Sikkim is a small state of India nestled between Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan. It's the perfect escape from the heat and hustle of the big cities in India and is full of cultural, historical and natural wonders. Sikkim was an independent state until it joined India in 1975 and as a result it has its own unique heritage that feels very different from the rest of India.
Independent travel in Sikkim is not very common. Because of its location, many foreign tourists don’t make it there during their trip to India, preferring to hit the big name sights of Rajasthan or relax on the beach in Goa. Domestic tourists are prone to quick fire tours that run to a strict itinerary and have all transport and accommodation planned out in advance. This makes finding information about backpacking in Sikkim a little difficult. But this guide is here to help. We travelled independently through Sikkim on a backpackers budget and here are all our tips and information.
When to go to Sikkim
Sikkim is at the foot of the Himalayas and has cold winters and wet summers. The best time to visit Sikkim is October-November and March-May. During these times the temperatures are pleasant during the day and cold at night. It’s mostly dry and there’s a good chance of some clear days. Expect prices to increase during these times.
Whenever you go make sure you bring a waterproof cover and a warm layer.
Transport in Sikkim
For backpackers the easiest and cheapest way to get around Sikkim is by Sumo (shared jeep). They run between most towns cost 50-200 INR depending on the length of the journey. Besides the main routes in and out of Gangtok (which go when full) there is a set time for jeeps to each destination. These can change and are different for each route so the safest option is to ask the day before or check with your guesthouse.
The jeeps fit 10 passengers plus the driver. This is quite strict and at most jeep stands you can buy a ticket and will be given seat numbers and the number plate of your vehicle. If you have large luggage this will be put on the roof and sometimes tied down or covered, sometimes not. We were a little apprehensive of this system at first but everything seems to stay on the racks despite all the bumping ties or not. If you have anything valuable or breakable take it into the jeep with you.
Roads in Sikkim
Sikkim is located in the foothills of the Himalayas and as a result the roads are hilly, windy and steep. The quality of the roads is mixed. Some have been sealed and, although still windy, are much more pleasant to drive. Others are still dirt tracks and can be very bumpy and prone to landslides.
Traffic can get bad due to the streets only being wide enough for one car. Lines of jeeps gather as they try to negotiate a way past each other. Driving in Sikkim can be a hair raising experience, if you suffer from car sickness or get nervous easily maybe consider hiring a driver to go slower and at times when there is less traffic.
Moral of the story? Don’t plan to get anywhere fast in Sikkim. We averaged 20km an hour on all our journeys across Sikkim.
All times and prices mentioned in this article were accurate as of May 2018.
Permits for Sikkim
For lower and Western Sikkim foreigners require an Inner Line Permit. You can get one of these before you arrive in Sikkim in Delhi, Kolkata or Siliguri or just wait until you arrive. At the border crossings to Sikkim there are offices where you can present you passport and get the permit in a few minutes. They say you need a passport photo and photocopies of your passport and visa but they did it all electronically when we got to the office. The permit doesn’t cost anything and you will be issues with a sheet of paper and a stamp in your passport.
Our shared jeep refused to wait for us at the border and so we had to take a bus further to Gangtok (about 40-minutes) once we had sorted our permits.
For upper Sikkim both Indians and foreigners require a protected area permit. For foreigners this can be hard to get and you must be part of a guided tour of at least two people. Since we are budget backpackers this was out of our means this trip so we stuck to other parts of Sikkim.
Best places to visit in Sikkim
Backpacking in Sikkim is a great way to see this part of the country but if you’re on a limited time frame it helps to have an idea of the places you want to get to. Here is a round-up of some of the best places to visit in Sikkim to plan you Sikkim itinerary.
Although the town is not particularly inspiring it is the gateway to Sikkim and will be your starting point if you plan to take a tour into North Sikkim. If you are interested in mountain biking, motorcycling or want to get any other adventure tours planned in this region you should get in touch with Yadav Bantawa of BBLINE Tours and Travels.
The focal point of the town is the pedestrianised M.G (Mahatma Gandhi) Marg which is lined with shops and restaurants. This seemed to always be packed with people and is a good place to eat and drink. We liked the Coffee Shop café and snacking on rolls at Roll House.
Around Gangtok there are a few attractions the most famous of which is the Rumtek monastery. There is also a good museum of Tibetology which is worth a look. Besides that, Gangtok is a place to relax and plan your next step in Sikkim. Stop in a Rachna Books to get some novels by local authors or have a coffee in the little cafe.
Check out hotels in Gangtok.
How to reach Gangtok
Shared jeeps travel to Gangtok from many destinations across Sikkim and West Bengal. From Darjeeling it takes approximately 5 hours and costs 250 INR. From Siliguri it takes around 4 hours and costs 200 INR. From Pelling it takes 6 hours and costs 250 INR.
From Darjeeling we were dropped in Rangpo to get our permits. From there, there are regular shared jeeps and a bus which costs 50 INR and takes around 45 minutes.
Revangla is a small town about halfway between Gangtok and Pelling. As with most towns in Sikkim the attractions are monasteries and some nice views. There is also a Buddah Park which consists of some large Buddah statues in a bizarre sort of attraction park.
How to reach Revangla
There are shared jeeps from Pelling and Gangtok which both take around 3 hours.
Pelling is the most popular of the small mountain towns and as a result there are lots of accommodation options. We really recommend Hotel Garuda (not on booking.com) which has clean, comfortable rooms with a great view of the mountains (when it’s not cloudy).
From Pelling town you can walk to two lovely monasteries and a helipad with amazing views. Sanghak Choeling monastery is a steep 45 minute walk from the town and is a peaceful place to wander around without being disturbed. Pemayangtsi monastery is an easy 40 minute walk in the other direction and is a bit more of a tourist attraction. Visitors need to pay to enter (50 INR for foreigners) but it is much more intricately decorated and it houses a small museum. On the way there is a little bakery called Lotus Bakery run by Tibtetan refugees which does a surprisingly good chocolate croissant to give you energy for the walk!
If you want to book accommodation in advance in Pelling, check out hotels here.
How to reach Pelling
From Gangtok there are direct jeeps to Pelling taking around 6 hours (250 INR) . From Pelling you can take a shared taxi to neighbouring town called Gayzing, where there is a much bigger jeep stand servicing the rest of Sikkim and even back to Siliguri.
This is a holy lake near to Pelling. Most people stop in as part of a day tour to snap a few quick photos. The lake itself isn’t hugely impressive but the area is very peaceful. From the lake you can walk about 20 minutes up a steep path to a view point. Around the other side of the lake, on top the hill is small village you can only walk to. There is one guest house and that’s about it so if you’re looking for a tranquil place to relax for a few days you can stop off a little longer.
How to reach Khachipari Lake
A day tour from Pelling costs around 2000 INR per vehicle (usually 7 people) which stops off at the lake on the way to Yuksom. You can also hike to the lake from Pelling which takes around 3 hours and is mostly downhill.
Yuksom was the first capital of Sikkim and is a historically significant town with, you guessed it, monasteries and some views. Just outside of the town you can see the oldest monastery in Sikkim and next to the town is an ancient throne of the first king of Sikkim. There is also a small lake surrounded by prayer flags. If you decide to stay in Yuksom you can also do the day hike to the Dubdi monastery which is meant to be one of the most beautiful ones and is set on a mountain top.
How to reach Yuksom
Shared jeeps from Pelling leave in the afternoon which makes it difficult to get there and back in one day without a private driver. The drive takes 2-3 hours.
Sikkim is one of the most beautiful areas of India and is definitely worth making the effort to visit. It´s so different to the rest of India and has a unique and interesting history. The cooler temperatures make it a great place to enjoy when the rest of the country becomes unbearably hot!