(Warning: Long post!)
Costs of holidays have truly skyrocketed. The budget for a vacation for a family of four and I mean a budget vacation (no luxury!) vacation in India would be comfortably 2 Lakhs, this being a conservative estimate that includes just budget airfare and accommodation.
When I was a child, growing up in Mumbai, we went on an annual holiday to some destination by second class train and booked the hotel only after reaching the place, relying on the local autowallah’s expertise and contacts. For someone living in Mumbai, North India i.e Delhi and Agra was considered exotic or the South India circuit i.e. Bangalore, Mysore, Ooty was usually done. For those of modest means, hill stations nearby such as Matheran, Lonavala, Khandala or a Pune or Goa provided a cheaper respite. Am sure those living in other parts of the country have similar ‘favourites’.
A lot of time has passed since then. The tastes of the Indian traveller have increased, travellers have graduated to exotic vacations overseas and most folks I know won’t budge without pre-booking a ‘package’! Most places on the regular tourist circuit are bursting to the seams with travellers with prices being driven higher.
My recent internship sojourn in Kolkata provided me with an excellent ‘unplanned’ holiday. Going on vacation was certainly not on plan. I did have a bit of time on hand so I considered a brief 2-3 day short trip to Darjeeling. Darjeeling was ok for just about a day. On a whim I took off to Sikkim and had a blast. I was quite surprised with how little I spent!
Sikkim is certainly not unknown or exotic to Indian travellers. It’s generally part of the Sikkim- Darjeeling-Kalimpong circuit. Visiting Sikkim usually involved only going to Gangtok as much of skim was inaccessible due to its strategic location near the China Border. In the last 5 years, a lot of places in Sikkim have opened up, but even Indians still require a permit to visit.
Though it’s not technically a ‘travel hack’, it certainly qualifies as a hack as I did it in around Rs 10,000 (ex Kolkata) which I think is a phenomenal price for a holiday these days.
Getting there and around:
Your city – Kolkata and back: Kolkata is a long way away so budget at least Rs 1700 each way for 3-AC fare, unless you live nearby. Fly if you can plan ahead. It’s worth it. Take the Duronto Express if it runs from your city i.e Mumbai or Delhi.
Kolkata – New Jalpaiguri – Kolkata: Plethora of overnight trains from Howran/ Sealdah station. Take an overnight train as it saves you the cost of a hotel in Kolkata and the day journey by train is terribly boring. Avoid the Shatabi Express from Kolkata (which is timed really for the business folks not tourists) at all costs, as this means you will have to stay a night at NJP which is a complete waste.
The most popular train is the Darjeeling Mail. This also means a rush of travellers for the shared jeeps. Try getting there earlier or later when the Darjeeling Mail folks have departed. Just book an ordinary second class sleeper to get there and do book the return ticket back. There’s always a massive rush of people trying to get to Kolkata from NJP as it’s a major junctions, so Tatkal won’t come to your rescue. This should be Rs 250 each way.
NJP – Gangtok – NJP: This is a comfortable 5 hour journey, mostly on flat ground and a slight drive through the hills. If you’ve taken the overnight train, you should get a morning jeep that should get you to Gangtok by noon. Rs 250 to 300 one way. 600 both ways. Negotiate if they quote a bit higher.
Accomodation: In Gangtok, acco ranges from the cheap and basic at Rs 400 (Hotel Top) to the luxury seven Star Hotel Mayfair. I stayed at Hotel Pandim, a family run guest house that cost me Rs 1100 per night which was safe and comfortable. It’s at the topmost point of Gangtok which means fantastic views of the Kanchenjunga and Wi-Fi. It’s safe and comfortable and I even left my laptop at the hotel when I took off for a short trip.
Eats: Budget at least Rs 300 per day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Get your water from the drinking water taps at MG Road. It’s perfectly safe. You’ll save a ton as well as plastic.
•The Buffet at the Mayfair@Rs 750. You can starve for the rest of the day.
•Baker’s Corner on MG Road: Amazing coffee, pizza, pasta, baked stuff @ Rs 20 upwards
•Marwari Thali@ Rs 90. Follow the signboards on MG Road
•Aggarwal’s Sweets: for chat, samosas, and Indian snacks
•For Momo and Tibetan food: Tibet Kitchen on MG Road for great momo, thukpa, chilli chicken. From Rs 100 upwards.
Getting around: Do NOT do the local sightseeing package tour. Take the local Taxis at Denzong Cinema which costs around Rs 20-30 per head. Instead just laze around at Bakers corner, enjoy the evening strolling on the MG Road promenade. The sights are all outside Gangtok. You can visit the Rumtek Monastery, Namgyal Institute of Tibetology,
Must do excursions: Though I am a staunch believer in going off the beaten track and wouldt be caught dead on a ‘tour’, I actually relished going on a 3 day excursion to Gurudongmar Lake
Gurudongmar Lake: Located at a height on 17,800 ft, it is considered a sacred lake to the Tibetans. It is called Gurudongmar as Guru Nanak is believed to have visited the lake. The locals say a portion of the lake never freezes as it’s the part where he touched the lake with his staff. I never got to see the lake as we had to turn back at 12,000 feet as roads were iced up! But I am going a second time – perhaps this June. This cost me Rs 3000 for 3 days inclusive of shared Qualis, single room fr 2 nights in basic guest houses and meals for 3 days. North Sikkim is beautiful and untouched (separate post on this side trip coming up!)
Yumthang and Chopta Valley: They are covered with flowers in the spring and absolutely beautiful (and also filled with tourists!) if you are here in winter, there’s a hot spring nearby which is free to use and very relaxing. This is on the way to Gurudongmar but you can do a separate trip here to. There’s a guest house at Yumthang Valley that was open but a lot more places open up during spring.
Nathula (Indo-China border) and Changu Lake: This is generally what is done by most tourists. If it’s your first time in Sikkim then do go. I had been to Changu Lake years back so I preferred to skip it and spend the day getting my nails done in a beauty salon in Gangtok.
Grand Total: For 5 days, approximately Rs 10,900 (including cost of getting to Kolkata from wherever you are in India, accomodation @Rs1000 and food@Rs300 for five days).
Other micro trips
Darjeeling: If you must, I’d give it 2 days at the most. Else, skip it, its overcrowded and not what it used to be.
Mirik: This should be a nice pleasant couple of days where you could escape with a book.
Kalimpong: Avoid this unless you are interested in handicrafts. It’s the wholesale crafts centre for the region
Pelling and Western Sikkim: I’ve never been here but I hear from travellers that it’s worth a 5-6 day trip. Accessible by shared jeep from Gangtok
PS: I do have photographs but they are of the trip to North Sikkim. I just realised I do not have a single photo of Gangtok