Gangtok & Environs
Sikkim's capital sits at an altitude of 1,780m (5,800 ft.), straddling a high ridge where houses and concrete blocks spill down the hillside; below is the Ranipul River. With only 29,000 inhabitants, it's relatively laid-back and generally free from the malaise that stalks India's many overpopulated towns and cities. For visitors, the most noble of Gangtok's charms is its proximity to marvelous mountain vistas; the town itself is threatened by unchecked construction. A base for visitors who come to organize treks or wind down after a high-altitude experience, it's pleasant to roam around but certainly not packed with attractions. The town's most significant drawing card is the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology (admission Rs 10; Mon-Sat 10am-4pm), which houses a collection of Tibetan, Sanskrit, and Lepcha manuscripts, as well as statues, Buddhist icons, masks, scrolls, musical instruments, jewelry, incense burners, and beautiful thangkas (painted or embroidered tapestry wall hangings).
Nearby, Do-Drul Chorten is a fine example of a whitewashed Buddhist stupa, encircled by prayer wheels. Enchey Monastery is a Tibetan Buddhist lamasery worth visiting, and the Flower Exhibition Centre (Rs 5 adults, Rs 5 camera), near White Hall, attracts orchid buffs. In the manner of traditional hill kingdom forts and castles, Sikkim's royalty once resided within the yellow tin-roofed palace in the uppermost reaches of the town. From here, the Chogyal and his family enjoyed the best views in Gangtok. Sadly, the Chogyal palace is off-limits to visitors. When the British turned up, they installed their very own "White Hall" alongside the palace and, despite initial bickering, soon got round to several decades of contented socializing. A good morning excursion (8am-noon) is to the stunning high-altitude Changu Lake. This is barely 18km (11 miles) from the Indo-Chinese border post Nathu-La, which has only recently been opened up for trade. It is extremely cold here, even in the summer, so come prepared. Permits are a must for all travelers, and the 90-minute return journey will cost Rs 650 per person in a shared taxi.
Rumtek Monastery -- The region's top attraction lies 24km (15 miles) from Gangtok. Rigpe Dorjee, the "supreme head" of one of Tibetan Buddhism's four major sects -- the Kagyu, or "Black Hat" order -- revived it in 1959 after the Chinese invaded Tibet. Regarded as the richest Buddhist monastic center in India, Rumtek houses some of the world's rarest and most unique religious artifacts; its design is said to replicate that of the original Kagyu headquarters in Tibet. Try to get here during prayer times, when the red-carpeted benches are occupied by the Vajra chant and disciplinary master, who leads the chanting of prayers. The venerated part of the complex is the Golden Stupa, a 4m-high (13-ft.) chorten in which the mortal remains of the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa (founder of the Black Hat order) are enshrined. Gold-plated and embedded with jewels, turquoise, and coral, the stupa is kept in a locked shrine room, which must be specially unlocked for visitors. Ask a monk to help you track down the keeper of the key. (Note: If you come in Feb, you will be able to witness the fascinating annual mask dance and other ceremonies that take place in all the monasteries in the region, all celebrating the Tibetan New Year.) For more information, go to www.rumtek.org.
Pelling & Environs
Traditionally a stopover for trekkers headed for Yoksum, Dzongri, and similar high-altitude spots in western Sikkim, Pelling has begun to establish itself as a tourist destination in its own right, and as a result, concrete lodges have sprung up indiscriminately to cash in on the passing trade. Nevertheless, the surrounding scenery is spectacular, and the sunrise behind snow-clad Khangchendzonga will leave you breathless. Besides hiking or rafting, the top attractions are the nearby monasteries. From Pelling, a pleasant 30-minute walk along the main road toward Geyzing will lead you to one of Sikkim's oldest and most revered monasteries, Pemayangtse (entry Rs 5; daily 7am-4pm), situated at 2,085m (6,672 ft.) in a cliff-top forest clearing. Set up as a monastery for Ta-Sang, or "pure monks" of the Nyingmapa order, Pemayangtse was established in 1705 by Lhatsun Chempo, one of the lamas who performed the consecration ritual of Sikkim's first king. Its prized treasure is a 7m-tall (22-ft.) wooden depiction of Guru Rinpoche's Sang-tok-palri, or "heavenly palace," encased in glass in the monastery's upper room. Note that it's worth trying to contact Yapo S. Yongda, who resides here -- he's a fascinating source of information on Sikkimese history.
Southeast of Pemayangtse (30-min. walk), on a lower hillock, are the ruins of the late-17th-century Rabdentse Palace, from where you can see Tashiding Monastery, one of the most idyllic, peaceful, and sublime monasteries in India. Hire a jeep from Pelling to get here (Rs 1,400 round-trip). A mere glance at Tashiding's Thongwa Rangdol, Sikkim's most venerated chorten, will (if Buddhist legends are to be believed) absolve you of all your sins. Also of special significance is the bhumpa, a copper vase that contains the holy water used each year during the Bhumchu festival, when a sacred ritual reveals Sikkim's fate for the upcoming year. It's a somewhat stiff 50-minute hike in the opposite direction to hilltop Sanga Choling Monastery -- but it's worth it, for the most panoramic views around. Constructed in 1697, this is believed to be the second-oldest Buddhist monastery in Sikkim. Go when morning or evening prayers are held. For more information on the region, call the Tourism Information Office at tel. 94-3463-0876. There is, however, one more optional stopover for those with more time to explore -- 2 hours south of Pelling is the small town of Rinchenpong -- worth including just so you can overnight at Yangsum Farm.
Walking the Eastern Himalayas: Discovering Rural Life on Foot
While the tougher mountain trails have always lured serious trekkers to Sikkim, ambling through local villages and getting a taste of traditional life and culture along with the stunning terrain and views, with the mighty Kanchenjunga for company, wasn't commonly found on the agenda until now. Shakti has changed all that with its foray into the eastern Himalayas (tel. 0124/456-3899; www.shaktihimalaya.com; email@example.com; Oct-Apr except Jan). Village Walks are $1,356 per person on twin-share basis for 4 night/5-day experience, and rates include transfers to/from Bagdogra airport, private guides, porterage, meals/drinks, room, and service charge for staff. The 4-day walks are designed to suit even the unfit -- 5 to 6 hours of walking (can be adjusted to suit your needs) lead you to a new village each day, where a local house has been refurbished sensibly and sensitively to suit western travelers without robbing its authenticity. The families are a delight to interact with, meals prepared by the Shakti chef are simple and delicious, and the accompanying staff and guide well versed in giving you an insight into this enigmatic part of the country. Shakti's prices are always as steep as the hills they traverse but the returns are as joyous and rewarding.
Treks Through Western Sikkim
Treks around western Sikkim are justifiably popular, not least because of the spectacular views afforded throughout, but they are challenging. If you want something relatively short and undemanding, the 4-day trek from Pelling to Tashiding and back is ideal, covering both cultural sights and majestic scenery. Far more challenging, and requiring more time and extra stamina, are the high-altitude treks to Dzongri (3,861m/12,870 ft.; 6 days) and Goeche La (4,740m/15,800 ft.; 9-10 days). There are also other treks to Singalila and Versay in the west, Greenlake in the north, and Kedi and Teenjure in the east. Trekking here is only allowed with a recognized trekking operator in Gangtok; a daily fee of $50 to $75 will include guides, porters, yaks, tents, and food. March through May, the fabulous -- and less strenuous -- 5-day Rhododendron Trek through the exotic forests of the Singalila Range, near the border with Nepal, become possible. (Note: Due to the damp climate and vegetation, Western Sikkim is notorious for its leeches; local techniques of applying limestone chalk or tobacco help but aren't foolproof.)
Exploring the Wilds of Assam
To most, Assam means tea, and indeed some 20% of the world's tea is grown here. But Assam's remote location (best reached by plane from Kolkata or Bagdogra, flying into Guwahati, after which you need to travel by road, with the closest park approximately 4 hr. away) has meant that it remains one of India's best-kept secrets, despite boasting two out of India's five World Heritage environmental sites -- Manas and Kaziranga. In Manas, apart from a small and extremely basic but superbly located Forest Rest House at Mothanguri (contact the Field Director, Manas Tiger Reserve; tel. 03666/233-413), deep in the park, the only place to stay is the Bansbari Lodge (www.assambengalnavigation.com; firstname.lastname@example.org), right beside the park entrance. The 16 fan-cooled rooms are spacious and have small balconies. The lodge arranges performances of Bodo tribal dancing. Be warned: The access road to the park from the National Highway is in dire need of attention. The more popular Kaziranga is among the top five places to see wildlife in India. This marshy plain beside the Brahmaputra was turned into a wildlife sanctuary by Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, in 1908. At that time there were only a handful of rhinos left; now around 1,800 graze the park; they constitute the vast majority of the world population of the Asian one-horned rhinoceros. Also present here are wild elephant, buffalo, swamp deer, hog deer, sambar, wild boar, as well as the densest tiger population in India. But don't get your hopes up -- tiger in Kaziranga are harder to spot than almost anywhere else, thanks to the lush vegetation. The best way to get close to the rhinos is atop an elephant: Every morning cavalcades of 20 or so elephants head out rhino tracking -- and visitors are seldom disappointed. If you aren't staying on board one of Assam Bengal Navigation's river cruise ships, a good alternative would be their Diphlu River Lodge (www.diphluriverlodge.com) with thatched cottages on stilts looking across the water into the park itself -- from the machan at night you can watch rhino graze on the far bank. The cottages are air-conditioned, and marvelously spacious. Otherwise Wild Grass (tel. 03776/226-2011; www.oldassam.com) offers a good standard of comfort and is close to the entrance to Kaziranga's Central Range.
Wildlife Safari by Boat
The Brahmaputra flows for some 644km (400 miles) through Assam, and a river cruise is the best way to visit this little-known region in comfort. There is hardly any traffic on the river, just the occasional country boat taking fishermen to their traps. Otherwise you'll find total solitude, rare indeed in India. The two 12-double-cabin riverboats of Assam Bengal Navigation (www.assambengalnavigation.com; email@example.com) are comfortable without being pretentious. Rooms are all air-conditioned, the en-suite bathrooms are workmanlike, and the furnishings, which make use of local weaving, rattan, and bamboo, are simple and unfussy. Each boat has a saloon and bar with glass doors looking out on a small foredeck and the river ahead, while upper sun decks are furnished with sun loungers and generous seating. ABN's cruises range in length from 4 to 14 nights and cost from $350 per person per night. Most days the boat stops for a visit on land, whether to a wildlife park, tea garden, temple, or tribal village. A fleet of jeeps is used to take guests on longer excursions, but be warned, Assam's road surfaces leave a lot to be desired. Transfers are included in the tariff. Pickups can be done at either of the two airports in Dibrugarh or Guwahati, both of which are connected to Delhi and Kolkata.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.