North East of India has been on top of the wishlist of travelers to India. And one of the most gorgeous parts of North East India is West Sikkim. Village homestays in Sikkim are a draw because of their authenticity and I found the best one, thanks to expert advice.
While designing my trip to Sikkim, I called up my friend Asit Biswas. Asit operates the best sustainable tour company, for an immersive experience of northeast India. So I hung onto every word of his. I told him I wanted to visit the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary in West Sikkim. And that I am only interested in staying in a village homestay.
Here is what came out of it.
Homestay in West Sikkim
Asit recommended we stay at the Hee Village, in a 4 room Limboo homestay. This village homestay in Sikkim was the home to his friend Birendra Tamling. His recommendation was pure gold, reinforced when we arrived. Branded as the Barsey Jungle Camp, this village homestay in hte west Sikkim was literally our home for about a week. The homestay was just a 5 minutes walk from the entrance to the Rhododendron Sanctuary. Awesome!
The Limboo are an off-shoot of races from inner and south Asia and date back to 8000 BC. They have a religion of their own known as Yumasamyo that recognises a single supreme goddess Tagera Ningwaphuma, worshipped as Yumasam or Yuma.
Bahuans, Chettris, Tamang, Bhutias, Sherpas, Lepchas, Gurung and Rais who also live here, have their own distinct religious and cultural heritage.
We experienced the Limboo culture and hospitality to the fullest here.
Sit out on the earthen courtyard in the sun with their dogs and chickens, and feast on delicious fresh mountain air. Sparkling flowing fresh freezing spring water, and a panorama of valley that rose across us in the distance to become glistening snow-covered Himalayan mountain peaks.
Being welcomed into a home of the Limboo community was a complete experinece in itself. Everybody in the house was absolutely hard working, from the youngest kid to the family heads. They would get up at 4 in the morning and were always engaged in one activity or another. From cutting firewood to tending to the fields and the pets, everybody worked responsibly – without ever giving up to the harsh weather.
Food was always prepared by the lady of the house, Mrs Tamling! We all would sit in the kitchen and see her prepare the most delicious food. Very much in the authentic village style – on earthen stoves.
Rice and lentils are staple in this area and all fruit and vegetable is grown organic. Pork, a favourite meat as well as chicken is available locally. Food is prepared simply, none of the heavy oils and spices one finds in modern Indian food. It is delicious and wholesome.
At these altitudes, peppered with walks, ones appetite grows. After a meal, one is expected to rest, until such time I was told, the rice eaten, stacks horizontal in your stomach! Excellent digestive advice, and well followed by us.
We also walked through the old Limboo cemetery, through the pristine rhododendron forest, and around Chayatal lake. Every morning, when the air is cold and the clouds are low, the glistening snow-covered Himalaya Mountains stood sentinel.
One can also visit the Limboo temple of Srijong Yuma Magheem at Martam built in memory of Te-ongsi Sirijunga Xin Thebe, a 18th-century Limboo scholar. There is a Limboo Cultural Centre at Tharpu.
The Wadhan cave is worth the 2 km trek from Srijong. It is here that Te-ongsi Sirijunga Xin Thebe took refuge from Buddhist priests who wished to kill him for his scholarship on Yumasamyo, the Limboo Goddess.
While in the house, the village priest visited the house to treat Mr. Tamling’s mother. And we had an opportunity to see another aspect of Limboo culture. Belief in spirits and their healing powers.
Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary, Hee Patal
The primary reason for our visit was of course the very famous and yet unexplored – Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary. This 104 sq km Rhododendron Sanctuary is the main attraction of Hee. Also for the surrounding towns and villages of Martam, Okhrey, Hilley, Dentam and Soreng. About 30 species of Rhododendron thrive here.
The Barsey (Varsey) Rhododendron Sanctuary rises from an elevation of 6500 feet to 10000 feet. As summer approaches from mid-January, the rhododendron begins to blossom in a crescendo.
From the lower to higher elevations, bursting into complete abandon by April. Hence April and May are considered to be the best months to witness the full bloom of rhododendron.
Its most famous, and the most elusive resident is the Red Panda. The famous Red Panda Trail is there in Hilley. Camping is apparently possible in Barsey/ Varsey and Hee, though we did not camp as travelling in peak winters.
One can also see the leopard, the Himalayan Palm Civet, langur, the Himalayan Yellow Throated Marten, Monal Pheasant, the Crimson Horned Pheasant and more than 65 species of bird.
Read a very interesting story on trekking through this Sancutary by NatGeoTraveller.
Village walks around Barsey Jungle Camp
Boy-o-boy, the walks with Mr Tamling and his family, were stunning. Though I would reach home with aching legs, those walks are the memories I cherish dearly. We literally had to tear ourselves away when we left.
On our way to Darjeeling, we passed the home-stay we had initially set our eyes upon, and it was really far from the
Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary. Thanks Asit!
Getting to Hee
Siliguri 145 km, a 6-hour drive approximately
Bagdogra 155 km, a 6 ½ hour drive approximately. Bagdogra airport has daily flights from Kolkata, Guwahati and Delhi. Taxis are available, prices are listed, but one can negotiate. We did not use local bus, however, the route is via Jorethang, changing bus here for Kaluk, and then to Hee Patal. It is best to have a taxi arranged by the hotel or home-stay you stay in from the bus stop nearest them.
New Jalpaiguri 150 km, a 6 ½ hour drive approximately. New Jalpaiguri is a major railway junction for trains into north-east India, and is connected by direct train across India, even as far as Kanniya Kumari, the southernmost point of India, by the Kanyakumari Dibrugarh Vivek Express!
Sikkim homestay list addition – The Barfung Retreat
Hee was our last stop in Sikkim, before moving onto Darjeeling. About 70 km and a 3-hour drive via Naya Bazaar and Jorethang lower down, from where the roads winds up again into the Darjeeling hills through tea estates.
If you are driving up from Gangtok, which is 120 km away and a 6-hour drive, the Barfung Retreat at Ravangla is an excellent stopover. 75 kms and 3 hours from Gangtok, this is another excellent homestay in west Sikkim.
At Ravangla you can visit the Buddha Park, the Ralong Hot Springs, a Bon Monastery and the Temi Tea Estate, the only tea estate I am told, in Sikkim.
Temi tea is excellent, and you can buy it at the estate or in the local market of Ravangla. Coming from Gangtok, the Temi Gardens are before Ravangla, so visit this first, and then check-in. If you leave Gangtok in the morning, you will comfortably reach Barfung via Temi, in time for lunch.
The food here is finger-licking and local. Let Sonam know you will be having lunch, as meals are prepared on order. After lunch, you can visit Ravangla, just 2 km out.
Don’t forget to try the famous ‘Churpi’, dried cottage cheese originally made from Yak milk, available in the local vegetable market of Ravangla, below the main road.
Barsey Jungle Camp offers the unique opportunity to enjoy and appreciate the cultural heritage of the Limboo community. Rooms are basic, yet cosy, clean and comfortable and very reasonably priced. Get in touch with Help Tourism for prices and availability.