“We don’t like travelling down there. It’s dangerous. The police are corrupt. They see our faces and pull us over.” “Really? Why do they pull you over?”, “To take money”, “So what happens if you don’t give them money?”, “We have to go to court meaning travelling back down there… we don’t like travelling down there.” “Sounds terrible…”, “There’s also a lot of sex crime…”, “Okay.” A quick conversation with a local Gangtok taxi driver on return travel to West Bengal. I think it highlights the contrast between India and the somewhat separated state of Sikkim. Gangtok and Sikkim like hidden utopias cut off from the realities of India’s social problems. A happy place. Wealthy and clean. “You’re a very honest man!”, “Thanks. Everyone from Sikkim is honest”. Amazing… In travel I rarely find places where there’s no worries of being ripped off, scammed or taken advantage of. Gangtok and Sikkim now one of these few. Everyone I meet are like potential best friends. Having spent previous days in Kolkata the contrast is phenomenal.
Familiar yet Unfamiliar
For its remote, mountainous location; Gangtok to me was surprisingly familiar. Main street shopping, school kids loitering, a city centre lined with Chinese and Indian restaurants. Not so different than the UK. Subway Sandwich and Dominos Pizza Delivery. Newspaper reports of scuffles in the local nightclub. For being so far from home I don’t often feel so close. At the same time there is an odd mix of the unfamiliar. Gangtok and Sikkim are uniquely multicultural with an ethnic Nepali majority and dabbles of Bhutan, Tibetan (Bhutia) and Indian Bengal.
Gangtok City Centre
The New Market area of M.G Marg (Mahatma Gandhi Market) is Gangtok’s pedestrianised city centre. Central of Gangtok local life where residents shop, eat and socialise. Steep stepped lanes adjoining the market lead to other central areas of Lal Market or Old Market. Gangtok is small and simple to navigate. The central taxi stand is also located near the entrance of the pedestrian area (on the main road passing through the city).
This is Gangtok’s local Tibetan Buddhist monastery. A monastery I find unique and different to the more famous of Sikkim. While others act as remote sanctuaries away from urban life; Enchey Monastery embraces it as a trickle of merit makers come and go from the compound. Spinning prayer wheels along the way. Here for full blog and video of Enchey Monastery.
Most tourists travel to Gangtok for the Sikkim mountain views. Views which we failed to find in September (low season). If you plan on snapping Kangchenjunga’s snowy peaks (the world’s 3rd highest mountain) Come between October and June. There was no snow during our visit but a whole lot of cloud (perfect if you love cloud). We did take in a few excursions. Rumtek Monastery and Pal Zurmang Kagyud Monastery during a more local tour of Sikkim. The extensive tour was to Changu Lake (need permit in advance) where the drive there was in fact more exciting; controlled landslides and unique local life amongst the highlights. The third tour was an overnight stay at the Temi Tea Gardens and the tea factory tour. If planning this tour it is best to stay on site at the Cherry Resort.
Travel to Gangtok
A permit is necessary to enter Sikkim, easily picked up at the border, and only local Sikkimese drivers can bring tourists and visitors into the state. We travel from Bagdogra airport after a cheap flight from Kolkata (full details here). The taxi fair from Bagdogra airport to Gangtok was 1,200 RP and return travel from Gangtok to Bagdogra was 1,400 RP. As above the Sikkimese don’t like travelling down there. They are also happy to travel quickly back up.