South and West Sikkim

This enchanting region contains the essence of Sikkim: plunging rice terraces, thundering rivers, Buddhist monasteries etched against the sky, and the ever-brooding presence of Mount Khangchendzonga

Ravangla and Maenam Sanctuary

Ravangla (Rabongla), 65 km southwest of Gangtok, is a small village whose timber- fronted main street retains a strong frontier flavour and serves as the gateway to one of Sikkim's best day hikes. The 12-km trek through the sanctuary to Maenam Peak (3260 m), which dominates the town, takes about three hours. The sanctuary harbours red panda, civet, blood pheasant and black eagle, and is most beautiful when the magnolia and rhododendron are in bloom in April-May. Bhaledunga, another 30-minute hike along the ridge, on the steep cliff edge above the Tista, juts out in the shape of a cockerel's head.

Towering above it on the 'wish-fulfilling hill' of Samdruptse is a 45-m statue of Guru Padmasambhava, the patron saint of Sikkim who spread Buddhism to Tibet in the ninth century. Resplendent in copper and a coat of bronze paint, the
statue
 can be seen from Darjeeling, around 40 km away. Not to be outdone, a 33-m statue of Siva is rising on another hill outside Namchi.

The administrative headquarters of West Sikkim,
Gezing
(Gayzing, Gyalshing), 105 km west of Gangtok, is at the crossroads of bus routes and has a busy market with food stalls, shops, a few hotels (none recommended) but little else to detain visitors.

Tashiding

Forty kilometres north of Gezing is the gold-topped Tashiding monastery, built in 1716, which stands on a conical hill between the Rathong and Rangit rivers on a spot consecrated by Guru Rimpoche. The gompa has been refurbished and all the frescos repainted. The most sacred chorten in Sikkim is here so even the sight of Tashiding is thought to bring blessing. You will see numerous stones with high-class carvings of mantras around the monastery. Pilgrims attend the Bumchu festival in February/March to drink water from the sacred pot which has never run dry for over 300 years. Below the monastery is the small Tshchu Phur Cave where Guru Rinpoche meditated; follow the trail on the left of the entrance to Tashiding until you see a small house opposite and the painting on the rocks. Carry a torch if you plan to crawl into the cave.

Pemayangtse

The awe-inspiring
monastery
, Sikkim's second oldest, is near the start of the Dzongri trek. For many, the monastery is the highlight of their visit to Sikkim; it certainly has an aura about it. Take an early-morning walk to the rear of the monastery to see a breathtaking sunrise in perfect peace. The walls and ceiling of the large
dukhang
(prayer hall) have numerous
thangkas
and wall paintings, and there is an exceptional collection of religious artworks including an exquisite wooden sculpture on the top floor depicting the heavenly palace of Guru Rimpoche, the
Santhokpalri,
which was believed to have been revealed in a dream. The old stone and wood buildings to the side are the monks' quarters. According to tradition the monks have been recruited from Sikkim's leading families as this is the headquarters of the Nyingmapa sect. Annual
chaam
dances are held in late February and in September.

The
Denjong Padma Choeling Academy
(
DPCA
), set up to educate needy children, runs several projects, such as crafts and dairy, and welcomes volunteers, who can also learn about Buddhism and local culture. The meditation centre offers courses and can accommodate visitors for a small charge and volunteers for free at the new hostel ; a rewarding experience. Volunteers can spend up to six weeks during March- December. Contact Jules Stewart, London, T0207-229 4774, jjulesstewart@aol.com.

Rabdanste
, the ruined palace of the 17th- to 18th-century capital of Sikkim, is along the Gezing-bound track from the monastery, 3 km from Pelling. From the main road, turn left just before the white sign “Gezing 6 km”, cross the archery field and turn right behind the hill (road branches off just below Pemanyangtse). Follow the narrow rocky track for 500 m to reach the palace.

Pelling

Pelling sits on a ridge with good views of the mountains. The rather bleak little town has three areas linked by a winding road, Upper and Middle with views and hotels, and Lower Pelling with banks and other services. Upper Pelling is expanding rapidly with new hotels springing up to accommodate honeymooners from Kolkata, and makes the most convenient base for visits to Pemayangtse. You can also visit the Sanga Choelling Monastery (circa 1697), possibly the oldest in Sikkim, which has some colourful mural paintings. The hilltop monastery is about 3 km along a fairly steep track through thick woods (about 30 minutes). The area is excellent for walking.

Khecheopalri Lake and Yuksom

A road west of the Pelling-Yuksom road leads to this tranquil lake where the clear waters reflect the surrounding densely wooded slopes of the hills with a monastery above; Lepchas believe that birds remove any leaf that floats down. Prayer flags flutter around the lake and it is particularly moving when leaflamps are floated with special prayers at dusk. The sanctity of the lake may be attributed to its shape in the form of a foot (symbolizing the Buddha's footprint), which can be seen from the surrounding hills. The lake itself is not visually astonishing, but walks in the surrounding hills are rewarding and a night or two can easily be spent here. There are staggering views from the tiny hamlet by the gompa on the ridge (accessed by the footpath in the car park, just ask for the gompa) where homestays are available. You can trek from Pelling to Yuksom via the lake without a permit in two days, a beautiful journey.

Yuksom
(Yuksam), 42 km north from Pelling by jeepable road, is where the first Chogyal was crowned in 1641, thus establishing the kingdom of Sikkim. The wooden altar and stone throne above the Kathok lake stand beside Norbu Ghang
chorten
, which has an enormous prayer wheel in a beautifully peaceful pine forest. The simple
hermit's retreat
at
Dhubdi
(circa 1700) is up on a hill, 45 minutes' walk away. Yuksom makes a quiet and relaxing base fo
r a few days' stay, with several day walks and longer treks leading out from the village centre.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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