South and West Sikkim
Sikkim’s south and west districts are relatively more populated because of a milder climate due to lower hills with more arable space for farming as opposed to the north district where the precipitous topography and chill factor rule out the possibility of cultivating grains. Here, the hills ascend to altitudes of 2,000 meters or less on an average. Only the extreme west is mountainous, but this is Sikkim’s classic trekking region, Dzongri. And to get there from Gangtok, one has to traverse the highways and byways of the South and West districts.
When Sikkim first opened to tourism, the few places open to foreigners for holiday vacations beyond Gangtok were around this area and limited to overnights in Pemayangtse, Yuksam, Tashiding and taking the Dzongri trek. In recent times however, almost every area accessible by vehicular road is open to tourists and also includes the opening of some new trekking routes.
South Sikkim - Places of Interest
Temi Tea Garden
Established only in 1965, Temi Tea Estate is built over the remains of a forestry office and nursery. Its landmark, an old British bungalow, was built by Scottish missionaries in the early 1900’s and used as a leprosy clinic until it was sold to the state. Temi’s tender tea bushes are in their prime today and considered by many to be one of the best in the world. For over a decade now, its premium stock has been fetching record prices in the London tea market. The garden spreads on a gentle slope below Tendong along the highway leading to West Sikkim.
Temi Tea Garden
A symmetrical hill rising to a height of 2,640 meters, Tendong looks like a dormant volcano, and it could well be in view of the fact that during the course of mudslides exposed sections of earth around this hill occasionally reveal veins of lava-like elements. Its mossy virgin forest that includes flowering trees like magnolia and rhododendron is well worth exploring. From the top of the hill, there is an excellent view of the mountains and the plains of Bengal.
At 3,235 meters above sea level, this is the highest point on the ridge that divides Sikkim’s two major river systems, the Teesta and the Rangeet. Once again, this is a vantage point for great views into the horizon: northwards, the Himalaya and to the south are the plains of Bengal. 3,500 hectares around this hill has been demarcated as the Maenam Wildlife Sanctuary, a reserve for the Red Panda, Leopard Cat, Civets and several avifaunal species including the Blood Pheasant.
Quest Himalaya trekking camp atop Maenam
A picturesque village overlooking snow-capped peaks and situated below Maenam Hill, Borong is also known for its hot springs, the Borong TsaChhu.
West Sikkim - Places of Interest
Situated at 2378 meters on the hill high above Gyalshing is Sikkim’s premier Nyingmapa monastery, Pemayangtse, whose monks above others enjoy the privilege of performing all royal ceremonies. Inside the monastery is the fabulous Santhokpalri, which is said to have been revealed in a dream to Dungzin Rimpoche and was carved by him single-handedly. Built as a small temple by Lhatsun Chempo in the late 17th Century, it was only three generations later that it was reconstructed into its current size by the Lama Jigme Pawo in the reign of the third Chogyal Chador Namgyal. Its main chaam (masked dance) is held two days prior to Losar (Tibetan New Year).
Till a few years back Pelling was an insignificant roadside hamlet on the highway tri-junction one kilometer beyond Pemayangtse but with the popularity of tourism in West Sikkim and the demand for more hotel rooms, this quiet ridge-top settlement is rapidly evolving into a boomtown. This is the likeliest spot where you as a tourist will spend at least one night on your sojourn to Sikkim, and with no regret. The views are superb and the natural forest nearby has some excellent trails for short hikes leading to the surrounding religious and historical sites.
Sanga Choling Monastery
Higher up on the next ridge above Pelling, Sanga Choling, one of Sikkim’s oldest monastery which was built in 1697 stands calm and serene atop a dense forested hill.
Some distance below the Pemayangtse Monastery lie the remains of what use to be the former kingdom’s second capital that was established around 1670 by the second Chogyal, Tensung Namgyal. It was abandoned after a hundred years following a major Nepalese invasion in which Sikkim lost a large chunk of her territory to the invaders.
Twenty kilometers beyond Pemayangtse at an altitude of 1,951 meters, this small and tranquil lake is a pilgrimage spot sacred to the Sikkimese Buddhists. Strangely, not a single leaf is seen floating on its waters. Legend has it that all day long, the birds of the forest dutifully pick them up. Nearby Khechiperi are typical villages that depict a now forgotten lifestyle. The whole area is also an excellent site for bird watching.
Though it was the cradle of Sikkim’s Buddhist civilization, Yuksam has seen little development over the centuries. It’s remoteness from the center, as well as for losing its status as the capital long ago, are probably two of the key reasons why it remained in the backwaters. However, with the introduction of trekking in the Dzongri region in recent years, its idyllic landscape is gradually transforming into that of a busy tourist hangout with several new hotels and shops coming in.
Yuksam has two sites very sacred to the Sikkimese; Norbugang Chorten, the site of the first Chogyal’s coronation, and Dubdi Monastery, the second oldest monastery in Sikkim built around 1701.
Set atop a most peculiar heart-shaped hill, the monastery of Tashiding and the area around are of great religious significance to the Sikkimese Buddhist. According to Buddhist scriptures, it is said that Guru Padmasambhava blessed the sacred land of Sikkim from this very spot. Here, just the simple act of gazing into the sacred chorten, ‘Thong Wa Rang Dol’ will cleanse away one’s sins. It’s meaning, ‘Savior by mere sight’. Inside the monastery, a pot of holy water is kept sealed only to be revealed and its droplets given to devotees once every year at the Bumchu Festival. This occurs on the 14th and 15th day of the first month of the Tibetan calendar.
Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary
At 3,300 meters above sea level, Barsey is just the place where you will want to be when rhododendrons are abloom in springtime. A mere four kilometers from the road head at Hilley, it takes about an hour of easy walking to get there where one has the option to camp or stay in the tourist hut.
Quest Himalaya camp at Barsey
This is Sikkim’s classic trekking region. Spectacular close up views of Mt. Khangchendzonga and her subordinate peaks is the major highlight of a trek to Dzongri. From Dzongri there are several routes further beyond with the trail to Goecha La being the most popular one. Treks to the Dzongri region can range from as little as 5 days till as long as 2 weeks depending on where one wishes to go.