To most travellers, western Sikkim is synonymous with the Pemayangtse monastery. But go beyond the popular route and you will discover a region that has something for everyone – from the avid trekker to the slow traveller, from nature lovers to culture vultures. The best time to visit is in April-May when the rhododendrons bloom or in October-November when the snow peaks dazzle against the blue sky.
Known as the Perfect Sublime Lotus, Pemayangtse monastery was built in the early 18th century at a spot where the venerable monk Lhatsun Chenpo had built a small shrine. Perched on a hillock, the monastery houses a statue of Padmasambhava on the lower floor and the seven-tiered Sangthokpalri on the upper floor. The latter is a much-decorated wooden structure which is said to represent Guru Rimpoche’s ‘heavenly abode’. Wall-paintings, antique idols, scriptures and other religious artefacts can also be been throughout the monastery. The monastery also offers a ringside view of the Himalayan snow peaks. Once a tranquil mountain hamlet and now a touristy town, Pelling, about 10km away by road is the gateway to Pemayangste. A limited number of travellers extend their trip with a day visit to Kechaeopalri Lake.
If you are fond of slow travel and hate to rush into a sightseeing spree, then Rinchenpong, about 30km south of Pelling, is the place for you. Here you will find what most people come to Sikkim for – mountain views to monasteries – but you can explore them at your own pace. Go for strolls in the tranquil village hemmed in by the snow peaks. Have a chat with the monks at the local monastery or enjoy a visit to the Rinchenpong Lake. And if you want to avoid the crowds altogether, head to the Yangsum Heritage Farm (http://www.yangsumheritagefarm.com), about two km away from the Rinchenpong market. The 44-acre farm (specialising in organic fruits and vegetables) with its farmhouse dating back to 1833 (remodelled in 1966) is overlooked by the Singalila Range.
Come April-May and the hills of Sikkim break into a profusion of blooms. Head to the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary, tucked between Singalila National Park and Khangchendzonga Biosphere Reserve. The sanctuary is located at the end of a four km forest trek from Hilley village, from where you have to obtain permits, etc. Cars go up to Hilley. During the flowering season, several varieties of rhododendrons bloom here but it is the red variety that is the photographers’ delight. The red bloom appears to set the forest on fire.
If you are not keen to walk up to the sanctuary, you may enjoy the rhododendrons that bloom around Dentam village, about 10km from Barsey and Pemayangste, each. Usually, the village holds a festival to mark the flowering season in March. The forests around Dentam are also known for their birds.
Soak in the charming mountain atmosphere at little known Hee Bermiok. About 30km from Pelling and uphill from Rinchenpong, Hee village is known among veteran nature lovers as the gateway to Chhaya Taal, a serene lake encircled by green hills and overlooked by the snow peaks. The uphill road moves further to the Patal village perched at 7000 feet. The horizon is lined by Mt Kanchendzonga and its retinue of lesser snow peaks, including Pandim, Kabru and Rathong. If you are a sturdy trekker, you may enter the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary from here. A forested path leads to the sanctuary’s Red Panda Gate. The trail to Barsey village lies through dense forest and you must be accompanied by a knowledgeable guide. It takes around seven to eight hours to reach Barsey.
If you are an avid trekker, head to Dzongri and beyond. The trek starts from Yuksam, about 33km from Pelling.
Yuksam is a landmark in the history of Sikkim. It was here that three lamas (Buddhist monks) crowned Phuntsog Namgyal as the first Chogyal of Sikkim in 1642. The dynasty ruled Sikkim until 1975 when the Himalayan kingdom joined India. Although capital shifted to different places, Yuksam is still held in great respect by the people of Sikkim. The stone-built coronation throne is still there. Pilgrims pay their respect to the footprint of Guru Lhatsun Chenpo before proceeding to the Dubdi monastery, Sikkim’s oldest, located about two km uphill. Protected by the ASI, the monastery has been declared a National Monument.
Part of the route to Dzongri lies through the Kanchendzonga National Park and therefore you have to pay entry and other fees at the forest office in Yuksam. Porters, guides and basic provisions are available here. Otherwise, you may contact trekking agencies in Gangtok for the arrangements. Do not miss the sunrise over Mt Pandim from Tsokha village before proceeding to Dzongri. A days trek from Tsokha will take you to Thansing. From here, depending on your time and strength, you may trek to Samity Lake (which catches the image of Mt Pandim on a clear day) and Goecha La.
Getting There: Jorethang, a town in south Sikkim, is the transport hub, from where you can travel to Pelling and other destinations in west Sikkim. While having your own transport allows you a lot of comfort and flexibility, you may also travel by shared cars from Jorethang and Gyalshing (Geyzing) to areas deep inside western Sikkim. However, remember that number of vehicles plying depend on the number of passengers available. Village market days and during festivals, it can be a very crowded ride. Although Sikkim now has its own airport at Pakyong, you may also travel via Bagdogra in neighbouring West Bengal. Accommodation is limited in the region so it is better to plan well in advance.