Astonishing Hee and the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary in Sikkim

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The deserted Tourist Information Centre at the gate of the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary

Photo of Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary, West Sikkim, Sikkim, India by Roli jain

While designing my trip to Sikkim, I called my friend Asit Biswas and told him I had included the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary in my itinerary, and planned to stay in a home-stay at Martam. Asit operates the best sustainable tour company, for an immersive experience of northeast India, so I hung onto his every word.

Barsey in late April

Photo of Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary, West Sikkim, Sikkim, India by Roli jain

Asit recommended we stay at the Hee Village, in a 4 room Limboo homestay, that was home to his friend Birendra Tamling. His recommendation was pure gold, reinforced when we arrived. Branded as the Barsey Jungle Camp, literally our home, for 3 nights; this property is just a 5 minutes walk from the entrance to the Rhododendron Sanctuary. Awesome!

Birendra Tamling, our friend, generous host and accomplice

Photo of Astonishing Hee and the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary in Sikkim by Roli jain

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.

Our elusive Red Panda

Photo of Astonishing Hee and the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary in Sikkim by Roli jain

Why travel to Hee

The 104 sq km Barsey (Varsey) Rhododendron Sanctuary is the main attraction of Hee, and for the surrounding towns and villages of Martam, Okhrey, Hilley, Dentam and Soreng. About 30 species of Rhododendron thrive here. Its most famous, and the most elusive resident is the Red Panda. You will also find 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.

Spotted Laughing thrush

Photo of Martam, Sikkim, India by Roli jain

The famous Red Panda Trail is here. Camping is apparently possible in Barsey and Hee, though we did not camp.

The Barsey forest , with a Rhododendron carpet

Photo of Soreng, Sikkim, India by Roli jain

The Barsey (Varsey) Rhododendron Sanctuary rises from an elevation of 6500 feet to 10000 feet. As summer approaches, from mid-January and temperatures rise through May, the rhododendron begins to blossom in 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.

Rhododendron in bloom at Barsey

Photo of Okhrey, Sikkim, India by Roli jain

Besides you can experience the Limboo culture and hospitality, their cuisine, visit the old Limboo cemetery, walk in the pristine rhododendron forest, and visit Chayatal lake. Every morning, when the air is cold and the clouds are low, the glistening snow-covered Himalaya Mountains stand sentinel.

A Limboo temple, short of Hee Patal

Photo of Astonishing Hee and the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary in Sikkim by Roli jain

You can 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.

I fell in love with the bamboo in Sikkim which towers perhaps some 150 feet tall

Photo of Astonishing Hee and the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary in Sikkim by Roli jain

A highlight of our stay in Hee was being welcomed into a home of the Limboo community, to experience their way of life first hand, to sit in the kitchen and observe Mrs Tamling prepare the most delicious food.

Mr and Mrs Tamling

Photo of Astonishing Hee and the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary in Sikkim by Roli jain

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.

I wish I recall his name . A part of Mr Tamling's home, he took me on the most mind-boggling and leg-aching walk into the valley and up again

Photo of Hee-Patal, Sikkim, India by Roli jain

Fresh and delicious spring water 24x7

Photo of Hee-Patal, Sikkim, India by Roli jain

And boy-o-boy, the walks with Mr Tamling and his family, were stunning, and though I would reach home with aching legs, are memories I cherish dearly. We literally had to tear ourselves away on day 4. 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!

Hogging outside a local restaurant just out of Siliguri, enroute to Sikkim

Photo of Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Roli jain

Cuisine on offer

Rice and lentils are staple in this area. All fruit and vegetable in Sikkim grow organic. Pork, a favourite meat as well as chicken is available locally. At these altitudes, peppered with walks, ones appetite grows. Food is prepared simply, none of the heavy oils and masalas one finds in modern restaurants. It is delicious and wholesome. 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.

Our friend and driver Pravin, with his WagonR cab. Enroute to Khecheopalri Lake from Tashiding Monastery and then Hee

Photo of Khecheopalri Lake, West Sikkim, Sikkim, India by Roli jain

Getting to Hee

Road

Siliguri 145 km, a 6-hour drive approximately

Airport

Bagdogra 155 km, a 6 ½ hour drive approximately

Railway

New Jalpaiguri 150 km, a 6 ½ hour drive approximately

Black Cardamom plantation in Hee Patal

Photo of Guwahati, Assam, India by Roli jain

Bagdogra airport has daily flights from Kolkata, Guwahati and Delhi. 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!

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.

Sherap and I at the Buddha Park, Ravangla. He has churpi in his mouth, and is trying so hard not to smile at the camera !

Photo of Delhi, India by Roli jain

Reaching Hee from Gangtok and why stop at Ravangla

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.

The rather large and very comfortable bed at The Barfung Retreat

Photo of The Barfung Retreat, Ravangla, Sikkim, India by Roli jain

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 km and 3 hours from Gangtok.

The early morning view from our room at The Barfung Retreat

Photo of Gangtok, Sikkim, India by Roli jain

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.

Excuse the simple picture, the room at Barsey Jungle Camp is really nice. Some rooms are a bit smaller

Photo of Temi Tea Estate, Sikkim, India by Roli jain

Accommodation

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. Very reasonably priced at Rs.1200 per night for single or double occupancy, meal prices too are value for money, at Rs.100 for breakfast and Rs.250 each for lunch or dinner per person. Taxes are extra. Contact info@helptourism.com to book.

Barsey Jungle Camp. Our room was on the first floor to the left, looking across the valley to the Himalayan peaks

Photo of Help Tourism, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Roli jain

There are other home-stays and hotels near Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary, but none as adjacent to it as the Barsey Jungle Camp.

Photo of Astonishing Hee and the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary in Sikkim by Roli jain

Fascinating Sikkim

Photo of Pelling, Sikkim, India by Roli jain

Huge hills. See how small the villages look.

Photo of Pelling, Sikkim, India by Roli jain

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Photo of Astonishing Hee and the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary in Sikkim by Roli jain