camp for extended hiking tours in Sikkim. Another interesting spot is the Dubdi Monastery, Sikkim’s oldest monastery, 600 meters from Sikkim but without a road connection.

The big Himalaya hiking and climbing tours usually start in Yuksom. Two popular routes are the one to Zongri (4000 meters) and the one to Gochela Pass (5000 meters). But you need another permit to do hiking in the North, the Sikkim Extra Permit is not enough. You should anyways not do the tours on your own but rather take a local guide from a travel agency with you.

A day trip could be the Tashdiding Trek, a hiking tour from Yuksom via Honri Gompa, Tashiding Village (2150 meters).

Pilgrim Routes Along the Buddhist Monasteries

Right next to Pelling (opposite direction to Yuksom) you can find the Sanga Choling Monastery (10 km, 30 min) and the Pemayangtse Monastery (10 km, 30 min) and right next to it the Rabdentse Ruins.

All theses monasteries make a popular pilgrim route (Sanga Choling, Pemayangste, Khecheopari and the only one that cannot be reached by car Tashiding).

Driving to Pelling Without Bridges and Tunnels

To see all of these places you need at least 2 days. Reaching Pelling already takes a while. To see everything you need 2 days (or 1.5 days with a late afternoon return trip) plus some extra time for hiking from Yuksom.

Driving is in general rather slow, as mentioned above you need 30 Minutes to do 10 km. Yet, it is stunningly beautiful. There are no bridges or tunnels, the streets are mainly serpentines at the mountain. This makes driving more difficult but Sikkim’s pristine nature more beautiful.

Gangtok – Capital in the East of the State

Gangtok is the biggest and most important city of Sikkim and can now even be reached by helicopter from Bagdhora. From Pelling it’s 130 km to Gangtok (5 ½ hours) from Darjeeling to Gangtok it’s 100 km (3 ½ hours). Gangtok has strict rules when it comes to trash (“no littering”) and smoking (Non-smoking city). An interesting spot is the Hanuman Tok (11 km, 35 min) a Hindu Monastery and Rumtek (18 km, 55 min), a Buddhist Monastery.
Gangtok is of interest for everyone who wants to go further north: you can find all kinds of travel agencies here who focus on hiking tours. Here, you can also organize all extra permits for hiking tours, travel agencies sometimes even do that for you.

In Gangtok in the eastern part of Sikkim, streets reach much further north than in Pelling. There is a street to Lachung and the Yumtang Valley (120 km, 4 ½ hours). Yumtang is the valley of flowers with 24 different kinds of rhodododendron and many more plants. In Yumtang Vallley, you have already reached North-Sikkim, you cannot travel any further north.

A full list of sights can be found here:

The official Sikkim Website is also quite good:

Sikkim – Pelling , Gangtok and Yuksom: Where Should I Go?

You can use the two towns Pelling and Gangtok as a reference point. Both of them are starting points to see several things. Pelling is a bit nicer, Sikkim Tourism suggests Pelling. Here, you can get closer to the high mountain, even as an amateur and with no real climbing to the top. For an average tourist like me, this is already a big adventure: not even Pelling and Gangtok are that easily reachable.

Hiking and climbing tours to bigger heights can be started from Yuksom. You reach Yuksom via Pelling. Agencies and Extra Permits can best be organized in Gangtok.

Border-Crossing to Sikkim: Melli and Rangpo – Information About the Extra Permit

There are two border crossing points to Sikkim: Melli and Rangpo. You can get the Extra Permit at both these stations. When we did it that was easy: you need to fill out a form, you need a xerox (=copy) of your passport , 1 – 2 passport pics and the passport gets checked and stamped. All of that worked quite well and can be compared to the immigration process to another country. But you definitely need to consider it and don’t forget it. We Europeans tend to forget about borders and visas quickly. They also asked us how long we are planning to stay. The thing I read everywhere is that everything up to 14 days is not a problem, I don’t know what happens if you want to stay longer (for example for bigger hiking tours).

Traveling With Your Own Driver

There are busses and jeeps as Sikkim’s public transportation. You always find a way to move forward at the next stop. Anyways, this is a bit exhausting, takes a lot of time and you have to squeeze in a packed jeep.

It’s easier to take a driver and your own car. That is a bit more expensive but doable. We paid 25,000 Rupees for a trip from Bagdhora (to Darjeeling, Pelling, Kalimpong, 5 days) which is about 330 Euro. Drivers wait at Bagdhora Airport for tourists, there is a counter at the airport called “Sikkim Tourism” who organized all of that for us within a few minutes after landing. These things usually work quite well: we had to pay half of the money in the beginning and the second half when we were back at the airport. I would do that again. Driving on these bad roads is exhausting as it is; the driver was the right thing to do for us.

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