12-13 March 2024

Our exit from the hotel is dramatic as our van rips down the already low hanging wires. Electricity has been spotty at the Elgin. I believe we just made matters worse. The huge post lamp can be quickly reattached, not sure about the wires. The few minutes delay put us behind the garbage truck. Not a good place to be in place where trash lies everywhere.

Ginger pill swallowed and I’m prepared for our morning drive 60 miles northeast into the mountains to Sikkim. I feel like a smuggler as I was told not to mention this part of my excursion to the Indian Visa authorities. I am about to find out why.

Following the River Teesta

Once out of Darjeeling, the signs of a massive flooding event are obvious. 

On the 4-5 of October 2023, heavy rains above Gangtok, Sikkim, caused the moraine-dammed South Lhonak Lake to collapse. Fed by meltwater of the Lhonak Glacier and receiving double the normal rainfall in just two days, deadly flash floods rushed down the valleys and rivers to inundate everything below. Gangtok flooded. 

Imagine 20-ft swell of raging waters

River Teesta rose by 15 to 20 feet. Waters flooded as far as Darjeeling and, along with bodies, reached as far as Bangladesh. Over 15 bridges washed out; Gangtok became isolated as parts of Highway 10 collapsed. Over 100 people died. A child died and others suffered injuries in West Bengal when a mortar shell carried downstream from Sikkim exploded.

Mother Nature, at times, can be nasty. Today, I witness extra-wide river beds newly carved and expanded, a shallow stream, destroyed bridges and rough sections of road. Repairs have opened the roads to Sikkim just 5 months after the flash floods but its devastation remains. Many villagers lack a home or business to which they can return.

Caution narrow roads. Say what?

There is not a straight mile of road in these mountains. We hear warnings of countless hairpin turns along narrow roads. Car horns remain cautionary devices. All in all, it is a Mister Toad’s Ride into the Himalayas.

The hillsides, steep up a mountain on one side, rapid drop into an abyss on the other, are covered with alternating forests of massive bamboo, tropical evergreens of tall pines, and tropical deciduous forest and broadleaved trees of oak and teak. A constant layer of haze mars views of valleys and mountains.

Beautiful, hairpin drive

We squeeze past opposing traffic, dogs asleep in the street, and pedestrians. The occasional cow grazes along the roadsides. There is no waiting for slower traffic. We honk, we pass.

Like the flow of water filling every crevice and making its unstoppable path down stream. Obstructions in the flow cause turbulence and shifts in direction, speed and flow but we do not stop.

Mountains are a pleasure to drive with leisure.” Road signs remain a constant source of quotes and entertainment. “Sinking zone, drive slowly.” “Donate blood in blood banks not on this road.” Total truth on these roads: “Two great talkers will not travel far together.”

Special Border Requirements

We arrive at the border between West Bengal and the region of Sikkim. Special papers are required in order to cross this border. We must supply not only our passport, but copies of our passport ID page and Indian Visa, a copy of our immigration stamp within our passport, and a passport picture. We receive an entry stamp. Thankfully, we have our expert guide, Surya, to smooth our way across the border.

We enter the Kingdom of Sikkim. Altitude 3180 feet. To our north-northeast lies the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, Bhutan is east, Nepal lies west and West Bengal is to our south.

Sikkim – Remote and Mysterious

Sikkim was founded by the Namgyal Dynasty and ruled by Buddhist priest-kings known as Chogyal since 1642. Invasions were frequent: by the Bhutanese in 1700 who were chased away by Tibetans, periodic raids by the Nepalese and Bhutanese, then ultimately the Chinese Qing Dynasty took control in 1791. It became a princely state of the British Raj in 1890.

The Raj supported Sikkim against its enemies, mostly Nepal. And of course, involvement of the Raj and East India Company does not typically end well. Sikkim continued as a British protectorate following Indian independence in 1947 but Indian leaders like Nehru and Indira Gandhi considered Sikkim and Bhutan as Indian states.

Until 1965, Sikkim existed as a separate state known as the Kingdom of Sikkim. All seemed well until about 1973 when anti-royalists rioted. Prime Minister Indira Ghandi saw her chance. Eagerly, the Indian Army took over the capital of Gangtok and a questionable vote led to the dissolution of the monarchy. Sikkim became the 22nd state of India. 

However, Sikkim continues to be treated differently as noted by the special requirements needed in order to enter its territory. These are requirements of the Indian government, and do not reflect upon Sikkim itself.

Sneaking into Sikkim

We read that had we mentioned our intention of visiting Sikkim, our Indian Visa possibly would have been denied. Sikkim remains closed to those from Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, Myanmar and Nigeria. (Interestingly, the key chain I purchased from a kiosk noted “Made in China.“)

There certainly are political reasons why the Indian government would prefer tourist not enter Sikkim. Though Indians highly honor the Dalai Lama, especially in the north, the Indian government must walk a fine line with its neighbor, China. Does it involve India’s governance of Sikkim? China still recognized Sikkim as an independent state occupied by India up until 2003 when China agreed to “change its mind” in return for India declaring Tibet as a part of China. Or, does it have to do with the 2006 Sikkimese Himalayan NathuLa pass between India and China, just a very curvy 32 miles east, providing a connected path between Lhasa, Tibet into India? Could be all of the above. Rest assured, China’s sensitivities are being considered. 

It would be a shame to miss Sikkim. This region is notable for both alpine and subtropical climates as well as being the site for towering Mt. Kangchenjunga. Almost a third of the state is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Khangchendzonga National Park. (Khangchendzonga is sacred to the lamas of Sikkim.) The residents are mostly Hindu, taught English in their schools, and depend mostly on agriculture and tourism.

A “Woke” State


Sikkim is the most environmentally “woke” state in India and has wisely banned plastic water bottles. By 2016, they had converted their agriculture to be fully organic. This is an incredibly beautiful part of the world and I am happy to be spending my tourist dollar here. The contrast between India and Sikkim is remarkable. Clearly, there is an effort here to improve and beautify their state.

In contrast to what I have seen of India, Sikkim is an environmental paradise. While not trash free, the roads and streets are not inundated with garbage. Signs of encouragement appear everywhere. “If you hit an animal or see an accident PLEASE STOP. You can save a life.” While I doubt their electronic sign saying air quality is a good 37, the air is better than Darjeeling and far better than Koloata. Self-Help clinics advertise throughout the area. And the “Be Wise. Exercise Your Rights” is a noble effort to support consumer rights.

Perhaps the best effort is in Sikkim’s “Sustainable Development Goals.”

These include no poverty,quality education, reduced inequalities, climate action, gender equality, zero hunger among 17 in all.

It seems a pretty happy place with potential.

It is clear there is money here. Better homes, shops, and schools are apparent. Brand name stores and restaurants from Adidas and Crocs to Pizza Hut and Dominoes Pizza line the streets. Sikkim is the only state, other than Goa, that supports gambling. We lodged overnight in the very upscale Mayfair and Casino. But there is something almost mysterious which makes Sikkim special. It will be a shame when the infrastructure expands to include an airport. As of now, it is a very special place.

Sikkim is also the only place I have ever visited where the waiter grandly presents a bottle beer for your approval before pouring.

Sites of Sikkim

Tea plantations are abundant but so are tanning factories, breweries, mining, and casinos. The Playwin online lottery is a huge success here. The population is small but the economic growth is booming. Although mainly agrarian, this region is known for its fabrics and handicrafts. Visiting a handicraft center in Gangtok, one can appreciate the fine work by locals. At least, I don’t think anything states ”Made in China.”  

Ganesh Tok Temple

Indians loved their photo taken and often wanted us in the picture

The Ganesh Tok Temple is dedicated to Lord Ganesha. Built in 1953, the colorful golden buildings and prayer flags, fluttering against a blue sky filled with white clouds, is stunning. Today is an auspicious day for Ganesha. While in the temple, we receive a blessing from a monk who paints our forehead. A second monk recites wish for my well-being and good luck as he ties a band of Cotten thread around my right wrist.

However, it is the view that many come seeking. The temple’s terrace overlooks Gangtok below. Unfortunately , there is far too much haze and smoke to see Mt Khangchendzonga in the distance. Or even much of Gangtok.

Wish fulfilling bull’s ear

The temple is popularly known as a wish fulfilling temple. I bent to whisper my wish into the bull’s ear.

Flower Exhibition Centre

Gangtok’s Flower Exhibition Centre is in Gangtok showcases flowers from Sikkim and the region. More than 4000 varieties of flowering plants grow in Sikkim, including 600 Orchid species and 30 varieties of Rhododendrons, which is the official tree of Sikkim. Flowers are on display year-round. We saw a plethora of hibiscus, dahlias, and petunias. It represents a colorful photo opportunity.

Not the right season for orchid lovers, Cymbidiums hybrids derived from just seven of the large flowered Cymbidium species found principally in the hills of Nepal and Sikkim. Gorgeous potted orchid hybrids are often seen.

Chorten and Namgyal Institute of Tibetology

The Do Drul Chorten is a beautiful stupa constructed in 1945. Inside are feligious objects and 108 prayer wheels surround the stupa. The site also is home to a monastery for young Lamas. Behind a glass room are scores of votive candles.

Just a few yards below the stupa sits the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology opened in 1958 to promote research on the language, culture, and religion of Tibet. Dalai Lama himself laid the foundation stone. The Institute supports the study, research and history of all things Tibetan, especially its art and literature.  It houses an impressive collection of over 3,000 books, containing some of the earliest translations of Buddha’s teachings. 

Beyond the library which preserves the centuries-old Tibetan-Buddhist culture and its history, there are collections which includes ornate murals, art, rare Tibetan and Buddhist artifacts, priceless statues and figurines, ritualistic relic. There is a wonderful exhibit of thangkas. These are exquisite and colorful Buddhist paintings on cotton or silk clothing which usually depicts a deity of Buddhism in a scene. 

Institutes Prayer Garden

Busy Bazaars – Is There Any Other Kind?

The bustling market area of Lal Bazar Road is just a few minutes-walk from the downtown Burger King. It is the place to see and be seen. And like all bazaars, it is an assault on the senses. And also like all bazaars, one can find anything and everything. Fresh produce, foods, spices, woolens, clothing, shoes, knives handicrafts, flowers and more are housed within several buildings. Photo opportunities are colorful and the atmosphere is lively and loud. Bargaining persists. And yes, you can spot the infamous “Made in China” label.

The citizens of Sikkim display a pride in their state. Surprising clean, garbage and dustbins flourish. They pride themselves that people don’t pee in the streets. Signs encourage good habits. They prize their forests and environment. While in danger of loosing some of that happiness to casino-tourism, it is a wonderful stop to make while in India. Just avoid mentioning it when applying for an Indian eVisa.


Retired. Have time for the things I love: travel, my cat, reading, good food, travel, genealogy, walking, and of course travel.


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