Sikkim lies between Nepal, China, and Bhutan at the foot of the Himalayas. High, snow-covered mountain peaks and prayer flags fluttering in the wind characterise this region. With a population of only 600,000, Sikkim is one of the smaller states of India. Travellers will experience a world of authentic Indian culture untouched by tourism. In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about the wild north of India.
The Top Sights in Sikkim
Hiking through a phenomenal mountain landscape, drinking tea or visiting temples… The natural paradise of Sikkim has plenty of highlights in store for you. If a trip to the region has been on your bucket list, read on to learn about all the attractions in Sikkim that you can’t afford to miss.
The biggest city in Sikkim, Gangtok, is home to just 30,000 people. The city was built on a hillside, and all the houses face the direction of Machapuchare, a mountain on the eastern Indian border with China. There are plants and trees as far as the eye can see, and a mystical fog often shrouds the region. The temperature mainly stays below 20 °C, even in summer. In spring, between March and May, the city fills with colour as flowers bloom from the flowerbeds that line the streets.
Situated a little south of the city is the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology. In 1957, the 14th Dalai Lama laid the foundation stone. Here, visitors receive an insight into the region’s Buddhist tradition, and the significance of religion for Sikkim’s local population. Near the institute, you can find the Rumtek Monastery, one of the oldest monasteries in Sikkim. If you follow a nearby hiking trail, you’ll reach the Hanuman Tok temple, dedicated to the Hindu god Hanuman. From the temple, you’ll have a phenomenal view of the city and the valley below.
Lake Tsomgo is one of the main attractions in northern India and is located just to the north of Gangtok at an elevation of almost 4,000 m. The people in Sikkim consider this lake to be sacred. This is why it also goes by the name of “sacred lake”. The area is an impressive spectacle of nature. It is a life source for a large variety of animal species, as well as for the people that live here. Travellers can explore the area on a yak ride or venture a trip up to the nearby mountain summit with the cable car. In clear weather, the panoramic view is in a class of its own. You can even see all the way to Kangchenjunga in the Himalayan Mountains.
The small village of Pelling lies to the west at an altitude of 2,000 m. Waterfalls, jungle foliage, and mountain peaks form a picturesque environment that will fill you with an instant feeling of relaxation. Pelling is an oasis for sport lovers. You can kayak onto wild waters or explore one of the trekking routes.
Hidden away in the jungle is the Pelling skywalk, the first of its kind in India. It’s a glass construction that allows you to look down into the steep valley below as you walk, leaving you with a sinking feeling in your stomach. The highlight of this excursion is the view of the mountaintop and the colourful Chenrezig statue. The latter represents an earthly manifestation of Buddha.
In Pelling, one of the most important archaeological finds in the region is located in the Rabdentse ruins. This is an archaeological excavation site that has the ruins of Rabdentse, a city that was the political and economic centre of Sikkim until around 2000 B.C.
Tathagata Tsal, the Buddha Park of Ravangla, is situated in the small village of Ravangla. At the heart of the park rests a golden Buddha statue. The 14th Dalai Lama erected it between 2006 and 2013. The statue is the fourth-largest Buddha statue in India and was constructed to commemorate Buddha’s 2550th birthday. For centuries, the park, which looks over Kangchenjunga, has been a site of pilgrimage. To this day, the nearby Ralang monastery serves as a reminder of the site’s importance for Nepali Buddhists. While taking in the natural beauty of this area, you’ll surely marvel at the surrounding birds, as Ravangla is home to numerous endangered bird species.
Kangchenjunga Mountain, also spelled Kanchenjunga, is the third-highest mountain in the world. It’s located to the northwest of the state along the border, with one half of the mountain lying in Nepal. The region has a few hidden hiking trails available for travellers. It is home to the Kangchenjunga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage natural site since 2016. This is the natural habitat of the endangered red panda, meaning tourism is strictly controlled in order to preserve the biodiversity of the region. The trekking route Goecha La (or Goechala) starts in Yuksom and runs past 14 mountain peaks, across the deepest jungle, and through rhododendron bushes, before finally revealing the spectacular world of the snow-covered Himalayan Mountains.
The untouched and fascinating town of Lachung lies at an altitude of 3,000 m. This snowy hiking paradise is located to the north, close to the border with China, and is one of the most popular regions in the state. The small village was an important trading post before the Chinese occupation of Tibet in the 1950s. To really take in the surrounding landscape, take a walk along the snowy Lachung River or immerse yourself in a legendary world at the local monastery (Lachung Gompa).
Religion and Festivals
Due to its proximity to neighbouring countries, Sikkim is a diverse state that, as of the 20th century, has gained a Nepali majority. Two thirds of the population therefore speak Nepali as their mother tongue, whereas indigenous languages such as Bhutia (or Sikkimese) are only spoken by a minority today. According to statistics, only 20% of the total population live in the larger cities.
This blending of cultures has given rise to numerous festivals that reflect the region’s unique stories. Maghe Sankranti is one of the largest festivals of the Nepali Hindu population and takes place in January. During the festival, the streets of Sikkim fill with stands and street food sellers as a celebration of the start of spring. Durga Puja takes place between September and October and celebrates the victory of the goddess Puja in Indian mythology. During this festival, there are parades in honour of the goddess, and the older residents of Sikkim bestow gifts on the younger residents on the 10th day of festivities. The subsequent festival of Diwali is also an important part of Sikkim’s Hindu identity.
Saga Dawa is the largest Buddhist festival in the state. Although more than half of the population are practicing Hindus, 30% of the locals follow Buddhism. Saga Dawa is therefore a significant festival and is celebrated in the fourth month of the Tibetan calendar. Though there are festivities throughout the month, the climax of the festival takes place on the 15th day. Buddhists go on pilgrimage to holy shrines and make donations to their fellow humans during this time. Abstaining from eating meat is also part of the ritual, and the people release fish into the rivers as a sign of humanity.
Pang Lhabsol is a celebration indigenous to Sikkim and is held in honour of Kangchenjunga Mountain. According to tradition, the Buddhist monk Lhatsun Chenpo received prophecies from the mountain god, which led him to Sikkim and start preaching Buddhism in northern India. The festival takes place during the seventh month of the Tibetan calendar (August/September) and involves group prayers and war dances.
Culinary Adventures in Sikkim
Since 2015, the farmers in Sikkim practice organic farming, meaning they don’t use pesticides and GMOs. The people live in harmony with nature. Understandably, this is a draw for many travellers. There are plenty of tea gardens that produce their own types of tea, just like Darjeeling. At the Temi Tea Garden, black and white tea varieties are gathered and lovingly packaged in the idyllic gardens. The cuisine in Sikkim is influenced by the different cultures of the region. One example of a regional food would be the momos, a type of dumpling with a spicy filling. Dal, rice and noodle dishes are also common meals in the region.
How Backpacker Friendly Is Sikkim?
In comparison to the rest of India, there isn’t that much tourism in Sikkim yet, making it a little trickier to travel around. It is uncommon to travel outside a group. However, this doesn’t mean that backpacking is impossible. You can use public transport (including Jeeps that can transport up to ten people) as an inexpensive means to reach the most important hotspots. As the streets are steep and narrow, trips can take a bit more time than anticipated, meaning it’s better to plan ahead and make allowances for longer journeys. We also recommend travelling in groups of two to three people, as many tour operators don’t offer excursions for solo travellers.
The north and south of Sikkim require two different visas for entry. You can apply for these visas in one of the larger Indian cities, on the border, or in Gangtok. One major drawback for international travellers is the fact that two of the region’s picturesque locations are only open to visitors with an Indian passport, as they are currently in an area of conflict along the border. Both Nathu La (or Nathula), a mountain pass in the direction of Tibet; and Gurudongmar Lake, both of which have been consecrated by the Tibetan mystic Guru Rimpoche, can currently not be visited by international tourists.