On my first visit to the tiny erstwhile Himalayan Kingdom of Sikkim, back in the early 2010s – I had stumbled upon this word called ‘Dzongu’. It sounded very mysterious and romantic. This first Sikkim trip was with the family and we had a sort-of fixed program for 10 days where we were going around Pelling, Gangtok, Yuksom, Lachen, Lachung and the usual tourist itinerary for Sikkim. More on that here : First impressions of Sikkim
When the Sikkim based, Our Guest Travels reached out for a trip in August 2018 – I was delighted in saying yes to a company run by Sikkimese locals who had their hearts in the right place. The highlight of the trip was Pang Lhabsol Festival in Gangtok; but if I think back now – it was the 3 days spent in Dzongu that are an everlasting memory.
The below is an experience of spending 5-6 days in Dzongu spread over 2 visits.
Gangtok to Dzongu
Early relaxed morning in Gangtok. Thanks to Our Guest Travels, we had stayed at a traditional family homestay in Gangtok. It was a cozy wooden home and the hosts ensured we had an authentic Sikkimese experience. We had a nice and healthy breakfast, and then leave for Dzongu at around 9 am.
Dzongu is around 4 hours drive from Gangtok; and is located near Mangan. Mangan is popularly known as the ‘cardamom capital’ in this region and is the District Headquarters of North Sikkim. It is August and the monsoon season in Sikkim and the rainy conditions mean that we are in waterfall country on the route from Gangtok to Mangan. I roughly calculate that we notice a waterfall every 2-3 minutes on the road!
Waterfalls in North Sikkim
The landscape is incredibly green and a thin veil of mist accompanies the forests everywhere we go. We make a stop around an hour or so after leaving Gangtok near a wonderful waterfall. There are stairs leading to a nice platform to view the waterfall at close quarters, and a small snacks stall serving tea, refreshments and snacks. We continue ahead and after the rain subsides make a stop near Mangan where there are fabulous views of Teesta River from a viewpoint.
Our permits for North Sikkim are checked as we cross Mangan and take the topsy-turvy road to Dzongu. After a few kilometres there is another check post where our permits for entering Dzongu are checked.
Lepcha Tribe of Dzongu & Brief Introduction to Dzongu, Sikkim
Dzongu area is reserved for the Lepcha tribe (the original inhabitants of Sikkim.) The Queen of Sikkim kept it designated as a Protected Area for the indigenous people of Sikkim since the 1960s. Lepchas worship Mt. Kanchenjunga as their mother and Lepcha word literally means the children of snowy peak. As a rule, even Sikkimese can’t buy and sell land here and even require a permit to enter Dzongu.
Khangchendzonga National Park is included in UNESCO World Heritage Site for Nature & Culture in 2016 and Dzongu is also included in it. Dzongu region is huge in size and yet is sparsely inhabited with a population of around 4000 Lepchas. Devastating earthquake in Dzongu in 2011. There was a massive landslide in Dzongu in 2016 when Dzongu was divided in 2 areas. The river Teesta changed it course and caused massive natural devastation in Dzongu.
The original name of Sikkim is ‘Mayal Lyang’ which translates into secret paradise in Lepcha language. According to the Lepchas, that paradise still exists at the base of the sacred mountain Mt. Kachenjunga (Kongchen Chu in Lepcha language).
Dzongu is divided in two regions – Lower Dzongu and Upper Dzongu. Most villages in both Lower and Upper Dzongu are connected by road. There used to be a wooden bridge that connected Lingthem & Tingvong villages of Upper Dzongu situated on 2 different mountains but that was washed away in the landslide and floods. A new iron bridge has been constructed but seems to be currently used as a walk-only bridge.
Also, Kim (co-owner of Munlom Nature Resort) is a prominent member of the committee opposing hydroelectric power projects on the Rongyang Chu river (A tributary of Teesta river) in Dzongu to avoid long term damage to the ecology of the protected region of the Lepchas of Dzongu. (Chu means river in the local language).
Villages in Dzongu – Tingvong, Kusong, Sakyong-Pentong, Lingthem, Passingdong, Hee Gyathang, Gor village, Bay, Barfok village etc.
Hee Gyathang Village, Lower Dzongu – Reaching Munlom Nature Resort
We are heading to Hee Gyathang village in Dzongu where our destination Munlom Nature Resort is located and while the distance is only around 20 kms from Mangan, the time taken is almost an hour due to the narrow and bad condition of the road. Thanks to Our Guest Travels connections, our permits have been procured in advance and we are waved off at the checkpoints after our documents are checked.
There is an old world charm on the route to Dzongu, in terms of the lush green scenery and the old iron bridges. We also occasionally spot Lepchas chilling by the road; the locals generally seem very happy and perhaps the abundance of local alcohol might have something to do with it! At around 1:30 pm, we cross Hee Gyathang village to reach the parking space of Munlom Nature Resort where the innova won’t go any further.
Our pickup is in the form of a modified Mahindra 4*4 with special huge tyres. There is still a distance of 3.4 kms to be covered. As we start our next leg of journey in the 4*4 vehicle, it is understood that there is no road ahead and we are on an uneven jungle path! Numerous waterfalls are crossed; it feels like an ATV ride among boulders, trees, greenery, and is a full adventure!
Just as we are about to reach Munlom Nature Resort deep into the jungles of Dzongu, we see some houses of Hee Gyathang village. We get down there to walk the rest of the distance and admire the greenery and flowers on the way! Small kids are standing outside their homes. The homes themselves are adorned with flowers of varied colours!
The homes are sizeable and sturdy and have quite a bit of empty area in the courtyard. The views of the green mountains on the other side are fabulous. We say our hellos to the kids, click pictures of flowers and walk to Munlom Nature Resort to a nice welcome through the bamboo gate.
Munlom Nature Resort – Dzongu
The Mahindra 4*4 has already reached, some of us opt to carry our backpacks ourselves to the respective rooms. There is a rustic flight of stairs to reach the resort in the wild greenery. The landscaping of the resort is especially beautiful and totally blends in with the natural environment of Dzongu. The stairs lead us to the open sitting area where right at arrival we felt we were truly in a nature resort!
There are tiger lilies growing in the wild on the wall with the open lawn in front of the reception area! The flora and fauna of Dzongu is very different and varied. I also spot marijuana growing in a secluded corner around the area. Welcome drink is herbal tea served to us on a wooden tray with traditional Lepcha designs. The cups are the classic Dragon design with a lid.
Different varieties of locally made fruit and herb wines – made from raspberry, timbur leaves, pineapple, rhododendron etc were kept in shapely bottles and looked pretty with their pleasing colours like yellow and red! The library area has an enviable collection of books on Sikkim and the Lepchas, and guests are encouraged to spend their time in the common spaces and ask more questions about Dzongu.
There is a sit-out with bamboo chairs and sofas, open on three sides for open air while the interior space is perfect for windy and rainy times. The whole space is cozy with pleasing wooden colours, hanging pots and plants and a wooden skirting that allows the breeze to blow freely even on muggy afternoons.
3 tables have been kept in the dining space and the kitchen is accessible by a door from the dining area. The windows are opened and the fresh air comes rushing in. Traditional souvenirs are also kept in the open area, huge fungus on branches (some of them over 100 years old), there are dao’s, wooden souvenirs.
We are ushered into our rooms by the smiling family-like-staff that mostly belongs to the nearby villages and are local Lepchas.
Experiencing Munlom Nature Resort
Munlom Nature Resort is rustic yet charming, and comfortable in the true sense. The resort has a very personal appeal since it comprises of only 4 double rooms and the entire resort has been made by using locally available wood. 2 double rooms in a cottage format, 1 huge double room on top of the kitchen area, and 1 big fixed luxury tent with all the modern amenities. Every room has a sit-out while the 2 room cottage has the most impeccable views since it is built on a top like a machan! The huge verandah of the 2 room cottage has stunning views of the clouds and landscapes.
The tent sit-out has a table made from a tree and looks impeccable. It is these sit-outs that are a defining feature of Munlom Nature Resort since one is likely to spend most of their time in these open spaces here. Even the stairs are skirted by pretty bamboo sticks and blend in effortlessly with the landscape of Dzongu. The shower area of the bathrooms inside the rooms has pebbles to give a natural feel.
Right from the planters to the hanging lights and wall lamps, it feels as if you are living in a jungle! The rooms are nicely done and are the perfect size with huge windows that allow cross ventilation. So even if it is a hot day in Dzongu, since Dzongu is at an altitude of only 1100m above sea level, the vantage location of Munlom Nature Resort ensures that the air that blows through the thickly forested region of Dzongu is nice and breezy.
Whole wooden bed in every room. Feels like opulence. Birding enthusiasts are surely going to have a nice time with the ample greenery around, and different colourful birds coming and perching on branches. Munlom Nature Resort is not a place for tourists used to packaged tours and experiences, but for those who yearn for the silence of nature and revel in it.
Cardamom Land – Dzongu
Dzongu and Mangan area is the hub for cardamom cultivation, this region in North Sikkim grows a different variety of cardamom that is huge in size and black in colour. It is cheaper than the green cardamom but is used in curries etc. Munlom Nature Resort is surrounded by cardamom plantations and there is a sweet fragrance of nature wherever you go! Staff is hired from the nearby villages and has been well trained to keep a mix of hospitality and warmth while keeping the Dzongu experience real!
Local Liquor of Dzongu
The wine bottles with cute tiny bamboo taster glasses are kept in the interior part of the dining area lobby and guests are welcome to taste the wines! A bottle is priced at 300-400 Rupees and the staff can procure them for you if sufficient notice of 1-2 days is given. These are locally made wines and are not available in shops. It is highly likely that the staff (manager – Rinchen) will go from home to home of every village and ask for the available bottles and flavours.
Since every wine bottle is made for personal consumption only, it is possible that the quality of two bottles of even the same flavour is never the same! In this age of industries where the products are meant to be identical, I love the idea that the taste of every bottle is different! That in a nutshell is the essence and joie de vivre of Dzongu. Plum wine, raspberry, etc all fruits.
The Timbur wine is made from small and tiny berries & is so treasured that the locals treat it as medicine. I realised this when I carried half of the remaining bottle with me and presented it to the homestay owner in Darjeeling. He treated it with reverence and asked his wife to keep it in a safe place to be used as medicine. I am also glad that I was able to play a part in the cultural exchange by carrying back 4 bottles of local wines from Dzongu to Delhi and sharing them with numerous friends 🙂
We request for Tongba (fermented millet seeds) locally called ‘Chi’ or ‘chee’. As a ritual, it is first offered to Mount Kanchenjunga. Rinchen procures it from somewhere and it is undoubtedly the best Tongba I’ve ever had. Served in a nice bamboo tumbler with bamboo straws & one keeps pouring hot water for 2-3 rounds till the high is there. It is a mellow, nice and happy high!
In Dzongu, bananas growing, coffee like berries, different variety of fruits like apricots, peaches, plum etc etc. The staff is welcoming and so is the owner, Kim. Visitors are encouraged to treat Munlom Nature Resort as a homestay and make their own version of customised tea and snacks in the kitchen!
Hee Gyathang Village Monastery, Dzongu
A stiff hike through the incredible natural forests and scenery of Dzongu brought is to the monastery in Hee Gyathang in Lower Dzongu. On the way we had the pleasure of spotting a rainbow as well! The trail passed through lush greenery under a nice canopy of tall trees as the mist flirted with us while sunshine was visible on the other side of the mountain. It must have rained somewhere for the rainbow to be visible!
The owner of Munlom Nature Resort, Kim led us on the walk to the monastery in Dzongu and on the way showed us how cardamom grew as we smelled the pods and the plant. I also asked for the price of buying the black cardamom that grows here and am quoted 800-1000 Rupees per kilo. I ask for half a kilo to be carried home and am told it will be done!
There are leeches galore in Dzongu and a new type of dance has been invented, called ‘the leech dance’ when one twists and turns to try and remove a leech if any! It involves shaking all parts of the body to seemingly get rid of a leech if it is trying to get inside the skin.
We reach the monastery after around an hour’s slow hike through the gorgeous forest. The monastery itself is quite huge and is brightly painted in pleasing colours. It was especially surreal to notice the fog filled forest behind the monastery that lent the surroundings a very fresh feel. Sadly it was closed when we were there and had to be content with climbing a nearby vantage point that had great views of the surrounding valleys. Strong 4G signal on the viewpoint!
Everyone was keen on uploading stories on their social media handles. The strong breeze made the prayer flags flutter wildly while we were quite taken in with the pure beauty of nature. There are many resident monks at the monastery but most seem to have gone out to prepare for a ceremony of prayers that will be held at the monastery in a day or two. Maybe Saga Dawa festival.
The doors of the old enclosure adjacent to the main monastery are very pretty. There’s also a small but ancient shrine near the monastery surrounded by prayer flags. I also spot huge prayer flags in white on one side of the open space near the monastery. A signboard indicates 10th August 2005 as the establishment date on the old structure that is also surrounded by small prayer wheels on all four sides. A few local dogs come to greet us, the friendly members of our group sit and play with them.
Dzongu receives plenty of rainfall making the surroundings damp and slippery, so a lot of insects and leeches are a constant feature of hiking in Dzongu. The leeches can sometimes make their way through the tiny spaces in the shoes and and through jeans and track pants as well! It seems very surprising but does happen.
There is an incredible array of colourful flowers en-route the monastery; especially outside the local’s homes. It is a common feature across these nature-loving places, across the Himalayas from Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh – where almost every home has a collection of plants.
Food at Munlom Nature Resort
- Buckwheat pancakes called ‘kuru’ or ‘khuri’ served with a chutney dip, locally grown buckwheat and of fantastic quality. Buckwheat is a coarse grain popularly known as the new superfood in the west and seems to be widely used in old settlements of the Himalayas. Buckwheat is nutritious and tasty. Khuri pancakes are filled with green leafy veggies and are very healthy and filling.
- Momos, freshly made on a firewood – vegetarian and non-vegetarian both, fried and steamed; served with soup and a really spicy chutney! Modern accompaniments like french fries are also served in the evening, with mix-veg pakoras also an option. Perfect for rainy evenings that Dzongu has in plenty!
- Roti, sabji, dall, rice and greens – The staff at Munlom Nature Resort are adept at cooking usual mainland indian food for the tourists and guests feeling homesick. Water is served from a spring source and tastes sweet and yummy. In Dzongu; dall, rice, wheat and masalas are bought from outside while the vegetables are grown locally.
Nature Loving in Dzongu
Evenings are super relaxed in Dzongu. The mist and fog are ever present with rain an intermittent partner. The insects in the dense forests of Dzongu make a crescendo of noises. It is truly like living in a jungle. There are moths, colourful butterflies and atlas moth too. Initially I was a bit apprehensive of the insects but when I let go and stop bothering, life became easy and I embraced nature in its entirety.
Silent, quiet breeze, sometimes the electricity goes and fireflies come dancing in when darkness descends on Dzongu. It gives us visitors a chance to go back to a carefree life when we used to talk to other people, play antakshri songs and simple games. The mobile networks are sporadic in Dzongu, I think Airtel 4G works best with the most reliable coverage in Dzongu and also at Munlom Nature Resort.
In the night, the lone shining light of the monastery is visible, on one of the nights we could hear the playing of the drums and trumpets and sound of cymbals. It was a festival at the monastery that we had visited earlier during the day. The sounds reverberated throughout the entire valley.
Sights and Wanderings in Dzongu
We went for a drive in Dzongu to the hot springs area, waterfalls. Roads are horrible in Dzongu. Very very bad. The natural hot springs are located near Lingdem village and have separate enclosures for men and women. We had a great time soaking ourselves for around 30-40 mins with the therapeutic benefits of the natural hot springs water rich with sulphur.
Huge hanging suspension bridge near the hot springs area. Lush greenery with the river flowing by. Small beach with nice alluvial soft sand, river meandering by and some kids and youngsters are enjoying sitting in shaded areas and having a swim in the river. Quite hot in the sun, and very humid too. The dense jungles on both sides of the bridge seem very inviting and enticing.
We sit on the bridge, get our pictures clicked and go sit on the beach. Quite satisfying since there is hardly any sunshine on the beach side. Relax and enjoy the solitude. The youngsters loitering on the small islands near the river, remind me of the scene of the Lost series.
We go back to some other places in Dzongu on the road, a Lepcha shrine with statues of Lepcha ancestors and elders with offerings in the form of 7 bowls and flowers. This was a widely visited shrine with many locals visiting with fresh flowers. Lepcha tribe is nature worshipping tribe and consider Mt. Kanchenjunga as their guardian deity.
Among other places to visit in Dzongu are – Tingvong Monastery, Lingzya Waterfall, Traditional Lepcha Museum at Namprikdang. Also, if one is lucky – views of mountain peaks Mt. Kanchenjunga, Sinolchu, Kabru, Pandim, Langam Chu and more can be seen on clear days from Dzongu.
River Picnic for Lunch
On one of the afternoons when we had gone out to explore the sights of Dzongu, the staff of Munlom Nature Resort were busy organising a river picnic near the Dzongu bridge. We swam in the pristine stream, a short walk from the road and the staff had organised a proper feast down there. Everything had been cooked on site and made freshly on firewood. After an hour or so of chilling in the water, lunch is served on a green leaf.
It is nature friendly and a great example of eco-tourism. The menu on offer is locally grown rice, veggies, curry, seasonal greens, and ferns. The food is delicious and has a special flavour due to it being cooked on firewood. We enjoyed the rural and rustic feel of the food and ate our fill. Next, we went hiking to a bamboo bridge hanging over the stream where we have lunch; the ladder leading to the bridge was very interesting and adventurous.
Kim was the first one to be on the bridge but there was a swarm of honeybees with a beehive somewhere close to the bridge. Therefore, we had to retreat! Fossils and mushrooms growing on the trees, near moss and lichen. Leeches galore in the jungle wherever we walked. It is a funny time when one is uncertain whether a leech is there on the feet or not! Once you stop bothering, it stops bothering you too!
Shrine in Dzongu
We drive back and stop near a small pond with a shrine on it. There is a rectangular walking path on all sides of the pond. Crazy beautiful reflections. Huge deodhar trees, very foggy and misty. Seems like sunlight doesnt make it till here. The path is very slippery, full of moss and lichen and therefore I walk very carefully. The shrine is in the form of a stone on a rocky outcrop near the water. A few lamas inhabit the nearby structure and one of them was making a bamboo basket.
Go back to Munlom Nature Resort, spot cute kids at the houses along the way. Walk to the resort after spending some time with the kids at the nearby homes. Incredibly beautiful flowers, as the weather starts cleaning a bit revealing more colours of the shades of green. Every home has a big collection of flowers in their open balcony.
Kim – Kalzang Dorjee Lepcha
Kim is co-owner of the Munlom Nature Resort and is CLC president Dzongu cum Save Dzongu member (CLC-Constituency Level Committee) who are opposed to the Hydroelectric dams on the Teesta River in Dzongu region. The Lepchas firmly believe in the motto – ‘Lepchas are nature worshipers and are dependent on rivers, lakes and mountains. We cannot let such projects destroy our present and future.’
Attending a Festival in Dzongu
Tendong Lho Rum Faat Festival – Ancient festival organised & celebrated by Lepcha people. All locals attending. Organised in a remote village school ground – Gor village school established in 1957. Nice, big compound. Worshipping and paying homage to the mountain. Offerings made with fruits and vegetables, corn, tongba, millet seeds, cucumbers etc. Eatables are also presented. Gor village is quite far from Hee Gyathang Village where Munlom Nature Resort is located and we take almost 1 hour to reach the festival location.
Khabze, savouries, cucumbers, popcorn too. Cucumbers are so huge, 1 cucumber is bigger than a hand! In Tendong Lho Rum Faat festival, locals and school kids performing dances in honour of the mountain deities. Singing songs also. All locals have gathered from nearby and far off villages of Lower and Upper Dzongu.
The festival organisers also put a festival badge made from a dried leaf & stick corn and millet seeds on the leaf that feels like paper and put it as a badge on the chest. Kids dressed in tribal costumes, performing dances. The crowd cheers wildly, they are very fashionable and dressed in vibrant coloured clothes and look very elegant.
Almost everyone attending the Tendong Lho Rum Faat festival is dressed in their traditional finery. The men look dapper wearing a Lepcha jacket & they celebrate their festivals with aplomb. Aachuley is the local greeting. The Lepcha flag can be seen fluttering on vehicles too.
In snacks & refreshments, stalls are put up. Golgappe and khuri stalls are there and are organised by school kids. Golgappa stall is a huge hit. A message for waste – a small hut has been made from waste plastic bottles. 1-2 shops selling SHG (self help group) made handicrafts and local bags. The bags are priced quite high at 500-600 Rupees.
The festival lasts for 3-4 hours. Lunch also organised. Fresh pineapples and cucumbers are cut and served to everyone. Community gathering and meal. Rice, vegetable and pork/chicken on the menu. Lepcha flag proudly hung on many vehicles. Numerous waterfalls on the route.
Shared taxi from Dzongu to Gangtok/Singtam
Shared taxi – Dzongu to Gangtok around 200 Rs. per person. Distance from Gangtok to Dzongu is 70 kms. 1-2 shared taxis ply everyday from Hee Gyathang to Dzongu and there are many options for shared taxis from Mangan to Gangtok. The shared taxis all leave from 7 am from Dzongu to 10-11 am from Mangan. Cramped and crowded. Very crowded. Around 12-15 people crammed in one bolero type vehicle. Most filled with locals and migrant workers. Keeps stopping every few minutes after crossing Mangan since the locals want to buy fresh vegetables from the roadside stalls.
Permit for Dzongu
Your homestay can obtain your permit for Dzongu which can be procured from DC Office in Mangan. Scanned copy of identity proof, 1 photograph and costs approx. 150 Rupees per person.
Thanks to Our Guest Travels for a superlative Dzongu experience! I can stay there forever. 🙂