The Mountain Walker Diaries: How To Be A Tourist In Gangtok Without Being One

Gangtok, East Sikkim, Sikkim, India, 13 June 2018, 1915 hours:

So this one is a secret post. So, look to your left. Now, look to your right. And if you are sure no one is around, then grab a bucket of popcorn and let me tell you one approach that helped me make the most of my trip to Gangtok, (specially if you are visiting in high-season).

First up, make it a point to visit the Sikkim Tourist Information Centre on MG Road – they will provide required information and guidance.

Next, get in touch with a good local travel agent/tour operator. That means if you have made your own bookings or come through one of the -make-my-easy-trip-websites-apps, then take a walk to MG Road and find yourself a good, local travel agency for your local transport. Because it is the local person who is going to make or break your trip (this stands true of all Himalayan destinations).

The next thing one has to do after picking a travel agent / operator you are comfortable with, is to get to know the driver and then: trust them. If you want to go by the guide book or your travel website recommendations or plan your trip according to user reviews on multiple sites or aggregator sites – best of luck since they don’t have on-ground information and user reviews are very very subjective.

Local drivers in Gangtok are good guides. They know all the tourist spots to take you, they also keep tab on weather and through their network figure out which monasteries are open, which roads are closed, timings of government places of interests, and most importantly, permits for restricted areas are applied by and through travel agents and implemented by the drivers.

Tourism is an important new industry in Sikkim and Gangtok is at the centre of this industry, with a significant part of the population engaged in tourism or related activities. What this means is that they take their tourists and image seriously. If you let your local travel guides know what you want, they will adjust accordingly. If you don’t, they will suggest itineraries based on latest info, traffic considerations and the sequence of places.

For instance, we arrived in Gangtok in times of intermittent rain and medium-to-low visibility. Our intention was to relax, see some popular places as per our interest and to spend enough time at each place. A bit of culture, history, local industry, monasteries, something to capture the interest of the children and of course, Lake Tsomgo and Nathu La.

We discussed this with our local operator and that’s how our 3 days in Gangtok went. We started with and enjoyed the cable car ride, visited the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, made a stop at Ban Jhakri Falls, took a tour of the various sections under the Directorate of Handicraft and Handloom, visited the Enchey Monastery premises (but couldn’t visit the sanctum since it was closed), took several walks around town, shopped a bit, and visited Lake Tsomgo. We really wanted to visit a monastery and should have listened to our driver and gone to Ranka Monastery, but that’s how one learns.

Lower-level fall at Ban Jhakri; Photo: Upamanyu Mukherjee

View of the inter-mediate falls at Ban Jhakri; Photo: Upamanyu Mukherjee

The main fall at Ban Jhakri Waterfalls in Gangtok; Photo: Upamanyu Mukherjee

Personally, I wouldn’t go to the Ban Jhakri Falls if you are an outdoors person with hiking experience – it’s a touristy place and manicured so that the natural feel of the falls is lost; on the other hand, it is safe for the regular tourist and most people there were loving it (and that’s what I mean by subjective when it comes to user reviews). Our children loved it, so that was worth it just for that.

The Namgyal Institute of Tibetology is a treasure trove of many things Buddhist. It is a place that we would have loved to have spent half a day or more.

Namgyal Institute of Tibetology in Gangtok; Photo: Devadyumna Mukherjee

The Directorate of Handicraft and Handloom is a fantastic place … if you are into arts, craft and hand-woven textiles. If you are looking for an exciting purchase or bargain, then the entirety of this place may try your patience. I loved the place and am likely to come back to spend 2-3 days there because it is a repository of centuries old crafts as also a ‘live’ workshop where local people are practising the skills to produce new work. And watching the process of creation is fascinating.

Most government-run places close by 4 pm and each place has an entry ticket for adults and some places for children. It is a reasonably well organised tourist circuit and the only thing one can’t factor for is the traffic. My guess is that in ideal conditions one could get from one end to the other of Gangtok within 20 minutes; but, it is more likely to take 20 minutes between each point, which is why if you want to change the sequence of how you want to visit places of interest, one day ain’t gonna be enough.

Traffic is intense in Gangtok, and though it is orderly, travel time can be unpredictable at times;

We skipped several stops on the standard tourist list – Flower Show, view points, etc, mainly because we wanted to spend time where we preferred and also because mist and cloud cover left little to view from viewpoints.

Overall, Gangtok is a great place to visit as part of a vacation. And with a little bit of planning and local connect, the time spent is stress-free and wonderful.

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