And so it began, another full day of
traveling ahead. According to Rupak the journey would take about eight
hours, and with some roads in very bad condition. Oh well, I was used to
that. Shortly before nine we left Darjeeling and started our journey
over the meandering roads. We were now surrounded by teak wood forests
as we made our way forward. After an hour and a half of climbing we
started to descend again into the valley of Teesta. I could see a river
in the valley, the border between Darjeeling and Sikkim.
Of course there were the
usual checks of my passport but all was found in order so I was handed
out my inner line permit and we could proceed. We crossed the bridge and
immediately started climbing. From a viewpoint I could see how two
rivers merged into one.
And then the road became
bad, but still nowhere as bad as in Anurchal Pradesh. Also here we were
stopped twice but the holdup did not take longer than fifteen minutes or
so. And then, as if a miracle had happened the road suddenly was in
perfect condition. A good excuse for me to doze away. Rupak woke me up
when we arrived in Pelling. He told me there was not a lot to be done.
The small village originally housed about 1500 people but the majority
of buildings are now hotels. After checkin I strolled a bit through the
town but it was an uninspiring place indeed. By now it was only 3:30 and
I had to wait till 19:30 till the restaurant opened.
With nothing much to do it
was the first time I felt bored and alone. To make things worst I had
lost my Bose noise reduction headset so listening to music was not an
option. Good thing was that the day after there was a full program of
sightseeing planned, but my first experience in Sikkim was not a very
Next morning started much
better, after a good shower I felt completely refreshed, breakfast was
great and Rupak and Urgen were already waiting for me. Our first
destination for the day was Khechipairi lake, about 31 kilometre away.
The road was in good shape so I could admire the landscape in comfort.
The Rambo falls, which are supposed to look very impressive during and
after the monsoon were not that impressive right now, something that I
The steep hills were no
excuse not to be used as everywhere I could see small villages and
terraces prepared for agriculture. As beautiful as it looked I would not
like to live their as each village required at least an hour long hike
The holy lake itself was
in a beautiful surrounding. It had the shape of a foot and of course a
couple of myths explaining it’s creation. There were both Buddhist and
Hindhu versions of the myths so everyone could relate to it. A small
bridge with prayer wheels lead to an area close to the lake and an
abundance of prayer flags. Over here pilgrims could pray and present
offerings to the plenty of fish who were eagerly waiting for their
There was a small prayer hall where a monk lit butter lights and helped the pilgrims with their prayers.
Close to the lake a new
monastery was being built. The work was not completed yet but the prayer
hall with a fantastic statue dominating it was already in use. I could
see a group of nuns busy with their recitals. I completely loved the
noise of their prayers which sounded like the humming of bees, extremely
peaceful and serene.
We drove back to Pelling
for a traditional Sikkimese lunch after we continued our trip to the
Rabtense ruins. A few partially rebuilt wall-stubs are all that remains
of the palace complex, which was Sikkim’s royal capital from 1670 until
it was sacked by Nepali forces in the 18th century.
Higher up in the hills I
could see the Pemayangtse monastery and from where I was standing I
could hear the monks blowing their trumpets. For me the sign to abort
the visit to the ruins and proceed to the monastery.
A wise decision as it
turned out. By the time we arrived lamas were saying their recitals,
accompanied by trumpets, bells and drums. Once again shivers ran down my
spines and I had goosebumps all over. It was a ceremony specially
performed for an Indian family sitting at the side. It did not take to
long and as soon it was over the monks returned to their quarters. One
of them offered me a selection of fresh fruit that I enjoyed later that
day. What an experience!
I admired the prayer hall,
as well as the first and second floor where a museum was located.
Stunning fresco’s covered the walls and beautiful statues, as well as an
overwhelming piece of art created for Guru Rinpoche. Unfortunately
photography was not allowed inside, something I respected.
By four I was back at my
hotel, time to update my journal and relax. It had been a beautiful day
and I was in a much better mood than the day before.
A new dawn and new
experiences were waiting for me in the misty mountains. Like the day
before Rupak was already waiting for me so we started our journey. I had
named Sikkim the cloud kingdom and that was especially true this day as
thick layers of fog obscured the views.
Our first stop were the
Kachenjuga falls which had a much bigger amount of water coming down
than the falls we visited the day before. These ones definitely were
falls, and not a stream of water coming down.
There was quite some
activity of local people going on, most of them busy making selfies, and
I did take some time to watch the workers improving the road and
painting the bridge in a bright green color.
A bit further we enjoyed a
cup of tea in a local village when it started to rain. We waited for a
while but as the did not stop we decided to go on. We left the well
paved road for a bumpy ride uphill, and then we had to walk another 400
meter steep uphill over a slippery and rocky path.
Not much later, and
without having fallen down, we arrived at the Dubdi Gompa. Established
in 1647 in honor of Lhatsun Chenpo, Dubdi it is said to be Sikkim’s
oldest still-functioning monastery. Located high on the ridge above
Yuksam, this compact, peaceful gompa is beautifully set in tended
gardens, and if the fog wasn’t obscuring the view I would have enjoyed
dawn views of white peaks between high green folds of forested
foothills. But no complaints about that.
We returned back at the
car in one piece and returned in the direction of Yuksam. Yuksam means
‘meeting place of the three lamas’, referring to the trio of Tibetan
holy men who crowned the first chogyal (King) of Sikkim at a historic
site in 1641.
And that was exactly where
we were going. The site was filled with prayer flags, a charming
woodland garden with a small temple, a huge prayer wheel, a chorten
containing earth from each corner of Sikkim and the supposedly original
four-seat Coronation Throne. It was a lovely and tranquil place and
after having paid the 25 euro cent entrance fee the key keeper opened
the small temple especially for us.
Not far from the site a
new temple was built with a large statue of one of the lama’s dominating
the upper floor. I looked down over another garden filled with prayer
flags, a rather usual sign in this region.
Back at the little village
of Yuksam we were supposed to go to lunch but I was distracted by
another building with a large selection of immense prayer wheels. I was
lucky that my visit coincided with the visit of a group of East
Bhutanese who enthusiastically rotated the massive wheels, in clockwise
direction. I spent a while watching this enchanting scene after which I
moved to a small local restaurant for a fabulous lunch.
Just before four we
returned to my hotel. As I was rather tired by now I enjoyed a long
afternoon nap before I started working on my journal. At seven thirty I
went to the restaurant for dinner and I guess that by now you already
know the routine after that. Another beautiful day had come to an end.
The next day was a
travelling day. We left Pelling and continued our journey to Namchi in
South Sikkim. Approximately three hours were planned for the 75 km drive
but not unexpected it did take longer. Like the last days it was still
pretty hazy but that did not stop me enjoying the stunning environment.
Steep hills, covered in shades of green, deep valleys to look down at
and every now and then a peaceful village.
My first treat of the day
was a visit to the Tathagata Tsal Buddha Park. A giant Buddha dominated
the tasteful park. Whilst walking toward it I could hear music from
chanting monks. Magic filled the air and it seemed I was coming down by
every step I made towards the statue. In the building under the statue a
stunning exhibition about the life of Buddha was presented whilst
slowly circling around the building uphill. Another slope led to a
sudden and unexpected stop, at a wall decorated with the traditional
white shawls. It was a peaceful and tranquil experience that I greatly
We continued our way to
Namchi and when we almost arrived there we took a detour uphill to
Samdruptse, where another giant statue was built, this time to honour
Guru Rinpoche. Under the statue was a simple temple created, a nice
place but nothing compared to the first one.
It was only a couple of
kilometers to my hotel and after checking I enjoyed a well deserved
lunch. Then it was time to hit the road again, now to the Chardham
As soon as we arrived I
could not keep the grimse of my face. The temples, replicas from Hindhu
temples from all over India were created in such a kitsch and tacky way I
in no way could take it serious. It felt like a Disney park for
Hindhu’s. The park was dominated by an immense statue of Lord Shiva,
looking over the temples.
Apparently I was the only
one who did not take the thing serious as loads of worshippers took
their task more than seriously and went from temple to temple to say
their devote prayers.
At one place a small child
got scared of the statues, which had eyes that could not be overlooked,
and I could not stop laughing, discretely of course…
Even Rupak was very
serious and devoted but when he asked how I liked this “beautiful” place
I could not help but tell the truth. He did understand and thought it
Last visit for the day was
the Sri Shidri Sai Baba Mandir centre. Although still colorful and full
of deities this place was definitely far more tastefully done than the
Hindhu theme park. The prayer hall at the second floor was impressive in
it’s simplicity with a ceiling painted like a story sky. Amazing!
By now the afternoon was
coming to an end, time to return to the hotel, work on my journal and
relax. It had been a fabulous day full of extremes. It will bring a
smile on my face for a long time.
Next morning the sun was shining and the
fog was much less than the days before. It gave me the opportunity to
see the mighty white peaks of the Himalayas for a very first time.
Needless to say I was extremely excited.
Our next destination was
Gangtok, the capital of East Sikkim, and with the fog not obstructing
the view I was enjoying the ride even more. Unfortunately clouds started
to gather as the day went on and soon it was business as usual. Our
route winded through mossy forests, bamboo groves and terraced paddy
fields, a true feast for my eyes.
Rupak had proposed to
visit Rumtek monastery today. Officially it was planned in two days time
but as it was almost on our way it made sense to visit it today, and so
Rumtek is Sikkim’s most
spiritually significant monastery complex. It’s essentially a
self-contained village with a colourful main prayer hall that was built
(1961–66) to replace Tibet’s Tsurphu Monastery, destroyed during the
Chinese Cultural Revolution. The interior’s centrepiece is a giant
yellow throne awaiting the long-overdue coronation of the Kagyu
spiritual leader, the (disputed) 17th Karmapa. He currently resides in
Dharamsala due to the Karmapa controversy. The sensitivity over which
explains all the armed soldiers and why I, like all foreigners, had to
present passport and Sikkim permit before entry.
By now I had already
realized I could not compare the monasteries with the ones in Ladakh but
they were definitely worthwhile visiting.
There was a beautiful
courtyard in front of the main building that housed the prayer hall.
Some young monks were playing together during their free time.
The prayer hall was
stunning, but with no lights on it was difficult to admire the frescos.
Still it was possible to see some beautiful statues and hundreds of
golden Buddhas. The atmosphere was amazing but as with many monasteries
in Sikkim, no photography allowed inside..
Behind the monastery,
stairs rise beside the distinctively painted Karma Shri Nalanda
Institute of Buddhist Studies, leading quickly to a smallish room
containing an ornate Golden Stupa, studded with turquoise and amber
gemstones. That’s the reliquary of the 16th Karmapa, founder of the
current complex and considered almost a saint hereabouts.
In the room in front of
the Golden Stupa monks were preparing for their daily Puja so I decided
to sit down and witness their prayers.
As soon as the monks
started chanting I closed my eyes and started to meditate. At times I
got distracted as worshippers entered the room and did their prayers, a
good excuse to observe the monks and their rituals. But the longer it
lasted the better I could switch of from the distractions and the deeper
my mediation, guided by the chanting, became.
Rupak tried to get in
touch with me, something which was not possible at the time, as my eyes
were closed and I was in deep meditation. Over two hours later, when
there was a short break I opened my eyes and noticed he was not there
anymore. I met him outside after which we went for a late lunch.
About an hour and a half
later we arrived at my hotel which was located high above Gangtok. Time
for a Kingfisher, a nap, and a well deserved dinner. What a beautiful
day it has been once again!
The next day a trip to
North Sikkim was planned. As this was a restricted area we had to use a
car with Sikkim licence plates and we needed to use a local driver. So
that morning I had three men accompanying me, a surreal experience.
We left Gangtok and pretty
soon the road went steeply uphill. From the other side of the valley I
had a good view over Gangtok. Our first stop were the seven sisters. A
waterfall cascading over seven steps, from which I could only see the
Next we stopped at a point
where long time ago a bloodband between two tribes was established. The
place was marked with an abundance of prayer flags and I saw two stones
which inscriptions had been faded by time. A bit further on a monument
was erected to honor this event.
Not much later we crossed a
bridge and once we did that we arrived in North Sikkim. The police post
to check my passport and inner line permit was not far away…
And then the road once
again turned bad so it became a rather bumpy ride. Still I felt safe as
David, the local driver, drove responsibly and the roads were wide
enough so we did. To need to maneuver close to the edge. We passed the
Phodong monastery, which we would visit on our return.
The Labrang monastery was
only a couple of miles further on uphill. Built in the 18th century it
had a complete different look than what I had seen before. A monk showed
us the prayer hall and the first floor where two lama’s were preparing
for a prayer.
But they were not the only
ones. Back in the prayer hall a Puja was just about to start in memory
of someone who recently passed away. I did feel extremely lucky to be
able to witness two puja’s within two days. Monks arrived and took their
places and suddenly the chanting started.
One of the younger monks
was on tea duty. Every monk got a nice cup of salted butter tea. Also
two locals sitting next to me were treated on a cup and two my big
surprise I was given one as well. This made me really feel part of the
ceremony and not just a spectator. The salty butter tea was an acquired
taste but in a long way not as bad as the yak butter tea I had tasted in
Tibet. I even accepted a second offering.
I took some time to
observe the rituals and make some pictures after which I closed my eyes,
switched of and allowed myself to be drifted away by the enchanting
voices around me. At times trumpets and horns were blown and I could
feel the impact of the loud drums. The chanting was very melodic and it
was rather easy for me to get in a different state of mind, a very
relaxed one. I do not remember how long I sat like that but it must have
been over an hour and a half. Then the mood changed, I opened my eyes
and I noticed the first part of the Puja, which by now had taken over
two hours was coming to and end.
Again a monk walked past
the other monks to offer them a spoonful of ‘holy’ water out of a silver
bowl and once done he came to us to offer the same. Also, like all
monks, I was presented a dish with fresh fruit and snacks.
I felt rather emotional by
now. Never before had I witnessed a Puja where I was so involved, never
before had I witnessed a Puja where I was treated as part of the
ceremony, not just a spectator. It took me a while to land with both
feet on the ground and I nodded to Rupak I was ready to leave.
It had been an
overwhelming experience. Outside, the monk who had showed us around
before was waiting. He asked whether I was willing to make some pictures
of him and send them later. How could I refuse…
Still not completely in
the present I got into the car and we backtracked our way to the Phodong
monastery. As soon as I got put of the car I could hear the chanting of
the monks. Another puja was taking place.
So instead of admiring the
exterior first I headed straight to the prayer hall where a Puja had
just begun. This time it was requested by a family who sat in between
the two rows of monks performing the Puja.
The average age of the
monks was older than in Labrang so the voices were much lower. Also the
horns used were in a deeper tone range and the drums were massive, so
you could really feel them when they were being used.
Also the prayers were
completely different giving the Puja a complete different atmosphere
than the previous one. I was absorbed by the ritual and could not get
enough of it. Although I hardly understood what was going on it was a
delight just to sit and watch.
Like at the previous Puja I
was offered a spoon of holy water and some treats by the time the
ritual was coming close to an end. This time I had not gone into a
meditation as I could not do that a second time on a day and I was to
intrigued by everything around me.
The family who had
requested the Puja had left behind a large staple of money, which was
carefully divided amongst the present monks. An offering, a thank you
for them performing the prayers.
The monks started to leave
and I took some time to admire the interior of the prayer hall. There
was so much to be seen, and even after having visited a number of
monasteries I was not bored by it.
Before leaving I enjoyed
my banana (I had limited myself to take only one item from the basket
that was offered to me) and had a look at the exterior of the monastery.
Monks were making their way, the Puja was over, time to relax, or
perhaps a meditation or some more practice, I would never know.
By now lunch time was far
overdue so we stopped at a stall where I enjoyed a cup of black tea,
vegetable momos and a samoa. Also the others were hungry but I could not
feel guilty having stayed far much longer than planned at both
monasteries. It had been an overwhelming experience.
I did notice though I was
getting tired earlier and earlier. The amount of impressions that almost
non stop were coming to me were at times difficult to handle. Driven by
excitement I did not have a nap during the drive back. Back at the
hotel I really wanted a nap but forced myself to update my journal
first. Dinner was served at 19:30 and the lights in my room went out not
much later. Another exciting day had come to an end…
That night Heavens opened,
my bed was trembling due the rolling thunders and my bedroom was
instantly lit by the bright lightning. Nature was showing off and I
guessed the whole Gangtok population must have been awake. Fortunately
after an hour or so it mellowed out and I could go back to sleep again.
When I left the hotel I
already noticed I was more tired than usual, most likely a combination
of a bad night sleep and the intense last couple of days.
Our first stop was the
Enchey monastery, the first one in Gangtok. A small but beautiful
monastery built in the style so typical for Sikkim. Inside a beautiful
collection of frescos and statues. A monk banged a gong, sign that the
morning Puja was about to start. This time however I could resist so we
headed on to our next point of visit.
The palace and the royal
monastery. Beautiful located within the compounds of a school for monks
the monastery was again a fine example of Sikkimese religious
architecture. The palace itself was not so interesting as I could, only
see it from a distance.
I felt rather uninterested
that morning and my dizziness was coming up rather strong. I knew I had
reached a point where I needed some rest so i decided I would not
complete that day’s sightseeing. Our next stop was a museum and workshop
for cottage industry and I did my best to at least look interested but
once again it could not grab my attention.
One thing I did want to
see though was the Na Ghal Institute of Tibetology. It turned out to be a
small but wonderful museum of original Tibetan artefacts. Lovely to
spend some time.
A couple of minutes walk
further I visited the Do Drui Chorten, surrounded by buildings to house
monks. A small school was located further down the hill and the noise
from chanting young monks was deafening. A monk was lighting a humongous
amount of butter lamps inside a building and I could feel the heat from
Then I told Rupak I was
tired, asked him to bring me back to the hotel and released him and
Urgen for their duties of the day. I had a nap, followed by a wonderful
thukpa (noodle soup) for lunch. The afternoon I took time to relax and
decided to book a wonderful hot stone massage.
That was the plan but
after waiting for over thirty minutes at the reception for someone to
finally show up I was informed the spa was closed today (and most likely
already many days before). Internet was not working due to electricity
problems (sorry sir) so there was nothing to do but to return to my room
and listening to some music. That resulted in my second nap for the
Dinner was excellent, as
always, and as I had enjoyed two naps earlier the day I stayed up a bit
longer than usual. Another day had come to an end, a day where I decided
to listen to my body and have a well needed break, it had done me well,
by the end of the day my dizziness was back to it’s usual and more
The next morning started
with a three hour drive during which we left Sikkim. Our next, and final
destination of the trip was Kalimpong, part of the Darjeeling district
in West Bengal. By the time we arrived at the border of Sikkim and West
Bengal I officially had to check out at the police station. A lot of
paperwork and an additional stamp in my passport later I got back into
the car and we were on our way again.
Instead of taking the
highway we took the scenic route high up in the hills. First we drove
through thick teak forest, a beautiful sight. The area is best known for
it’s quinine production and not much later the hills were covered with
that. In Piet of the haze I did enjoy the views. We passed small
villages, all spotlessly clean, and I could not stop thinking people
must have a much better lifestyle over here than I the cities, in spite
of the harsh conditions.
Our first stop before
reaching Kalimpong was the Tharpa Choling monastery. Both the
architecture and the painting reminded me of monasteries I had seen in
Tibet. Built in 1922, this Gelugpa-school Tibetan monastery of 50 monks
contains statues of the past, present and future Buddhas.
Rupak knew the monk who
opened the prayer hall for us and after I had admired the place I was
given permission to make pictures, as long as I was quick…
Next to the monastery was a
small but extremely interesting museum. Lots of pictures of the last
days of an independent Tibet were on display as well as a lot of
historical items. I was also shown the modest room where the founding
lama of the monastery had lived. To be honest I liked this museum so
much more than the Tibetology Institute we visited yesterday. The
atmosphere was just right.
It was not a long drive to
the Thongsa Gompa, another interesting monastery. The prayer hall was
quite large but rather modest with it’s decorations. Rupak told me it
was a relatively new monastery which could explain why.
Then we drove on to our
hotel, A former summer home of the maharajas of Dinajpur is perched on a
mountain shelf overlooking the Relli Valley, and packs in oodles of
Raj-era charm. Wicker chairs and scarlet blossoms line the verandah and
there’s a charming lounge bar. It was the perfect place to finish of my
tour to Darjeeling and Sikkim.
I invited Rupak and Urgen
for lunch, something they reluctantly accepted, after which we went for
our last sightseeing of the tour.
Our first stop was a
cactus nursery but although it housed the nice collection it didn’t not
tickle my fancy so within minutes we continued our journey to Durpin
Gompa, Kalimpong’s largest monastery, formally known as Zangtok Pelri
Phodang, and consecrated by the Dalai Lama in 1976. It was located in
the middle of a military camp (that was build much later) and it was a
strange experience driving through the camp, slowly uphill until we
arrived at the monastery, a surreal location.
When we arrived a monk was
banging a gong, announcing it was time for for the monks to gather for
their daily afternoon Puja. It did only seem right to finish of my
wonderful time in Darjeeling and Sikkim with attending a Puja. Once
again the atmosphere was completely different than the previous ones I
had witnessed, and it also was the shortest, just under an hour.
We returned to the hotel
where I went to the living room to update my journal whilst enjoying a
Kingfisher. Another beautiful day had come to an end.
And that was not the only thing to come to an end… Also the first part of my Big India Immersion 2018 was almost over.
“A magical journey to the cloud kingdom…”
A month in India has
brought me countless experiences and overwhelming impressions. It have
been four extremely intense weeks but I knew that before I booked this
trip. It is almost impossible to comprehend all the things I saw and all
the events I was part of. Most of it I loved but there have been times I
was not that happy, to say the least.
That is India for you. A
cacophony of sights, sounds, smell, touch and taste. Not all of which
are easy to deal with, however once you are ready to deal with the
inevitable frustrations and unavoidable difficulties it is more than
worth it, the rewards are priceless!
The next day I travelled to Bagdogra from where I flew to Delhi where the second part of my adventure began.
“New discoveries in the North West”
Continue to The Delhi Experience