The first time I heard about Sikkim was in 2006. I was having dinner with a former colleague from Delhi who came to Kuala Lumpur to accompany her husband who was attending a conference. She had mentioned about her December holidays in Sikkim and showed me her photos. That was ten years ago and photos taken on phone cameras in those days weren’t that great – low resolution and grainy. I wasn’t a seasoned traveller then but I had dreams building inside me to see more of this world, thus I had a hunch that Sikkim would be an interesting place to visit.
As time went on, I had changed jobs and have lost touch with this colleague but I never forget that dinner. Obviously the images of Sikkim from her phone were no longer clear in my memory but it was she who introduced it to me. Over the years whenever I mentioned Sikkim, I often received thumbs up from Indian friends who had been there. Therefore, when I was planning my trip to the Eastern part of India in 2015 to coincide with the Durga Puja festival, I decided that I must extend my trip to the Northeast – to step foot in Sikkim – finally.
Sikkim is a landlocked north-east state of India, and borders with the Indian state of West Bengal to the south, Nepal to the west, Tibet to the north and east, Bhutan to the east. It is the second smallest state after Goa, and the least populous state in India of approximately 600,000. 75% of the population are Nepalese with minority groups such as Lepchas and Bhutias form the remaining population. Due to the majority of the population are Nepalese, the main language spoken in Sikkim is Nepali, but culturally and spiritually, Sikkim’s strongest links are with Tibet.
Sikkim was an independent Buddhist kingdom for many centuries but it suffered territorial losses to Nepal over a period of 150 years. Because of its geographical isolation, the kingdom allied itself to British India in the 19th century and became a British protectorate. Subsequently, Sikkim gradually lost its independence especially during the Indian-Sino War in the early 1960s that led the Indian government realised the importance of Sikkim as a crucial territory between Tibet and the Bengal area. Eventually a referendum in 1975 abolished the monarchy and Sikkim became part of India.
I was in the car admiring the view from Darjeeling to Gangtok, a 4-hour journey traversing through several hairpin bends, manouevred skilfully by the driver, Mr Gurung who knows these roads like the back of his hand. We passed through virgin forests of pine and bamboo trees with the blueish-green Teesta River flowing below.
Gangtok is the state capital of Sikkim, and the only way to reach Gangtok is by road. There are no railways or airports in Gangtok. The nearest railway station is in New Jalpaiguri, and the nearest airport is in Bagdogra, all of which are located in West Bengal state. One should expect a journey of approximately 4 to 5 hours by car to reach Gangtok.
Due to Sikkim’s proximity to China and the fact that its land border with Tibet is wide open, the entire state of Sikkim is under restricted area regime. Hence, all foreign nationals require the entry permit i.e. Restricted Area Permit (RAP) or also known as the Inner Line Permit (ILP).
The entry permit was a piece of paper containing my passport data and was valid for 15 days. Upon entering and exiting Sikkim, my passport and the permit were stamped – it was like crossing international borders but I was still in the country India. I was informed that I had to keep the entry permit at all times, in the event I needed to produce for identification purposes.
As we drove into the city proper, I was amazed by Gangtok. Compared to its state neighbour West Bengal, the roads in Gangtok were cleaner, traffic was more orderly and the atmosphere seemed less frenetic. I was particularly surprised that the locals followed traffic rules! There was a little honking here and there, but there was a general sense of calm as people went about their daily activities.
I stayed at The Shire guesthouse, recommended by travel blogger Charukesi who had stayed here a few years ago. I didn’t have the time to do a lot of research on accommodation options in Gangtok as I had been very busy working prior to my trip to India. I stumbled upon Charu’s review on The Shire, relied on her recommendations and was very happy that her reviews were accurate.
The Shire is a lovely house located about 15-20 minutes walk from MG Marg which is the main shopping strip in town. The driver had a little trouble finding the place but with a few phone calls to my guesthouse host, Karma, I arrived at this gem of a place fairly quickly.
I was warmly welcomed by Karma and his mother – check-in was easy and quick – and within minutes, Karma and I were already talking about the places of interest in Gangtok and the excursions that I could take. My room was comfortable and clean with an attached bathroom, and the windows opened out to the backyard terrace which guests could see the views of the mountains. Guests can order breakfast and lunch/dinner in The Shire. On my last night in Gangtok, I requested for dinner and it was a delicious home-cooked Sikkimese meal 🙂
Apart from the facilities provided at The Shire, what I had enjoyed most throughout my stay was the easy conversation I had with Karma and his family members. As such, I felt very welcomed, comfortable and safe to be there, and gained some insights into the Sikkimese history and culture.
After I had settled in and unpacked my bag, I left the guesthouse and walked towards the town centre. I didn’t want to dive right into sightseeing, in fact, I wanted to go to a cafe to relax, have a cuppa, people-watch and perhaps to plan my itinerary in Gangtok.
I went to Baker’s Cafe on MG Marg, a quaint cafe known for their pastries and cakes. I ordered 2 pieces of madeleine and a cup of tea.
And just as I was eating my madeleine halfway, I saw a beautiful sunset right next to the window. Some of my readers know by now that I have a soft spot for sunsets, be it by the beach..or in this case, amidst the mountains.
As I watched the sun set, I counted my blessings for arriving safely in Gangtok, for having a wonderful time visiting new places like Darjeeling and meeting friends in Kolkata, and for having such a wonderful opportunity to be, probably, one of the very few Malaysians who have made it to Sikkim! With that, I perused a pocket guide book on Sikkim, and excitedly planned my trip for the next two days.
Are you planning a trip to Sikkim soon? How about booking your Gangtok accommodation here?