Everyone loves a good 'hill station' in India. Since the days of the British Raj, they've been a favourite getaway.
But Gangtok in Sikkim has not been on the radar as much as Shimla or Ooty or Darjeeling. It is one of India's best-kept travel secrets. The town reflects the best of Himalayas with pristine alpine forests, snow-capped mountains, and monasteries.
In the first part of our guide, we laid out things to do in Gangtok. In our second installment, we tell you what's on offer nearby.
About 3km northeast of Gangtok lies the 200-year-old Enchey. Also known as the ‘solitary monastery’, it holds a special place in the Buddhist circuit because legend says that Guru Padmasambhava had subdued the spirits of Khangchendzonga, Yabdean and Mahakala here. Hence it is believed that the protecting deities reside here. It belongs to the Nyingma order of Vajrayana Buddhism. The location was blessed by Lama Drupthob Karpo, a practitioner of tantric art in Buddhism who had flying powers.
The deities worshipped here are Buddha, Loketeswara and Guru Padmasambhava. Every year, the vibrant and colourful chaam masked dances – and special prayers – are held here. The Singhe Chaam takes place every three years. And Pang Lhabsol is held just before Losar, the Tibetan New Year day (around Feb/Mar) and Losoong, the Sikkimese New Year (around Dec/ Jan).
Timings: 4am to 4pm. Mon-Sat 4am to 1pm
This monastery is the largest in Sikkim and belongs to the Kargyupa sect. The original monastery — built by the fourth Chogyal — was damaged in an earthquake. The new, existing one was made by the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa. It’s a close replica of the Kagyu headquarters in Tibet, the seat of the Kargyupa sect of Buddhism, and an important centre of Kagyu teachings. The monastery was the seat-in-exile of the sixteenth Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje. It has many sacred objects including the Golden Stupa, which has the relics of the sixteenth Karmapa. Opposite that building is the Nalanda Institute for Higher Buddhist Studies. The monastery celebrates the annual Tse-Chu Chaams around June. Kagyat dances are held at the old monastery. Because it is on a hilltop facing Gangtok, on clear days you get some beautiful views.
Entry is ticketed.
Timings: 6am to 6pm
Parbateyswar Shivalaya Mandir, Aritar
Located about 60km from Gangtok, this temple is dedicated to Shiva. Devotees throng here during the month of sawan, or monsoon, with offerings for the god. A short trek will take you to another temple dedicated to the Rai community at Mankhim Dara. The Aritar monastery nearby belongs to the Karma Kagyu sect. Adjacent to the temple is the manmade Lampokari Lake – you can go boating here. Aritar hosts the Lampokhari Tourism Festival in the month of March-April.
Located between Nathu La and Jelep La Pass at an altitude of about 13,100ft, this temple is rather unique. It is dedicated to Harbhajan Singh, a sentry of Punjab Regiment. You can cover this temple on your way to Tsomgo Lake and Nathu La Pass. There is a touching story associated with this temple. Harbhajan Singh was a sentry of Punjab Regiment and was posted here as part of border patrol force. The border with China is nearby. Sometime in 1968, he died after falling into a stream while escorting mules carrying provisions. He appeared in a dream to one of his colleagues and asked that a memorial be built in his name. A samadhi was made first and then the temple was built.
The sentries and guards here believe that Singh’s spirit protects them. It is believed that soldiers across the China border see a turbaned person doing his rounds at night. Singh was promoted to the rank of honorary captain posthumously. The temple has a large photo of Singh. Singh’s original bunker is actually located near Nathang Valley at the end of a forked road from Tukla, on the historic Silk Route where the original mandir was built. Due to the difficulty in accessing such a terrain, the new mandir was built in 1982.
Located at Rangpo, this is part of the Barelvi school of thought in Islam and follows the Sunni Hanafi school which has over 200 million followers in South Asia. The town of Bareilly was the home of the movement’s founder, and leader Ahmed Raza Khan. Hence the word ‘Barelvi’
This is a 100-foot waterfall located in a landscaped park about 7km from Gangtok. The pathways and footbridge around the park helps navigate the 2-acres of land area. You can go paddle boating on a manmade lake with a dragon at the center. The gazebos let you soak in the flowing stream that forms at the bottom of the waterfall. Along the stream are trees and flowers such as poinsettias, camellias, angelica, and hydrangeas. It is a popular local place for picnics. The word ‘jhakri’ means ‘jungle priest’.
The park has several statues of jhukris and of the ancestors of the Lyam Lymay, Mangpas, and Lepcha people of Sikkim. Apart from jhakris, the area has a renewable energy theme and is also known as the Energy Park. A museum hall set up by the Sikkim Rural Energy Development Agency (SREDA) exhibits models of renewable energy. And the grounds have exhibits on renewal energy. Solar-powered lamps light up the park after sunset. The slides and swings generate power when used. Near the car park, there’s a cafe and some gift shops.
Entry is ticketed. Car parking fee is extra.
Timings: 8am to 6pm
Lampokhari Lake At an altitude of 1402m, this boot-shaped water body is one of the oldest natural lakes in Sikkim. It is 1,120ft long and 240ft wide. You can walk around the pathway or go boating on the emerald green lake with green pine forests around it. A narrow path connects the lake to the nearby Mankhim mountain top. The two-kilometer walk has viewpoints and is a very popular bird watching trail. A small temple dedicated to Guru Padmasambhava stands on the banks of the lake. The Lampokhari Tourism Festival is held here between end March and early April.
During the festival, you can go horse riding around the lake, take part in traditional archery competitions, rock climbing and paragliding, and go on short treks to nearby hilltops and viewpoints. Traditional cultural shows, flower exhibitions and stalls which sell local cuisine are part of the festival.
Kyongnosla Alpine Sanctuary
Stretched over an area of 31 sq km, all the way up to Tsomgo Lake, Kyongnosla Alpine Sanctuary is home to rare orchids, rhododendrons, primulas, medicinal plants, and animals like the red panda, Himalayan black bears, raptors such as black eagle, black winged kite and kestrel, and blood pheasants. You get good views of Gangtok and surrounding hills from here. It has a breathtaking view of the Khangchendzonga peak in the west and Mt Pandim and Mt Narsing in the south. About a kilometer ahead is Tseten Tashi Cave, which has a 20-ft high ceiling.
Thanks to the difficult terrain of the region, a large portion of the sanctuary remains unexplored by humans. If you want to stay the night, Sikkim Forest Department has a couple of log huts outside the sanctuary with beds, electricity, water and some other aminities. You have to book them at the Sikkim Forest Department office in Deorali, Gangtok.
Entry is ticketed.
Fambong Lho Wildlife Sanctuary
Fambong Lho comes from the Lepcha word ‘hambomloh’ which refers to wild local avocado trees. Around 30km west of Gangtok, this sanctuary is contiguous with Khangchendzonga National Park and is home to the Himalayan black bear, red panda, civet cats (including a rare civet called the binturong or bear-cat), and several varieties of birds and butterflies. It’s a great place to see several species of laughing thrush including the red-faced liocichla. It makes for a good short-distance trekking trail. You can even get a good view of the Khangchendzonga range from Golitar, particularly in the buffer area of the sanctuary.
Reshi Hot Springs
This hot spring (or cha-chu in local lingo) is about 6km from Legship on the banks of the Rangit River. You can take a dip here to ease sore trekking muscles or to heal. The water is high in sulphur and is known to have curative properties. The health benefits and the beautiful natural landscapes that hold the springs make this place a must-visit. You can stay overnight at any of the several basic accommodation options like trekker huts.
Nearby is the Lho Khandro Sang Phug cave (or the cave of occult fairies) and a small monastery. Come here during the winter months and spend a week or more soaking in these springs if you really want to benefit from their healing properties.
Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary
This sanctuary is part of the Sacred Himalayan Landscape, a 39,021km trans-boundary landscape in the eastern Himalayas which extends from Langtang National Park in Nepal, through Sikkim and Darjeeling in India to western Bhutan’s Torsa Strict Nature Reserve. The central attraction in the sanctuary, located in the Yumthang Valley of Flowers north of Lachung, are the rhododendron shrubs and trees — it has over forty species. Come here during spring when the flowers are in bloom. Between the months of August and September, accessibility is difficult due to bad road conditions.