With its fresh mountain air, pine forests, snow-fed rivers and lakes and thousands of varieties of wild flowers it’s easy to understand why the original inhabitants of Sikkim call it Ley Mayal – Heaven. Wedged in between Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and West Bengal the former kingdom of Sikkim is a tiny mountainous state in northeast India. Populated by descendants of migrants from these surrounding countries and Myanmar (Burma) it is a wonderful melting pot of different mountain cultures.
Buddhist prayer flags flutter in the wind, wheels spin prayers to heaven and devotees of Himalayan Hinduism pray to Buddhist bodhisattvas as well as the usual deities. The monasteries at Rumtek near Gangtok, Pemayangtse and Pelling adorned with wall paintings and thangkas (cloths painted with deities) are wonderfully atmospheric places to visit, especially during prayer times, while the bazaars and markets are fabulous for people watching and discovering unusual vegetables and herbs whose uses can only be guessed at. Sikkim’s skyline is dominated by Kanchendzonga, the third highest mountain in the world. The uninterrupted view of its snow-capped peak from Pelling at sunrise is enough to make your jaw drop but the best way to appreciate Sikkim’s natural beauty is to spend as much time as you can on foot. One of the best ways to do this is base yourself in Shakti village houses so that you are also immersed in the local culture. Darjeeling (though in neighbouring Bengal) and the surrounding tea covered hills make a good jumping off point or place to relax in the region.
Although the state is tiny, especially compared to giants like Rajasthan, transfers on poorly maintained and winding mountain roads take much longer than expected. Still, they are all part of the journey and there is plenty to see and people to meet long the way. Accommodation choices are fairly limited and although the winter months are best for crystal clear mountain views the general lack of room heating means they can be very cold from December to February so travelling just either side of this time is usually best.