Travel G-spots

POV {+ Travel Tips}: Sikkim, INDIA

If you are cheap like me, Sikkim is the place to go, not Bhutan.

A quick 2 degrees off tangent diversion to get everyone on the same page… Bhutan – the Land of the Thunder Dragon – is no ordinary place, where it is a deeply Buddhist land with giant protective penises painted murals adorning the walls of most houses, and where Gross National Happiness is deemed more important than Gross National Product. I shall reserve my cynicism on the latter and point out that the one thing that irks me most about Bhutan is its unique tourism where foreigners pay a minimum of USD200 per day; making it one of the world’s most expensive countries to visit. So, since the deal does not include Maybach ground transfers, Four Seasons accommodation and Michelin star chefs type standards, plus a monopolized Druk airlines … Bhutan can kiss my @#$%.   

Frankly, I was extremely apprehensive a week before leaving for Sikkim despite 4 weeks of preparation that includes 4 degrees separation of friends, freelance photojournalist, CNN and AFP correspondents, a travel photographer, an air force pilot, two fixers, three tour/trek guides and Sikkim Tourism offices. Inadequate and inaccessible information made it seem like an ‘unaccustomed earth‘, with the last straw coming 12 hours before take off in the form of news of a Gorkhaland Bandh and my inability to confirm the severity and risk associated to it with a news correspondent friend {read HERE}. Nonetheless, I decided to take the plunge; mindful of the possibility of reorganizing / rerouting along the way, which I did, taking note of the political situation daily via local newspapers and phone calls.

pHaque Gorkaland India

Photo © {p}.Haque – All Rights Reserved – Gorkhaland protesters take to the streets in Kalimpong, West Bengal on the day I left Kalimpong..

Getting to Sikkim (Gangtok to be exact)
Point is: Bhutan is expensive to get to, Sikkim is ‘hard’ to get to.

From Kuala Lumpur, you’d need to fly to Calcutta (depending on airline of choice, you may have to take a connecting flight from Delhi to Calcutta), connect to either Bagdogra (a military airport open for civilian flights), or take an overnight Darjeeling Mail Express train from the congested and chaotic Sealdah train station in Calcutta to New Jalpaiguri (Indian Rail Info HERE).

The arrival in New Jalpaiguri is barely more reassuring as it was only marginally better than the chocked-up platforms and roads, as well as wakes of scavenging vulture-like-tourist touts ready to strike the weak and unsuspecting tourist found in and around Sealdah. Once the jeep gets a breather with the thinning of towns and extremely poor villages producing cane products and pottery in New Jalpaiguri and Siliguri, it’s a 2-and-a-half hour uphill drive seemingly to no where and no end to Rangpo – the border town of Sikkim-West Bengal.

To enter Sikkim, an inner line permit (border crossing pass) must be obtained from either Calcutta, New Jalpaiguri, or the two entry points of Sikkim in Rangpo or Jorethang. Unable to stomach the crowds on an empty stomach, I  did mine in Rangpo rather than New Jalpaiguri. I faced a few lines of questioning by the border guards, as the permit application office requires you to enter into Rangpo’s town, which translates to entering Sikkim without a permit in hand. However, once you’re actually filling out the form, handing over your most prized possession – your passport – the inner line permit to Sikkim is no more than formality and of less hassle than that to Tsomgo Lake, let alone Nathu La.

The Inner Line Permit for Sikkim last for 15 days and it can be extended twice; i.e. 45 days maximum, within 2 days of expiry at Mangan, Namchi and Tikjuk. Re-entry into Sikkim within 3 months is prohibited even if you left Sikkim within the first 15 days. The permit is to be retained throughout the stay (and returned upon exit) for checking (together with the stamped passport), and to obtain additional permits at a few points:

on the way to Tsomgo Lake and straight on to Nathu La,

Yumthang Valley, and

at the start of the Yuksom-Dzongri-Goecha La trek.

Like New Jalpaiguri, Siliguri and Jorethang, there is no real reason to stay in this uninteresting border town.

So, once I was done with the 30 minutes formality and another 15 minutes of chow time on some delicious hot vegetarian momos (the restaurant ran by a Bengali family beside Foreigner Registration Office is good), I resumed the uphill drive for another 2 hours to Gangtok, the state capital, East Sikkim government headquarters and the centre of Sikkim tourism.

.In Gangtok (and getting OUT and around Gangtok)

Besides the Enchey Monastery that hosted the Enchey Chaam, I could have given Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, Do-Drul Chorten & Gompa, the Flower Exhibition Hall, Himalayan Zoological Park and the Directorate of Handicrafts and Handloom a missed.

Nonetheless, whilst there isn’t very much to do or see in Gangtok, it is the best place to set-up ‘base camp’ primarily for its options of reasonable places to stay and eat – including a western cafe that serves acceptable espresso on the first floor of a music shop along MG Marg (short for Mahatma Gandhi Road).

Gangtok is also a great place to organise day trips out to the more remote places of Rumtek (1.5 to 2 hours drive), Lingdum (1.5 hours drive),  Phodong (2 to 2.5 hours drive), and especially Tsomgo Lake (2.5 hours) that requires visitors to be chaperoned by a registered tour guide/company, a permit and a minimum of two foreigners.

Likewise, a visit to picturesque and rugged Yumthang Valley in North Sikkim would require a party of 4 pax, an organised tour, permits and realistically a night or two out in the village of Lachung (24km before Yumthang Valley). And needless to say, with any treks (which I did not go on any this time around as I was in Sikkim to cover 2 photo stories) in North or West Sikkim, one would need a guide, but more so in Sikkim where many pass through sensitive military high security areas that requires permits.

My Experience  
Not keen on haggling daily and somewhat anal retentive when it comes to travel planning, I got myself a fixer and chartered a private jeep, which proved to be a good decision. Not only did I save time, the bonding with them enriched my understanding of the local culture and people that  allowed me to achieve more in my photo stories.

Retaining the fixer and driver for a few more days was a brilliant idea as they assisted me in my research, and allowed me to explore areas and crossed borders I wouldn’t have  dream of otherwise. Thus, from my photo-story standpoint (as well as being a ‘brave heart’ accumulating sexy immigration stamps on my passport), Sikkim exceeded all my expectations.

As a tourist, I had a blast! The people, hotel staff, government officials, and even monks were extremely friendly and helpful – I learned the chaam dance steps and did my first life routine in Phodong, where my ardors were only tempered by my right knee which seemingly did not appreciate my weight for the 8-hour long dance sessions, let alone the rigors of the dance steps.

So I guess the upside of how ‘difficult’ it was to reach the place and the Gorkhaland Bandh was that there was almost no tourist in Sikkim. I never saw more than 5 other huge dSLR camera yielding tourist simultaneously in a same place or even at any Chaams!!! This made my presence a bit more palatable and I was able to pushed myself to shoot an event / ceremony with a wide angle prime lens, which I was told by a few professional photographers that it was not possible and too difficult.

So, as far as Sikkim goes … I will definitely be back some day. Neither monks ‘kissing’ me (read HERE) nor Mount Khangchendzonga playing hide-and-seek with me behind fogs and clouds have dampen my enthusiasm for my cheap and do-able version of Bhutan.

{This post is dedicated to Keat. I may have unknowingly ‘stolen’ your idea of visiting Sikkim, but dude! I have done all the hard leg work for you!!! }

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