Bordered by the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, Bhutan, Nepal, and West Bengal, Sikkim has long been regarded as one of the last Himalayan utopias. Although the state in India's northeast is small, its vertical terrain makes it slow to traverse, so it can take hours to travel what looks like a short distance. Because of its remoteness and the fact that permits are sometimes required, Sikkim isn't the most accessible area to visit, but it is filled with gorgeous gems adventurous travelers won't want to miss.
The area is certainly one of the most energetic and soothing to the soul with its mountainous beauty and ancient Tibetan Buddhist culture. Don't miss the top attractions in Sikkim, from monasteries galore to giant Buddha statues, river rafting adventures, wildlife sanctuaries, and plenty more.
Gangtok, Sikkim's capital, is situated on a cloudy ridge 5,500 feet above sea level. When the clouds clear, it's possible to see all the way to Khangchendzonga's soaring peaks—at 28,169 feet (8,586 meters), it's the world's third-highest mountain. Khangchendzonga National Park was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2016. The city is refreshingly clean and well organized, and most tourists spend a couple of days there to make travel arrangements and see the sights. It's a popular base for those heading off on treks.
Get to Gangtok from Sikkim's Pakyong Airport, or take a four-hour drive from Siliguri in West Bengal, where the nearest train station is. The next closest airport, at Bagdogra, is about 45 minutes from Siliguri.
Proving that Sikkim is a marvelous place for meditation, over 200 monasteries dot the divine hilltops. The most visited of these sacred buildings in Sikkim are Rumtek, the state's largest, which overlooks Gangtok; Pemayangtse (near Pelling in West Sikkim); and Tashiding (also in West Sikkim). Other monasteries that are worth visiting include the Karma Kagyu monastery with its 200-year-old murals (in Phodong in North Sikkim), the Enchey monastery (in Gangtok), and the old Sanga Choeling monastery (only accessible on foot from Pelling).
The monasteries hold many festivals, particularly around Losar, the Tibetan Buddhist holiday honoring the new year in February/March. Enchey also hosts a Buddhist Cham festival featuring music and dance in January/February. It is recommended that visitors confirm event dates with individual monasteries they plan to visit.
Nathu La—a mountain pass in the East Sikkim district three hours east of Gangtok—was a major passageway on the Old Silk Route between India and Tibet before it was closed in 1962. The pass connects Sikkim with China's Tibet Autonomous Region. The border consists of a lone barbed wire fence, and you'll get the strange thrill of seeing the Chinese soldiers on the other side.
Unfortunately, only Indian citizens are allowed to travel to the pass, and only on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. A special permit is also required, which can be obtained through a registered travel agency in Gangtok.
With a permit from the Tourism And Civil Aviation Department in Gangtok, foreigners can go up to the beautiful and beloved Tsomgo Lake, also called Changu Lake, just 17 miles or 27 kilometers from Nathu La. This spectacular glacial lake at the high altitude of 12,400 feet (3,780 meters) remains frozen during the winter season until May and is known for its water color changing with the seasons. The lake offers lovely views of the mountains that surround it.
Visitors may also spot various bird species, including Brahminy ducks—which resemble geese. Animals seen nearby include the red panda, an endangered creature the size of a domestic cat. To encounter a much larger mammal, try a quirky and possibly once-in-a-lifetime experience: You and the kids can ride a huge yak at the lake. These ox-like animals carry people through a variety of weather, which sometimes includes snow.
Sikkim is renowned for its astounding variety of animals—including nearly 550 species of birds and 700 species of butterflies. The state also boasts 600 varieties of orchids and 30 species of rhododendron. Check with the Tourism and Civil Aviation Department regarding tours, or explore gorgeous landscapes, flowers, and wildlife on your own at any of the many sanctuaries.
For breathtaking mountain views and to see numerous birds and other animals, check out Varsey Rhododendron Sanctuary in the Singalila Range in the southwest corner of West Sikkim during late spring. The Maenam Wildlife Sanctuary near Ravangla in South Sikkim and the Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary by Lachung—with colorful flowers and mountain views galore—are other highlights to check out.
Closer to Gangtok, visit the Deorali Orchid Sanctuary in south Gangtok (from March to early May and the end of September to early December), and Fambong Lho Wildlife Sanctuary around an hour west of Gangtok is the place to spot Himalayan black bears and red pandas. Kyongnosla Alpine Sanctuary, located about an hour east of Gangtok, is on the way to Tsomgo Lake and Nathu La (visit from June until October). You can also stop off at Jawaharlal Nehru Botanical Garden on the way to Rumtek monastery.
Sikkim is a trekker's paradise and historical Yuksom is the gateway for treks towards Mount Khangchendzonga. The route from Yuksom to Dzongri Peak and Rathong Glacier—and, if you're up for the challenge, further on to Goecha Peak—is the most popular trek in Sikkim, passing through the unspoiled forests, magnificent rhododendron gardens, and powerful rivers of Khangchendzonga National Park. March to May is the ideal time to go; allow seven to 10 days from Yuksom to Goecha Peak and back. Additional permits are mandatory for foreigners.
If you want to go on an organized trek, Mountain Tours, Treks & Travels gets excellent reviews and is run by the family of mountaineer Late Da Namgel Sherpa, who was part of the first successful Mount Everest expedition team in 1953.
See Dazzling Scenery and a High Altitude Lake
In far North Sikkim, six hours from Gangtok and 9,000 feet (2,743 meters) above sea level near the Tibetan/Chinese border, Lachung and the Yumthang Valley dazzle visitors with dramatic pristine scenery. Lachung is the base camp for the renowned Rhododendron Valley Trek from Yumthang Valley to Lachen Valley. Other attractions in the area are Lachung monastery, Yumesamdong (Zero Point), and the astonishing high-altitude Gurudongmar Lake—one of the world's highest lakes, at more than 17,000 feet (5,181 meters) above sea level.
North Sikkim is a restricted area: To visit you'll need a special permit through a registered tour company in Gangtok. Note that the Yumthang Valley is closed from December and March due to heavy snow, and foreigners are only permitted as far as the Chopta Valley (they cannot visit Gurudongmar Lake).
Pelling, a 4-5 hour drive west of Gangtok, may be a charmless small town, but it's the place to go for unparalleled views of Mount Khangchendzonga at dawn. Stay at Ifseen Villa, one of the top budget guesthouses and homestays in the Indian Himalayas.
Monasteries are the other main attraction, along with the ruins of Rabdentse, the royal capital of Sikkim from 1670 to 1814. Its location on a ridge provides a wonderful viewpoint. Half-day and all-day tours depart from Pelling and cover the major sights in the area, such as Khecheopalri Lake, Pemayangtse Monastery, Sangay Falls, and more.
On the way from Gangtok to Pelling, Ravangla is most notable for its Buddha Park with a towering 130-foot (40 meter) golden Buddha statue surrounded by manicured gardens and a nice walkway. The Ralang Monastery in nearby Ralang also houses a substantially sized golden Buddha. You'll hear the many monks chanting in the early morning and mid-afternoon in the forested environment. A number of other area monasteries can be visited as well.
Halfway between Ravangla and Namchi, you'll find the picturesque Temi Tea Garden, known as one of the world's best. The tranquil Cherry Resort is nestled amidst Sikkim's only tea garden.
Namchi, South Sikkim's capital, is also famous for its giant statues. The Buddhist statue of Guru Padmasambhava (credited with introducing Tantric Buddhism to the Himalayan region), reaches around 118 feet tall (36 meters) and occupies a commanding position on Samdruptse Hill, 7,000 feet (2,134 meters) above sea level. Not quite as tall but perhaps more impressive is the white 108-foot (33-meter) Hindu Lord Shiva statue at Solophuk Hill, south of Namchi. The epic complex surrounding the statue contains guesthouses and temples, including replicas of the holy Char Dham pilgrimage sites.
River rafting is a popular adventure activity in Sikkim, and the Teesta River offers some world class opportunities. The major route is Makha-Sirwani-Bardang-Rangpo. Grade II to IV rapids are interspersed with placid patches to float along, and plenty of white sandy beaches exist for overnight camping. High cliffs and gorges, along with boulder-strewn river beds, add to the thrill.
The Rangeet River, with its more turbulent waters, also offers advanced rafting opportunities from Sikip-Jorethang-Majitar-Melli.
For those who want to get off the tourist trail, Zuluk is a tiny village nearly 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) above sea level in East Sikkim. Once part of the Old Silk Route for traders, its main attraction is the sight of Mount Khangchendzonga from Lungthung and Thambi View Point; those who get carsick might want to avoid the winding road and its many hairpin turns.
The landscape varies greatly depending on the time of year. It's carpeted in wildflowers from August to September and covered in snow from January until April. After the snow clears, there's abundant bird life.
As Zuluk is a military-controlled area near the Chinese border, it's off-limits for foreigners. Indian citizens need to obtain a permit—inquire at a registered tourism agency, which also may offer Old Silk Route tour packages.