On my first day exploring Gangtok, fuelled by my incessant need to capture every moment on the ‘gram, I was furiously taking photo — annoyingly making my kind guide and driver stop at every gorgeous viewpoint. (And there are plenty in the beautiful state of Sikkim, where every bend in the road is like an Instagram filter)
En route to a monastery, when I jumped out the car to take a photo against the #cloudporn, my headphones dropped out too. I didn’t realise until we were at the monastery, 15kms away. I turned to the young local ferrying us around who insisted they’d be where we left them.
Now, I live in Mumbai, and Covid or no Covid, once you lose something on the street, it’s gone before you can even bend down to look for it. So naturally I was skeptical about his lofty plans of finding my headphones in some obscure stop on the road.
An hour and a half later, we stopped at the scene of the careless crime, and a man walks up to me from his parked car offering up the headphones. My driver, with a proud grin announced, ‘I did tell you they’d be here. Log yahaan aise hee hain. Whatever you lose here, you’ll get back.” A cultural defect, perhaps, I thought as my cynical heart secretly swelled in size, thinking would I get back the heart I had just lost to this gorgeous mountain haven?
It’s one of the stories from my recent travels that I keep retelling. Turns out we head out to discover places, but it’s the people that make them worth the trip. It was my first impression of Gangtok, and it left a warm searing desire to return to the city one day. For now, I’m going down memory lane to help you plan your perfect escape there.
Where we stayed in Gangtok
Gangtok is the capital of Sikkim, and sits nestled within the lower Eastern Himalayan range at an elevation of 1,650m, and while July isn’t the best time to visit due to the rainy season, it was the only time I had leave from work so away we went into the world of clouds. And trust me when I say those of you who believe that a cup of tea, soothing music and watching clouds flit in and out of mountains is the best thing in the world — will love this town. It has year round mild temperate climate, and it got warm enough for us to swim while we were here. Sweaters were only for particularly cold evenings and because I needed an excuse to make use of a winter wardrobe I have no use for at home in Mumbai. *wink*
We touched down at Bagdogra Airport, and took on a long five hour journey to get to our hotel — the roads weren’t in the best condition, which made the drive seem longer but the momo and view stops certainly helped.
We stayed at the Mayfair Spa Resort & Casino, which is a little further away from the city centre but considering the gorgeous property that was a sacrifice we were more than willing to make. Spread across a stunning 48 acres of beautiful forested land, we literally did not want to leave. (We did to do a little exploring of course but spent of time eating at their restaurant the Orchid and having tea time snacks at the Jungle Cafe). The food is delicious and they offer buffet meals with their stay packages as well. They also have a range of stay options – from cottages for families, to villas, deluxe suites and deluxe rooms. My favourite part of the room was actually the little outdoor balcony that literally opens out in the mountains and clouds — if I didn’t have a travel companion dragging me out to explore, I would have spent my entire stay just staring at the sky.
The staff is kind and helpful, and for those who have trouble walking, the offer buggy services to take you from one part of the property to the other. And as the name suggests, they have an incredible award-winning spa. That was our home base and the staff was kind enough to recommend places to visit (those that were worth visiting and what not). Keeping in mind travelling during pandemic times (click here for our experience-based tips), this property is ideal for those who would prefer keeping social distance – you can order in, and the rooms are fairly spread out enough to avoid contact with other guests. You will have to eschew using the public parts of the property however.
Places to visit
Seven Sisters Waterfall: Located 32km away from Gangtok, it’s gorgeous between May-July, but it’s equally beautiful right after winter, when the snow is just about melting.
Nathula Pass: This one requires a whole day being set aside, because it’s about 56 kms from Gangtok. Located at an altitude of 4,310m, you can even catch views of the the Tsomgo Lake on the drive up. There’s a fairly steep staircase at the pass which leads to the Indo-China border, where allegedly you can see soldiers of both sides. What’s important to keep in mind is that the Nathu La Pass is restricted to Indian nationals only, with an authorised travel permit pass – so best to organise that in advance. Best time to visit keeping in mind heavy snow, and landslides due to rain, would be: April to mid-June and October-November. Nearby is the Baba Harbhajan Singh Mandir which is a shrine constructed to commemorate the late Baba Harbhajan Singh of the Indian Army, who had died near Nathu La — ghost hunters, locals believe his spirit still protects the place.. so keep your eyes peeled. Here are some tips to help you apply for the pass.
Tsongmo Lake: En route to the pass, about 38 km from Gangtok, lies the famous Tsomgo Lake, and one requires a special permit from the Tourism and Civil Aviation Department of Sikkim in order to visit this gorgeous glacial lake as well. It’s frozen during the winter and stunning even then. Ensconced by mountains, it’s a gorgeous little, quiet natural retreat that’s definitely worth a visit.
Rumtek Monastery: I’ll be honest, I’m not much of a religious-traveller, but I do love visiting monasteries because they’re so peaceful, positive and calming. The Rumtek Monastery is home to a beautiful temple, Golden Stupa, and Tibetan Buddhist monastery – and I spent plenty of time just sitting there and soaking in the good energy.
River rafting: While I didn’t go river rafting here, I did on our trip to Rishikesh – Mussoorie, and I would definitely recommend it for adrenaline junkies, and suggest that if you’re out of shape, try and getting a little bit in shape o make the most of it because it’s quite a workout. River Teesta and River Rangeet are your options – you can read more about here.
MG Road: The heart of the city, the hub for restaurants and souvenir shops filled with cute curios that you definitely don’t need more of but will 100% buy. It was heartening to see just how clean the MG road in Gangtok is compared to the main streets of a number of other Indian hill stations and the fact that it’s a vehicle-free street just made it that much nicer. Loved the Taste of Tibet restaurant, which obviously was our go-to places for momos, it’s a small space but the friendly staff, and authentic food make it a homey stopover. Baker’s Cafe is another crowd favourite, for its ambience more than the food. A little hidden wonder in Gangtok is the Rachna Bookstore, which is also home to the super popular Cafe Fiction, serving up fresh coffee sourced from Sikkimese vendors. A little modern-day fairytale find for those old souls who still seek respite in the stories little bookstores in hill towns have to tell.
Location: Gangtok, Sikkim
Getting there: Flight: To Bagdogra Airport, 125 km drive (about four-five hours) to Gangtok (There are flights from several major Indian cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata)
Road: It is well-connected to Darjeeling (96 km), Siliguri (118 km) and Kalimpong (75 km) but would recommend hiring a car with an experienced driver as the hilly terrain can be difficult to navigate.
Train: The closest station is New Jalpaiguri, around 120 km away from the city
Best time to visit: September to December, March to May. Avoid the rainy months from June-July onwards as the area is prone to landslidesLocal transport in Gangtok: Taxis, shared cars are the best for travellers with families. State run buses are also an option for solo travellers and couples but limit your exploration capacity
Disclaimer: The travel industry was heavily affected by the coronavirus pandemic and while we’re not encouraging foolhardy travel in large groups, it’s imperative to support the industry as they try and get back on their feet. Please exercise caution while picking a location, check their sanitation procedures and adhere by all local rules if you are planning on travelling.
If you’d like to extend and travel around Gangtok, check out our guide to Darjeeling – for the misty, soul-replenishing getaway of your dreams. (Yes we stayed in what used to be a summer palace)