Gangtok is the capital city of the state Sikkim, located in the north-eastern region of India. The region is considered as the most convenient base to further explore the beautiful state of Sikkim. Although, Gangtok is not your typical traditional hill station. It’s a hill station with its own quirks, which is why travellers find the place special.
The city is famous for capturing the best views of the mighty Kanchenjunga. When the sky is clear, it’s guaranteed that you will catch a great view of this mountain range. On other days, it’s covered by puffy light-weight moving clouds, which causes your view of the peaks to appear and disappear. The city has lots to offer to all kinds of visitors. But standing in admiration of these snow covered peaks during sunrise and sunset, with prayer flags fluttering somewhere around you, is the most-loved aspect about Gangtok.
For the people who live here, Kanchenjunga is not just the third highest summit in the world, but it is also a sacred landmark. In Tibetan language, Kanchenjunga means, ‘five treasures of the high snow’, and is truly treasured by the locals and visitors of Gangtok. There are a few interesting mythical stories created about this mountain too. Some locals believe that Nee-gued (which means a Yeti), is the one that wanders on the slopes of the mountain.
To an urban dweller, the city of Gangtok can seem to carry the perfect amount of urbanisation and an upbeat energy that doesn’t damage the aura of the hill station. Gangtok feels neat, tidy and cosy, because of how the hill houses and mountain landscapes seem to be well-placed with each other. Because of its close proximity to nature, the city also has strict rules on recycling and tree conservation. Plastic is banned completely and most of the tiny buildings are painted green, as a commitment to being environment friendly. This is what keeps the air and water so clean that the residents drink water directly from the tap, which is not a common practice in most cities in India. Some houses claim to not keep ceiling fans, as the weather always seems just perfect.
The city is small and is the least populous city in India. Although, it can seem crowded at times, yet it’s always minus the hustle and bustle. Gangtok has the essence of a pleasant unhurried way of life and you could spend hours at an open terrace feeling rejuvenated.
History and Culture of Gangtok
Gangtok is a mountain town that is also established as a peaceful and spiritual Buddist pilgrimage centre. The culture of Buddhism in Gangtok is evident in the local practices and beliefs too. You would come across prayer flags, shrines or small paintings of symbols of Buddhism. These auspicious symbols could be seen on the windows, door, wall hangings or even on a souvenir like a tea cup you purchase. It is easy to spot some huge Buddhist themed murals on the street too. The craft of Buddhism is supported by the locals and the Buddhist monks.
Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal, was the last monarch of the state of Sikkim, which was till the year 1975. A year in which India officially added Sikkim as its 22nd state, while the capital of the state was Gangtok. Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal also saw the importance of the Buddhist arts and crafts for the Sikkimese identity. This is why you will find institutes like the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, with museums which stay as safe homes to Buddhist text and crafts.
Monasteries in Sikkim are not just to preserve the crafts of the culture, but also hold religious significance for the people, because of the energy they themselves feel there. Enchey monastery is one such monastery that holds a special place in the hearts of the people of Gangtok. It is believed that Khangchendzonga and Yabdean are the protecting deities that reside in the Enchey monastery. This way, you can see how the mountains of the city of Gangtok are also associated with the religious beliefs of the people and considered as sacred deities.
There are several other monasteries which makes Gangtok the center for learning Buddhist culture. Thangka painting, wood carving and temples with artifacts built in the style of Tibetan architecture are common sights for the city.
Tibetan architecture is also observed in Gangtok, as the state of Sikkim shares its borders with Tibet, Nepal and China. Which is why Gangtok has such a diverse culture. The culture followed by the people is a blend of Nepalis and Bhutanese culture too.
In today’s time, this hillside town has also developed a contemporary art scene. The people of Gangtok have a growing dedication to art and music. Majority of the urban youth enjoy western music and Hindi rock. Gangtok hosts a number of music festivals as well. One such festival is the Mangan Music Festival, which takes place in the month of December. If you don’t make it for a festival, don’t worry, because you could still enjoy a karaoke night or listen to live music played by Northeastern bands at a local pub. You would surely find yourself nodding to the music with a chilled locally brewed beer, known as Dansberg.
Gangtok is also famous for its street food such as momos, Sha Phaley and beef/chicken thukpa. These are just a few of the dishes that you will keep craving as the weather demands for hot comfort food.
How to Get to Gangtok
By Air – The airport nearest to Gangtok is about 128 kilometres away in Bagdogra, in the state of West Bengal. From the airport, you can hire a shared taxi or a private vehicle that will get you to Gangtok in approximately 4 hours. The drive from Bagdogra to Gangtok is stunning, peaceful with gorgeous mountains and River Teesta comforting you on the drive.
If you want to try something crazy, you can also take a helicopter to get to Gangtok in less than 30 minutes from the airport. However, just a heads up, this entirely depends on the weather condition. We would recommend trying this on your way out of Gangtok, as it’s a grand way to end the trip. There is a Tourist Information Center that will help you purchase the tickets.
By Rail – The nearest railway station to Gangtok is about 148 kilometres away, known as New Jalpaiguri in Siliguri. The station is well-connected to major cities in India. From New Jalpaiguri, you can take a taxi to Gangtok or go to Siliguri Bus Station and catch a state-run bus to Gangtok, which will take you about 5-6 hours.
By Road – If you’re going to be taking the trip from Siliguri, Darjeeling, or Kalimpong the distance is decent, you can consider driving to Gangtok. For those coming from other cities or a different state altogether, you might want to opt for the train or flight, because the distance on the road will be taxing.
Although, if you’re the adventurous kind, the road trip will definitely be thrilling. Depending on where you’re coming from, you’ll be getting into the state through Bihar, Jharkhand or West Bengal. In any case, you will be taking multiple State Highways and National Highways. The journey, however, will be a fun one for sure.
Best Time to Travel to Gangtok
It’s vital that you visit Gangtok when the weather is clear, so you atleast get a good enough view of the Kanchenjunga mountain range. The best months are from October to mid-December, because you could catch some of the traditional festivals such as Losoong festival, where Buddhist monks perform Cham dances. The Gangtok Food and Cultural festival is also held in December every year, by the Sikkim tourism department to promote tourism. There would be several food stalls, singing and dance performances making Gangtok more lively in December.
Between March and May, flowers are in bloom and skies are clear. March is when Gangtok has an international flower festival that is an absolute treat to the eye.
January and February can be an option if you’re a fan of cold weather. June to September is when it rains, causing landslides and foggy weather that blocks your view of the mountains. We’d recommend avoiding a visit during the rains if possible.
Getting around Gangtok
Taxis would be your main mode of transport in Gangtok and will fall cheaper if you decide to share the ride. There’s no other means of public transport and depending on the day you will be exploring, you could also rent a private car for multiple days. Simply because it will fall cheaper that way too. You can approach a local tour operator or speak to someone at the hotel help desk. There are taxi stands available where you can agree on the number of days and time you’d need a private vehicle. Make sure there’s absolute clarity on trips that are included and whether it would be private or shared.
Breaking stereotypes about Gangtok
Gangtok is located in the second smallest state so there’s hardly anything to explore here. Gangtok is a great destination to refresh yourself and your mind of this thought, as it has some of the most spectacular views and places to explore. You can see a glacial lake, the mountain peaks of the largest mountain peak in India, spot a yak, listen to a new genre of music and clear your mind with the energies felt at a monastery.
Go check out
MG road – MG road is a clean stretch of shops, restaurants and cafes in a no-traffic area. It would feel as though you are placed at an open air mall. This area can get crowded but doesn’t feel that way as there is no hustle and bustle. You will also find plenty of local bookstores, pubs and tea stalls. The entry to MG road has an entrance sign that states spit and litter free zones.
Viewpoints – Since, you’ll most probably be hoping to get a good view of the Kanchenjunga mountain range, the city of Gangtok has set up some viewpoints for you. The peaks are visible from Hanuman Tok, Ganesh Tok and Tashi viewpoint. You can take a call on which viewpoint to visit, depending on how fast you can get there and not miss the sunrise or sunset. Many of the monasteries also offer some spectacular views of the mountain range.
Tsomgo Lake – This is a gorgeous glacial lake, situated around 40 kms away from Gangtok city. You can hire a government approved taxi service to get here and it would take you an hour or so to reach. At the lake, you will surely spot a yak and if you visit in December, the lake is covered in ice. You would need a permit to enter this area, which is issued at the checkpoint when you reach there. However, the documents for the permit need to be submitted by your travel agency the previous day. On the drive here, you will see Nathula Pass. This pass is visited as it connects the Indian state of Sikkim with China’s Tibet Autonomous Region.