Sikkim & Darjeeling
From the summit of the world’s third-highest mountain, the 8586m high Kanchendzonga, to mighty rivers roaring through deep valleys. From alpine landscapes full of flowers and meadows between rugged mountains to dense subtropical forests. All shrouded in lush greenery and where morning mists create spectacular scenery among its more than 200 Tibetan-style Buddhist monasteries. This is Sikkim, the world’s first organic state.
Situated, together with Darjeeling, in this small wedge between Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan, Sikkim was the last state to be part of the Indian confederation and still retains a strong personality. The villages are at a certain altitude, often in passes between two valleys, far from the rushing, unpredictable rivers, so all have stunning views. Tortuous but well-maintained roads wind their way through these valleys and mountains, where sometimes we have to descend into the deep valley to cross to the other side of the river and ascend again to find the destination we saw so close from our starting point. As you have already guessed, the terrain of Sikkim and Darjeeling is complicated and, although Darjeeling belongs to the state of West Bengal, it has a terrain, landscape, population and economy much more similar to Sikkim than to the Bengal river plains that open up a little further south.
In short, Sikkim and Darjeeling comprise a culturally unique journey, in a territory of its own, neither Tibetan nor Hindu and with spectacular and surprising nature, not to mention tea, with two of the world’s most internationally renowned tea-producing areas.
Entry visa for India
To obtain a VISA, your passport must be valid for six months from the date of departure from your country. Please read the information provided by the Indian government or embassy on the websites we provide, as the information we write here is only a brief reference.
Currently, the whole process of obtaining an Indian VISA can be done online, so you do not need to send your passport to the embassy. The steps to follow for this procedure are clearly explained here indianvisaonline.gov.in and you only need to have a scan of your passport in pdf format, a passport photo in jpg format and a credit card to be able to pay. You will receive the visa receipt by e-mail and you will have to formalise it on arrival. You can apply online between one month and four days before you arrive in India.
Sikkim Entry Permit
Due to its special location bordering Nepal, Bhutan and especially China, Sikkim is a restricted area that requires a special permit called “Restricted Area Permit (RAP)” or “Inner Line Permit”. This permit is free of charge and we will arrange it for you.
It is always a good idea to carry a few passport-sized photographs and photocopies of your passport in your luggage.
Also, some areas of its territory cannot be visited by foreigners, such as the Nathu-la pass with Tibet or Gurudongmar Lake to the north, or you must travel through an official agency in others, such as Tsomgo Lake or the northern area from Singhik.
IMPORTANT: Don’t forget to carry your passport and visa with you at all times.
Money / currencies
The rupee is the currency used in India and, of course, also in Sikkim. Below the rupee is the paisa, although as tourists you will rarely see them.
As usual, there are exchange offices at the airport. There are authorised exchange agents and some shops also exchange currency, although not entirely legally. Never change on the street. In banks, the exchange rate is usually better, although there is some, and long, paperwork involved. As always, make sure you keep some of the exchange receipts, you may be asked for when you leave the country.
Apart from Kolkata and Delhi, there are ATMs in Sikkim, mainly in Gangtok, but, as usual, don’t rely on ATMs for your entire trip, as they may not work, or they may not accept your card or other problems.
Sikkim is safe, with rare cases of theft. However, you should of course take basic security precautions.
Tipping is customary in India and Sikkim and Darjeeling are no exception, although it is not an obligation as such. There are no rules about how much to tip, but here are some guidelines for your reference.
In hotels, a 10% service charge is included, but you usually leave some money in the hotel rooms for the cleaning service, on the bed or on the table, about 20-30 rupees. Luggage handlers are usually given between 10 and 20 rupees. As a general rule, 10INR or 30INR notes are very useful for tips for small services.
Guides and drivers are usually charged between 100 and 200 rupees per traveller per day, while taxis (although you will rarely use them) are usually agreed on a fare, so there is no need to leave a tip.
In restaurants, you can calculate between 10% or 5% of the bill or round up the price.
Phone, wifi and data
In many areas of Sikkim, the use of satellite phones (and drones!) is strictly forbidden.
Wifi is available in virtually all establishments, but if you want to be more independent and make sure you’re connected more often, some companies operate prepaid cards for data browsing. The easiest thing to do on a trip like this is to buy them at the airport, but there are also many phone shops with the same services and where you will also find help if you have any problems during your trip. Companies like Reliance, Airtel, Vodafone, Aircel, Idea or BSNL offer different 3G connection packages for 14, 21, 28 days, etc. at affordable prices.
Security in India is an issue that is not taken lightly, so there are border states where prepaid cards from other states will not work. If you buy your SIM card at Kolkata airport, i.e. in West Bengal, you should have no problem it works properly in Sikkim, but if you buy it in Delhi it may not work in Sikkim. In any case, ask around and make sure you have a data connection, as regulations can change. Of course, your phone must be “unlocked”.
As you may have already guessed, you will need to bring two photographs, a photocopy of your passport and visa, a photocopy of your residence in your country (a photocopy of your ID card or driving licence will work), and the respective original documents, of course.
The voltage in India is 230V 50Hz.
The plugs are of type C, D and M and in some places, as in Nepal, multiple sockets are installed that accept several types, including two-pronged round plugs, which means that in principle you will not have any problems with your European format, whether it is a thin or thick plug. Sometimes there is a switch, so check that your device is charging.
In many cases there will be few sockets, so if you need to charge more than one device (you almost certainly will) bring a small power strip.
Roads in Sikkim are generally in good condition but be aware of the mountainous terrain through which we are travelling, so in the rainy season there may be minor mishaps that delay or alter the planned route, and sudden snowfalls may close some routes to the north. We make a special effort to check the status of the route before and during the trip, but it is not always possible to obtain information on the spot.
Sikkim is in the subtropical zone, but being mostly in a mountainous environment at a certain altitude, its climate is cooler, going from tropical in the south to very cold in the north within a few kilometres. The proximity of the Bay of Bengal causes humidity, with misty mornings and heavy rains from spring to autumn, although the heaviest rains are concentrated, as usual, during the monsoon between July and September, sometimes even in October. Interestingly, the Darjeeling area is cooler than Gangtok, even though it is further south.
Winters are cold, with occasional snowfall in the higher altitude villages, while in the north some roads are closed to traffic due to snow. Temperatures are expected to be between 0°C and 13°C in most places.
Spring is mild and cool, with occasional showers and temperatures ranging from 5º to just over 20º. This is perhaps the best time to visit Sikkim as you will have the opportunity to enjoy the different stages of flowering which offer spectacular scenery.
Temperatures in autumn are like those in spring, although with slightly warmer lows and slightly cooler highs, and although traditionally the skies are much clearer, the monsoon has been lengthening lately, which means that the skies in October are not as clear as they used to be.
Summer is the monsoon season, with heavier rains and temperatures between 13º and 25º. Although not its best time of year, it’s perfectly feasible to travel in Sikkim as it’s more likely to rain in the afternoon or evening. This is the time of year when leeches are most likely to be found in the countryside, and although they are not dangerous to your health, they are a nuisance. Using plenty of mosquito repellent, especially on the legs, helps to keep them away, or mixing moisturiser with plenty of salt also seems to work quite well.
Recommended general equipment
Based on the above, it is best to dress in layers, depending of course on the season you visit us. Keep in mind that the northern areas from Lachung and Lachen onwards can be surprisingly cold at any time of the year due to their altitude. We would also like to remind you that this is a rainy area, so be sure to use an umbrella, raincoat or whatever you prefer to protect yourself from the rain, and think about the most appropriate footwear for it, which is practical and comfortable but does not get soaked fast.
Most houses and many hotels don’t have generous heating systems, so it can be cool or even cold at night, so warm sleeping clothes will be a good idea for those of you who are chillier. Think that you can wake up with 4ºC inside the room in winter (not in summer!) Humidity increases the feeling of cold.
We suggest you some items to include in your personal equipment and/or luggage. Naturally, the final decision is yours:
- Clothing at your discretion and depending on the season and your sensitivity to heat and cold. Pay attention to rain and footwear.
- A small torch will be very useful in streets that are not well (or not at all) lit at night.
- Spare battery (one or more) and a power strip to be able to plug in several devices at the same time, remember that there are few sockets in the rooms.
- Sunglasses and sun protection for your skin and lips if you are going to mountainous areas. At midday, the sun can be intense everywhere.
- A small first aid kit, with scissors, tweezers, plasters, antiseptic, and some basic medicines: paracetamol, ibuprofen, antihistamines and anti-diarrhoea medicine.
- A small sewing kit is always a lifesaver.
- Some passport photos and copies of your passport.
- If your itinerary includes trekking or sleeping in private homes, a thin silk or cotton sleeping-bag can make you feel more comfortable.
Since December 2015, Sikkim has been the first state in India to be declared “organic”, which means that after 13 years of work, all the agricultural production in this small state is organically produced. Naturally, this is not the case for products coming from outside the territory, but a good part of the food you will find on your plate is free of pesticides and chemicals.
While you will naturally find Indian food, Sikkim and Darjeeling have little to do with “traditional” India and their cuisine is much more closely related to Tibet and Nepal.
In Gangtok and Darjeeling you will find a variety of styles and they are quite used to dealing with westerners, but in the other smaller villages this will be reduced and the food will be much more “local”. Better! because travelling is all about getting to know, adapting, experimenting and tasting. Actually, the local food is not so “exotic” either, don’t be scared off, and the MoMos, whether meat or vegetarian, steamed or “grilled”, will be addictive.
Tibetan pasta soups such as Thukpa are excellent for cold weather, and more Nepalese-style Dal-bhat, rice with lentil soup and vegetables (sometimes also meat) are the basis of traditional food. Phakshapa, a pork stew, is also part of the country’s culinary tradition.
But it doesn’t stop there – various pasta and rice dishes, potato dishes such as Alu Dum, eggs, and varieties of Indian or Tibetan chapatis and bread are readily available.
In Darjeeling, you might notice a bit more of a Bengali presence, and the oranges are famous and harvested in November and December, you hardly find them outside the area.
The pickles are great, very spicy, and while the dishes are not as spicy as in other parts of India, they can be too hot for your palate, so if you’re sensitive you can ask for them to be cooked less spicy. Locals eat the chillies raw directly during the meal, as a side dish, although this is a somewhat harsh experience for a Westerner.
There are currently no medical and vaccination requirements for entry to either India or Sikkim if you have not visited a country with yellow fever. Sikkim and Darjeeling are relatively safe health areas.
There are pharmacies where you can find most of the basic medicines you may need on your trip, although you will need to know the generic name. The medicines are mostly made in India, are safe, affordable and sold in blister packs, not boxes.
Place names can vary in their spelling between the brochure, maps, etc. This is because Nepali, the official language here in Sikkim and Darjeeling, is written from its pronunciation and has many consonants, vowels and tones, so it is common for the same word to be written differently in Nepali depending on the place, a difference that is even bigger in the “abc” writing. In the case of Sikkim and Darjeeling it is even more complicated because there are more meanings of the names and more dialects and languages come into play which, added to the fact that the maps are not very good, makes it difficult to locate a place on them.
TREKKING IN SIKKIM & DARJEELING
Being closer to the Bay of Bengal than Nepal is, the incidence of humidity is higher and means more fog and rain. As a result, the weather tends to be quite unstable and it is really advisable to try to make the most of the mornings, as from midday onwards, clouds are more likely to start growing. For the same reason, winter snowfall in mountain areas can be quite frequent and intense, making the Yumthang Valley, for example, closed to traffic, like other areas in the north.
As you can already get from the weather information, spring and autumn are the best times for trekking, but April and May is also high season for inland tourism in India, so there are more locals trekkers and tourists in general.
Most trekking in Sikkim is camping, as there are not many lodges, although this is a situation that is likely to change as trekking develops in India. In Darjeeling we have some “Trekkers-Huts”, shelters usually run by the forest authority, as well as Nepal-style lodges.
In Sikkim and Darjeeling, the treks are not as long as most treks in Nepal, and in some treks, the nearest road to access in case of emergency is not so far away. For this reason, unlike in Nepal, we do not consider it an obligatory condition that you take out mountain accident insurance, although, naturally, it is more than advisable and even better if it includes helicopter rescue.
Here is a list of general trekking equipment. But as everyone is different, feel free to add or remove items.
Pay special attention to rain and humidity.
Towel (best fast dryer one)
bag or backpack for porters
Short sleeve T-shirt
Long sleeve T-shirt or light fleece
Headlamp/flashlight and spare batteries
Down jacket or similar
Water bottle/flask/camel bag
Poncho or umbrella
Water purifying system
Light pants, long/short
Clothes washing soap
Thicker pants and/or waterproof pants
Leggings (also as pyjama)
Sunglasses 3 or 4 level protection
Socks (watch out blisters)
Sun cream high level protection
Lips balm sun protection
Pyjama (or clothes for sleeping and other use)
Main walking shoes (mountain shoes/boots)
Sleeping bag. If you don’t want to bring your own, we lend you one, but it may be convenient to bring a thin silk or cotton bag.