Nestling in the lap of the mighty Himalayas, Sikkim - India's only slum-free, beggar-free and litter-free state - packs in an amazing range of attractions which belie its small size and just over 600,000 population. Lofty mountains and passes, rivers and waterfalls, forests and wildlife, Buddhist monasteries, the list is long indeed. The 28,208 ft Mt. Khangchendzonga, which dominates the landscape of Sikkim, is the third highest mountain in the world and the highest in India. The local people are hospitable and and home-stay is a nice opportunity to know the culture and food of the state which is a mixture of Lepcha, Bhutia and Nepali culture.
Gangtok: The capital of the state, Gangtok is the most convenient starting point for a first-time visitor to the state. Keep two to three days for this clean, orderly and happening town.
Begin with a visit to the state tourism office and any of the approved tourist agencies, who can help you draw up a convenient itinerary.
The vehicle-free MG Road - with its tiled walking plaza, convenient benches, fountains and decorative greenery - is the lifeline of the city. A walk along the road shows how Sikkim is merging the modern with the traditional. There are many cafes, restaurants and stores selling branded and local goods along the road to explore. Take the network of walkways to explore the town if walking is your forte.
A ride in the aerial ropeway connecting Deorali and Tashiling is a must for a glimpse of the mountains and a bird’s eye view of the town. There are several viewpoints around the town, the most popular ones being Ganesh Tok and Hanuman Tok.
Pay a visit to the Namgyal Research Institute of Tibetology where you will find a vast collection of rare Lepcha, Tibetan and Sanskrit manuscripts, statues and rare thankas (colourful Buddhist scrolls or tapestries).
If you are on a tight schedule, pay a visit to the over 200-years Enchey Monastery perched on a hillock in Gangtok. The monastery celebrates its annual Chaam festival usually in January. With a little more time in hand, you can visit Sa-Ngor Monastery and Gonjang Monastery.
Other points of attraction include Hurhuray Dara, Menmecho Lake, Bakthang Waterfalls, zoo, Fambong Lho Wildlife Sanctuary, etc.
With special permission (that can be arranged through any government approved travel agent), you can visit the Tsomgo Lake (38km from Gangtok) that remains frozen in winter and continue to Nathu La (about 20km from the lake and part of the famous Silk Route) from where you can see China and are in hand-shaking distance of Chinese border guards. However, Nathu La is open to Indian visitors only, from Wednesday to Sunday. At Tsomgo Lake, you will find food stalls, hairy yaks to ride, etc.
If you are looking for ethnic handicrafts and handlooms, pay a visit to the Government Institute of Cottage Industry.
Yumthang: The alpine valley lying at 11,800 feet remains covered in snow during winter and breaks into a profusion of flowers during spring and early summer. The Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary over is said to contain 24 species of rhododendron flowers that bloom from April to May-end. Autumn is the time to visit if you want to see the show-peaks dazzle beneath a blue sky. Located about 150km from Gangtok, Yumthang can be visited only in package tours bought from authorised agents. Although it is not unusual for people to complete the tour in one day and return to Gangtok, at least a night’s stay is recommended. With a leisurely ride, you can also see of the attractions en route. With more time in hand you can extend your journey to the holy Gurudongmar, an alpine lake that never totally freezes even in peak winter owing to a blessing bestowed on it by Guru Padmasambhava, also known as the 'second Buddha'.
Pelling: Pelling offers you a panoramic view of Mt. Khangchendzonga (Kanchenjunga) and other peaks. The lower town is slightly crowded. Escape to the higher reaches if you are looking for some tranquil moments. Pay a visit to the Pemayangste Monastery, one of the oldest in the state. Request for a glimpse of the handcrafted wooden structure that is said to be a replica of the heavenly abode of Guru Padmasambhava. The town is also a gateway to many scenic spots, including Khecheopalri Lake, Khangchendzonga Waterfalls, Rimbi Waterfalls, etc. You can also trek to Dzongri starting from Pelling. You can also combine a trip to Ravangla and Namchi with Pelling. The 135 feet high statue of Guru Padamasambhava is at Samdruptse near Namchi.
Uttarey: Perched at 6600 feet, it is one of the lesser known corners of Sikkim. Accessible through Pelling or Geyzing, the place is known for its natural beauty. Set amidst a dense forest is the Kagju Gumpha, known for its murals. You can also visit the Chewyabhang Pass, about 10km from Uttarey.
Hee Bermiok: If you are fond of adventure sports and trekking, this is the place to be. You can get to Hee Bermiok from Pelling. There are some nice home-stays here, simple but comfortable. Go trekking to Varsey or the Sirujunga Falls. Go mountain-biking. Go birdwatching – nearly 65 species of birds are found in the surrounding forests.
Information: Sikkim has to be approached from the plains of West Bengal. Bagdogra is the nearest airport. Gangtok is about 125km from Bagdogra by road. Bagdogra is also connected with Gangtok by daily helicopter service operated by Sikkim Tourism Development Corporation. Nearest railway stations are New Jalpaiguri and Siliguri, 125 km and 114 kms from Gangtok by road, respectively. An air service to Gangtok is expected to be operational mid-2017.
According to Sikkim Tourism webite (http://sikkimtourism.gov.in/), foreigners must obtain Inner Line Permit (ILP) to visit Sikkim. These can be obtained from all Indian missions abroad, Sikkim Tourism Offices at New Delhi, Kolkata, District Magistrates Office of Darjeeling, Siliguri, and Rangpo on the strength of an Indian Visa. The 30-day duration permit is issued on the spot without any delay provided photocopies of the passport and visa along with two pass port photos of the applicants are made available. The permissible duration of the stay for foreign tourists is 30 days initially.
Hotels and homestays to suit every budget are available at most places.
While people are friendly and accommodating, it is always recommended to ask for permission before taking photographs inside monasteries and of people.