A Complete Sikkim Travel guide for first timers

I have been twice to Sikkim – The first one was not so successful (because of some dumb decisions my friends and I made). The second time, it was splendid, and I crossed the border to explore Bhutan by bike. After learning from my mistakes, Sahana wandered in Sikkim for 16 days. So you can consider this as –

Your Complete Sikkim travel guide.

Index

Sikkim is in India

Indian bikers corssing Inida-Bhutan border at sikkim getting checked by Bhutan army personnel

Crossing India-Bhutan Border at Sikkim.

I don’t usually state what is where – But if you have a doubt, Sikkim is in India. Many Indians & foreigners think a part of Sikkim belongs to China. It shares a border with Bhutan, Nepal and China. West Bengal is the only Indian state that lines India’s second-smallest state. Indian Government neglected all the North East Indian states for a long time, and Sikkim is no exception. Fortunately, things are changing now.

Why visit Sikkim.

Frozen Gurudongmar lake in sikkim with barren brown desert around and shorter himalayan mountains

This is one of the places in the whole world where I felt the positive vibrations most.

The usual idea of India among most travellers is buzzing cities, colourful streets, temples and flowers everywhere -This is true. But Sikkim shows you the other face of India. The third highest mountain in the world – Kanchenjunga, plays peek-a-boo almost everywhere here. You are never far from Sikkim’s most hypnotic and soothing Buddhist chants. The refreshing Chai, fresh organic vegetables, Tibetian inspired food, and hiking trails to infinity make Sikkim charming.

By this explanation, you may think this is the place for solitude seekers and not party animals.

Group of multinational tourists celebrating a party with alcohol along with Indian travellers at Gangtok in Sikkim

Watching the England-Sri Lanka Cricket match at our Gangtok Lodge – The guy in the centre was from England. We all were Sri Lanka Supporters – It was a super fun evening.

The number of Karaoke clubs in Gangtok serving Rice millet beer can keep you dancing all night. The snowfall and green forest, Thentuk and Rice beer, clubs and monastery, mountains and hamlets by the lake – You can never have enough of it – That is why I went twice.

How to travel to Sikkim

Tall wasterfall between two snow mountains at sikkim

Somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Sikkim

The slopy terrains and harsh weather make it almost impossible to have a train route and a commercial airport. So the nearest airport and train station is at Siliguri in West Bengal state, which is 115km from Sikkim’s capital Gangtok. Bagdogra airport has an International airport label. But the major international flights are from Paro and Bangkok only as of 2022. Other than that, major Indian cities have weekly twice/thrice flights coming in.

Kolkatta to Sikkim by Train

This is another convenient route for international and South Indian Travellers. There are a sufficient number of flights/trains to Kolkatta, and they are cheaper. An overnight train journey to New Jalpaiguri Junction in Siliguri works fine if you have plenty of time and want to save money. I took this option when I travelled to Sikkim for the second time, and it went super fine.

Cyclers and Indian travellers walking beside India-Bangladesh fenced border at Siliguri

I usually don’t dislike any towns, but Siliguri is one town that I didn’t enjoy. Siliguri is dry and not so clean. I had to wait for two days to get my bike after Indian railways took their sweet time delivering my bike to this city. The city neither had a small-town serenity nor a great town vibrancy. The most weirdly interesting thing I found in Siliguri was the “Scary House” on top of the Garbhagudi of an ISCKON Krishna temple.

If you want to wander around or snooze for a while after a long haul before hitting the Sikkim mountain, go to either Darjeeling/Kalimpong/ Pelling or Gangtok directly from Siliguri.

Things to know about Sikkim before going.

Travelling in Sikkim isn’t rocket science, but not as easy as you travel to Goa. But there are certain things you must know to make it easier. The time of the year matters most for you to enjoy our beautiful North-East state. My Sikkim experience in December is dissimilar to the one I had in June. Sahana’s February experience is something else only.

Best time to Travel in Sikkim

Indian biker with Royal enfield bike stuck on the snow filled road of sikkim

The worst time to visit Sikkim is in December. All my six friends and I could do was get stuck on the road in snow and rain; we came back after a week after visiting ONLY Gangtok & Yumthang.

The best time is February’s second week till January and October to November. December is the worst month – unless you want to get stuck on a snow-filled road like I did and want to get rescued by the Indian army.

How many days to spend in Sikkim

The best part of Sikkim is Zuluk with winding serpantine roads in the mountains

This is during Sahana’s Visit in February.

Sikkim is a famous honeymoon and family vacation destination among domestic travellers. Most organised tours don’t go beyond Gangtok, Yumthang, and Nathu-La. The best part of Sikkim is beyond these places – North and East Sikkim. So I recommend a minimum of 12 days for wandering in the best places of Sikkim, beyond the usual places. If you plan to go multiple day trekking in a place like Goche-La, you can add one more week.

Is Sikkim cheap for travellers?

Inside of a small home-run cafe at Padamchen

You get Breakfast for 40 Rs at places like this in Sikkim- Pic Above is from Padamchen.

Sikkim is cheaper for both Domestic and Foreign Travellers. Hardly you find any gourmet restaurants and fancy hotels. Small home run cafes and homestays are best to save money. With a few foreign backpackers coming in, hostel culture is evident in Sikkim, especially Gangtok. If you are travelling with the elderly, book rooms on the ground floor. Many hotels don’t have elevators.

Mud wall house with asbestos roofing and wooden railing in a Sikkim village surrounded by forest

We stayed in places mostly like this during our Sikkim bike trip. Cost: 600Rs/Room for 3

Is it safe to travel to Sikkim?

North-East states of India are safer and cleaner in general. So Sikkim is safe for all kinds of travellers. Sahana and my sister travelled all over Sikkim, and they had the best time. I have been on the remote roads of Sikkim. All I received was love and help.

Indian woman traveller standing with arms stretched at Yumthan in Sikkim on the snow mountain

If you are laughing at my Lady’s gloves and boots – They are rentals from a Yumthang homestay to walk in the snow. So the style doesn’t matter, but comfort and whatever is available matter.

You must know that Sikkim is one of India’s largest consumers of alcohol. The Gangtok city’s police maintain good law and order. So getting troubled by drunken men in Gangtok is less. On a rainy night, I was troubled by two drunken men at 10 pm in a village where there was only one house, and that house’s residents saved me from the drunkards. So Avoid travelling after dark in rural areas by yourselves.

Sikkimese family with Indian bikers

During my second Sikkim Bike trip with two other friends, this family rescued me from a drunk man late in the night when my bike broke down.

Who needs a Permit to Travel in Sikkim?

copy of north sikkim permit

The below process may sound too much, but the beauty of Sikkim is worth it. Plus, you can expect Sikkim Permit offices to work faster than the other government offices. Things are easier with a few passport-sized photographs, a valid National ID (for domestic travellers), and a Passport for foreigners. As Sikkim borders are sensitive, it is considered a restricted area. So all foreigners with valid Indian visas must take an Inner Line Permit, which is free of cost.

Indian travellers don’t need permission to enter Sikkim but need it for the border areas.

Indian bikers at Gurudongmar lake accompanied by Indian army officials

You don’t find bikers in Sikkim as much as in Ladakh. Gurudongmar temple caretaker and a few officials were happy to see bikers in the corner of Northern Sikkim.

Unlike how you take permission to enter Lakshadweep, we Indians don’t need to take any prior permission. Solo bike travellers aren’t allowed to travel north. There must be at least two bikes going together. The bikers must get a permit a day prior and report to the Gangtok Home MInistry office on leaving for the North or Eastern Border.

But areas like Gurudongmar in the North, Nathu La, and Zuluk requires Indian nationals also to get permission in Gangtok. The easiest way to get the permit is through an agent who will help you with everything and gets you a permit. Remember, kids below age 5 and senior citizens with health issues aren’t allowed to high altitude areas in North and East Sikkim. Check here for their official website to know in detail.

How to get a North Sikkim travel permit as a foreign traveller

Small houses in the Himalaya valley surrounded by snow

Breathtaking Chopta Valey -Foreign travellers are allowed till only Chopta Valley before Gurudongmar unless special permission is obtained by Central Home Ministry in Delhi.

The permitted days for a foreigner to stay in Sikkim is 30 days. Once in Sikkim, you can get it extended at Gangtok’s home department if you want to stay further. Getting a permit before entering Sikkim in major cities with a Sikkim tourism department in India is better. Mumbai, Kolkatta, Chennai and Delhi airport immigration officers also issue this permit. The best is to get RAP from the Indian embassy in your country.

hamlet in sikkim by the riverside surrouned by mountainds and partly covered in fog on a rainy day

Ain’t this beauty worth your little effort to get pemits? PC- Our buddy Srikanth A R

Foreigners with just ILP aren’t allowed to travel to border areas. They must obtain further permission to visit border areas. It may sound complicated, but once you are in Sikkim, you will find dozens of travellers like you, waiting to get permission. Visiting North Sikkim may require you to get permission in a group and be from Central Home Ministry in Delhi. Watch out for the Notice boards or Pin-Up boards in your hostels. People usually pin up saying, “I want to go to Gudurongmar, join me to the lake and Delhi to get the Permit.”

How to Travel in Sikkim

Travelling in Sikkim by bike

Indian bikers on a muddy road in Sikkim by the mountain side

Sikkim road conditions during 2012 December. It remained the same in 2015, and Sahana says it was a little better in 2017.

Unlike Leh Ladakh, Sikkim hasn’t become a biker’s hub yet. But you do find a few bikers now and then. I sent my bike via train to Siliguri and continued my journey. Remember, you must be ready to face the delay in receiving your bike by train. If you plan to rent a bike (preferably Royal Enfield or similar), better to do it before entering Sikkim as there are only a few options in Gangtok.

Travelling in Sikkim by bicycles

When Sahana was travelling in Sikkim in February, she saw a bunch of cyclers from Poland on bicycles. You will love these uphill rides if you are super fit and a regular cycler. Renting options aren’t plenty. But most hostels arrange for cycling.

Public Transportation in Sikkim

Tata Sump as Jeep taxi in Yumthan Sikkim going on asphalt road with snow on either side

One of the most scenic roads of Sikkim

The curvy windy roads connect various towns of Sikkim. There is no big bus or train to take you from point A to B. Locals use shared jeeps, and most tourists hire either a private car with a driver or group taxis. So the best and only way to savour Sikkim’s mountain beauty is by road. Usually, the agents who get you permission to offer a Car with a driver + permit+ accommodation combo.

How can I plan a trip to Sikkim?

Indian woman traveller standing beside turquoise green lachung river

Sahana and My sister wandered in Sikkim for 16 days with my friend Buddha from Gangtok.

Think of the number of days you can afford to spend in Sikkim. Make a list of places you fell in love with while reading our “Best Things to do in Sikkim” post. Plot down the sensitive areas from your favourite list to know whether you need special permission to get to that particular place. Keep in mind that some areas don’t allow kids below age five and senior citizens with health issues. With this, draw up your own itinerary. Unless you are on a biking adventure, I recommend you hire a car that can run in the rugged terrains of Sikkim with a driver. The room bookings can be made on booking.com. But the remote homestays are known to local guides better.

Sikkimese tradition and language

Buddhis monk and a kid in maroon robe at Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim

Buddhism is the main religion of Sikkim. I thought there would be no further dividing of the religion here. Still, I often heard homestay owners being specific about their neighbours and workers cast/ group under Buddhism. The official language is English, Nepali, Sikkimese and other regional variations of Sikkimese. Most travel-related people speak English. But knowing a bit of Hindi can take you a long way here.

The happening area of Gangtok MG Marg PC – Srikanth A R

In the capital city Gangtok, you find youngsters in denim and super stylish jackets. Sikkimese women have an amazing sense of contemporary fashion style. Whether evening or morning, a local momo seller or a homestay owner is always neatly groomed with light make up and presentable even during regular days. Older generation women wear Traditional Tibetial dress called Chuba. Older men usually wear a blazer on their formal pants

What to pack for Sikkim Trip

Sikkim woman in Chupa standing next to Indian bikers

Don’t forget your biking gears

Carrying conservative clothes is not a choice but mandatory here – Because Sikkim is cold most of the time. If you are going hiking in Summer, any type of hiking wear is fine. But wear a full armed shirt and pants when you enter Buddhist monasteries.
If you are travelling from December to February even after saying don’t go during that time, carry all possible heavy winter wear, including hand gloves, jackets, and thermal wear.

The cold from February to June is better than in December, so you can ease down on winter wear. Light woollen wears with denim are perfect. If you are going to North, carry another layer of jacket and hand gloves. Bring a scarf or cap to cover the ears so as not to catch a cold or headache.

General Sikkim Packing list

Sikkim mountain village by the riverside

It is sunny at the foothill. But you can see it is raining in the mountains!

  • Raincoat – You never know when it rains in Sikkim
  • Goggles with good filter capacity – For the white glaciers on a sunny day.
  • Sunscreen and a good moisturiser – The brittle skin and cracking of lips are common in Sikkim winter.
  • Other toiletries and personal medicines.
  • Passport/National Id for Indians and passport-sized photographs
  • Walking shoes or hiking boots – Many homestays in places like Yumthang rent snow boots. 

If you travelling in Sikkim by bike

Indian biker standing under a roof watching a black pup in rain

Those green cans in my side carriers are for Petrol.

  •  All biker gears, including arm and knee guard, helmet
  • Riding shoes – You will thank me later for spending on high-quality riding shoes. You have to cross many muddy roads balancing your bike. The regular shoes are of no use for this purpose.

Annoying things people say about Sikkim.

Arrogance or Innocence? I can’t define some of my own people’s attitudes towards Sikkim. Whenever Sahana or I left for Sikkim, some people suggested annoying things like the following-

Go camping on Gurudonmark lake.

Signboard at Gurudongmar lake and budhhist prayer flags covering them

When I sat on the train with my two other friends from Bangalore to Kolkatta in 2016, I met honeymooners from Kolkatta. He saw my rucksack, helmet and many other biker stuff and curiously asked where we were headed to. When I said we were going biking in Sikkim, super confidently, he suggested

“North Sikkim is beautiful. Gurudongmar lake is the best. You must set a camp on the bank and stay overnight to watch the sunrise.”

PARTLY FROZEN LAKE

I asked him thrice if he had confused with some other place because tourists aren’t allowed to camp there no matter what. The stubborn man boasted how adventurous he was. He showed some pictures on his phone claiming that was Gurudongmar which weren’t.

Besides high army personnel, staying anywhere after Thangu valley is not allowed. There is a high military presence, and you have to cross many check posts. Usually, they close the entry gap after 12 noon. And very likely, you will be asked to leave the lake by noon. Unless you are India’s military head, you can’t camp on the banks of Gurudongmar.

Four days in Sikkim is more than enough.

The second capital of Sikkim kings at Pelling has palace ruins with some amazing hiking trails.

Most travellers look at the “numbers” given in Sikkim’s area in Sqkm and decide four days for such a small state is enough. If they get to know you will wander in Sikkim for 15 days, there may be a laborious gyaan session. “All mountains are the same, some are snow-capped, and the rest are green. The Buddhist monasteries are also similar everywhere. If you see Gangtok and Yumthang, it is enough. Spend two days in Kolkata, 1 day in Darjeeling, and four days in Sikkim. Don’t waste your time.”

Firstly, the terrains are crazy, and the weather is unpredictable. So you can’t let the Sikkim area fool you. You may even take 4 hours to cross 100km. The essence of mountains is savoured only by wandering. If all snow mountains are the same, there should be no difference between the Himalayas and the Alps. Buddhist monastery’s principles may be the same – but each has its own flavour. The more you wander, the more authentic food you get to taste. So you need a minimum of 10-12 days to experience Sikkim.

Sikkimese are Chinese

The Lady who made best Chai & Food at Chungthang.

You meet a lot of North East Indians in major cities like Bangalore, Mumbai, Kolkatta, and Delhi. The 8 North Eastern states are a land of epitome nature, vivid culture and amazing people. Just because North-East people’s appearance doesn’t go with that so-called “Standard Indian” looks, they are considered “Not Indian Enough” by many.

The man who chased away two drunk men and saved my ass in the middle of the night somewhere before Meli

There have been several incidents where North East people faced racism and were called Chinese by many Indians. Bollywood shows many parts of India as a background for their romantic scenes. Hardly countable movies have been filmed there. In an interview, the journalist asks the child actor Martin Rey Thangu from Arunachal Pradesh if it is his first time in India! The kid cleverly said, ” If I was born and living in India, how can I come to India for the first time?

Sikkim landslides are trivial for an adventurer. I love rain, and I don’t mind landslides. I will go to Sikkim in December.

You don’t mind landslides?

Many people have asked us about the best time to visit Sikkim and things to do there. Even after sharing my story of how my friends and I were rescued by the Indian military in December because the weather went extreme, some said, “I love landslides. I love rain. I am an adventurer”. The severity of landslides, roadblocks, and crazy snowfall is beyond human prudence. Probably 1-2% of December tourists get a good travel experience -They must be the” Chosen” ones by god.

Indian Army rescues Sikkim tourists in December almost every year.

Yak standing on barren land  with little snow surrounded by snow mountains

Beware of high altitudes along with the landslides

Why should I take a special permit to travel in my own nation?

Border sign poasts at India-Bangladesh border

Correct. We, Indians, struggle enough to get other nations’ Visas. Why should we bother about a special permit? But- the entire state falls under a restricted area regime due to its proximity to Nepal, China and Bhutan. Most border regions in the world follow strict safety rules. So as common men travelling in Sikkim, you can’t get agitated to get the extra permit.

Which of these tips and facts helped you? Let us know in the comment section below.

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