Cooling Off: Hot Spring Hopping in South Sikkim

Hot-spring tourism is taking hold in the alpine region of the state’s southern territory, long a favourite of the Lepcha community who have been teaching about the healing potential of a traditional bath for the human mind, body, and spirit.

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On a warm summer evening in late April, well over a hundred people packed the entrance of a retreat centre in Gangyap village. Locals tucked into minivans, young adults ran across expansive fields of wild Kash flowers growing up to four metres in height, and a wandering group of international tourists making their way down from Khangchendzonga National Park made a pit stop to see the nearby Pokhari Dara Lake. But the main reason for the crowd was Gangyap hot spring. 

Also known as Tashiding, about a 30-minute drive from the small tourist town of Ravangla is a riverside bed that dams up a naturally fed oasis. On this late afternoon, a gurgling natural pool—where pilgrims once practiced Buddhism—was crowded with patrons soaking in their aching bodies to embrace arguably instant, gleeful relaxation.

The experiences on offer were calmative, even chaotic, but the mostly tired crowd spending the weekend at Ravangla captured the essence of Sikkim’s fast-growing wellness scene: coming here is as much about a tough highland adventure as it is about having a blissful post-camping dip.

 

Cooling Off: Hot Spring Hopping In South Sikkim

The river Reshi, also known for the famous hot spring of the same name, is a mountainous stream with a spiritual significance.

 

The majority of accessible hot springs in the state can be found in North Sikkim; all non-orogenic in origin: geothermal pools that are formed by circulation of groundwater (non-volcanic activity) in a particular region. Yumthang and Yumesamdong in Lachung village got their start in the mid-19th century, as a mecca for bathers from far and wide. The Reshi hot spring followed suit in the West by bringing in people for healing rejuvenation from the landlocked Himalayan countries of Nepal and Tibet. This cultural confluence is still alive in the ethnic vocabulary in which the enriched waters are referred to as Tatopani, a Nepali word where “tato” means hot and “pani” means water.

As an obscure body of water all the way back in the South, Gangyap was undiscovered until a second and third spring found its way on the map in the 2000s. But today, if you are looking to hot-spring hop in a rustic, natural environment where the crowd is sparse and reservations for dining are usually optional, an uncharted journey crisscrossing the northern alpine hamlets of Ravangla and Borong offers plentiful steaming options in a relatively close radius.

 

Cooling Off: Hot Spring Hopping In South Sikkim

In Lachung, Yumesamdong’s snowy vistas and hot spring have beckoned bathers from far and wide.

 

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Thus far, only a couple dozen people have walked the route, so when my father, and I—both willing to go offbeat and disconnect every chance we get—heard about the mystical route, we made the train trip from Kolkata to Gangyap and got into a mineral-rich bath or two. What we discovered was a geothermal expedition led by the indigenous Namchi community, contentment in nature, and healing in Sikkim’s most stunning topography. 

South Sikkim has three official mineral-rich geothermal pools of spring water surrounded by travertine rocks—Gangyap, Ralong, and Borong—covering five microclimates, from high alpine when you move inland towards Pelling to the humid and subtropical area near Barong. The springs range from a wide pool in a wildflower-strewn mountain valley to an outdoor bath nestled near the Rangit river.

Our first stop was the tiny hamlet of Gangyap—a remote village with a childlike spirit and priceless views introducing to us the first trail from Sinon Monastery to the hot spring. “There’s a saying in the North that the natural healing water is a sacred secret meant to be kept away from the outside world,” our guide Abhin Rai, a senior member of the local Lepcha community chimed in. “This trail is to help us rewrite the saying and help harness the thermal magic to share will all.”

Cooling Off: Hot Spring Hopping In South Sikkim

Hot spring forming from circulation of ground-water elevating from the surface beneath. Photo by: Sneha Chakraborty

The plan was to travel from Gangyap to Ralong to the Borong spring along the broad valley. The trail that passes through them all is divided into nine stages of varying difficulties and altitudes, some easy and smooth, others with steep-cut cliffs that are bound to scrape any bare skin. The route goes from one retreat to another, meaning you can rest up and look around for eateries. 

At the Gangyap hot spring, situated smack-dab on the Teesta river, we slid off the dirt path and sank into a 100-degree pool with arms dangling over the rock boundary, holding a much-needed shot of chhang—a rice-fermented liquor popular in the Eastern Himalayas—which is the second best thing you can find here. For decades, a soak in the Himalayan spring was decidedly a privilege: people from Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet would come here to find solace and a sulphur-rich bath which still claims to have antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory effects. Today, along with an hour-long soak the Lepcha people recommend practising the Bhutanese art of relaxation which includes hot stone baths or ‘Menchu’, a holistic dip for spiritual bliss and tasting the water (‘smenchu’) from a direct stream nearby. 

Once we got up and ready for the second stretch, we joined a group of camera-wielding tourists on a steep climb back up by foot onto a bamboo bridge, which is the official entryway into Ralong. A quaint settlement in the Ravong sub-division of South Sikkim district, the bustling river port featuring a creamy-blue pool is funnily juxtaposed against the otherwise sleepy town. The joy in a trip to Ralong, other than its landscape, is the hospitality of the people, allowing an outsider to engage in an otherwise insular culture you’d expect to find in a formerly ancient Buddhist town.

 

Cooling Off: Hot Spring Hopping In South Sikkim

Access to the monastery in Ralong in South Sikkim, known for the Ralong hot spring.

 

“Here the bath is a signifier of unfiltered nature and aims to help people unwind in the truest sense of the word,” said Ganun, a Lepcha healer, locally called ‘Maon-doak’.

“The secret to South Sikkim’s seen-it-all-before serenity is the result of strong nature and nurture ethos, a belief that you are not in nature until you are disconnected from the existential world and able to nurture your soul through food that comes directly from the soul of Earth,” he explained.

Our last stop came after a leisurely walk through what can be best described as a silky-green meadowland. Ascending into the mountain village of Borong near the foothills of Maenam Hill, I walked into the Mangnam retreat and appraised a column of steam that shot upward (it encompasses the hot spring,  surrounding campsites, hotels and more. The retreat is basically the marked area for bathing named after the village in which the Borong spring is located). If you do nothing around here but nap in the spring, you’ll have the greatest time.

While a countryside landscape like Barong can make you wax poetic by simply existing, it can be overwhelming to describe this little pocket beyond Gangtok, a place the Lepcha people refer to as “one of the last remaining Himalayan gems in the Eastern world.” Tourism often touts the state as Nye-mae-el or ‘paradise’ but the land within really is so. The people who do sign up to hike the long trail to complete the circuit redefine the meaning of getting back to nature, not entirely unlike the pilgrims who came here long ago.

 

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Essentials

South Sikkim Hot Spring Trek

Try this 37.5-kilometre point-to-point trail near Pelling, Sikkim. Generally considered a moderate to difficult route, it takes an average of 8 to 9 hours to complete excluding the time you spend at the hot spring. This is a popular unmarked trail for hiking and camping but you can still enjoy some amenities in Borong with a hotel stay. The best time to visit this region for the trek is November through April. 

 

How to reach: 

From major cities such as Gangtok, Pelling or Namchi, you can take the local bus or hire a shared taxi to Ravangla or directly to Gangyap village for the trek. 

Distance from Ravangla: 21 kilometres

Distance from Ralang: 10 kilometres

Timing (bathing facilities): 7 am to 5 pm

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  • Sneha Chakraborty is a multimedia journalist and photographer reporting from Western Europe and the U.K., as she continues to travel the region widely, writing at the intersection of culture and food. When she's not working, you can most likely find her running—often towards baked goods.

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