Having lived in Bhutan for just over a year, 13-year-old Emma Chan recently visited Sikkim. This is what she saw.

Roads and landscape

When I was in Sikkim, I had to keep reminding myself that I was not in Bhutan, because the landscape often seemed so similar. Like some of the windy Bhutanese roads, roads in Sikkim can zigzag a fair bit too, and with varying road quality: smooth one minute and bumpy the next.

An explanation to this situation was offered for a particularly tricky stretch of road we travelled often to our hotel in Sikkim. Apparently, the roads were badly maintained because this was an opposition ward. If this was true, I think it is sad that politics should impact the people’s lives so negatively, with government resources and funding not being distributed according to need.

Architecture in India

Many of the colourful buildings in Sikkim are precariously perched by the sides of the road. Some of them seemed to be partially hanging off the face of a cliff and it looked like it would not take much to shake the structure off the mountainside. Even though the architecture seemed rather hazardous for an earthquake-prone zone, one thing I was impressed by was how the Sikkimese didn’t use breakable clay flowerpots. When they did decorate balconies with live flowers, they wrapped the soil (with the plant growing in it) in what looked like reinforced plastic tape. This means that if the “pot” were to fall, it would not shatter on impact or become “killer litter” if it were to tip onto a passer-by’s head.

Monkey infestation

Something else I observed was the number of monkeys. If the road to Phuentsholing has many monkey communities, then Sikkim has an infestation! They would roam around by the side of the road, dodging oncoming traffic.  When we reached Rangpo, we saw a few monkeys jump up and grab a wire, which they then used to swing to a hotel balcony. I think if Bhutan wants to minimise potential damage caused by animals, they need to reinforce laws that are already there, otherwise there is going to be more illegal wildlife trade. The result will then be more wildlife-in-captivity situations, creating dilemmas faced by animal rescue organisations about whether domesticated animals can be safely released into the wild.

Too much garbage

Another problem I see in India is the amount of garbage. If one was to collect all of the garbage by the side of the road, you’d have enough to fill a convoy of garbage trucks. What scares me is that Sikkim is one of the cleaner places. You may say that Mahatma Gandhi (MG) road is very clean. Yes, it is clean, but only because of the multiple teams of cleaners constantly doing their job. If those cleaners were not there, likely, it too would be contaminated with waste. It is true that Bhutan is currently much cleaner in comparison, but if Bhutan does not take more action against littering, we may have a situation like India’s. It is good that Bhutan is developing projects such as Green Bhutan, but this is not enough. Chances are, if there are any stores selling food or drink packaged in plastic, whether you are in Bhutan, India, or any place in the world for that matter, you will find copious amounts of garbage, even in supposedly remote or rural areas.

Vehicle population

Yet another thing I noticed was the number of vehicles on the road. After we reached Gangtok, my brother counted the number of taxis, just for fun. There were about 206 in total in a short 6km stretch, on a busy Sunday afternoon. I feel like there are more taxis than there were people to ride them. I hope Bhutan’s traffic never gets as congested.

Engine testing in Bhutan

Something I also noticed was that there were engine testing services available. I counted at least two or three garages that offered this service. I think that this is something that the Bhutanese should utilise, especially with the number of cars and trucks spewing toxic fumes in Bhutan. If we do not do something about the emissions, my fear is that this will take away part of the green plan intended for Bhutan. Maybe Bhutan has an emissions rule, but it doesn’t seem to be rigorously enforced. Hopefully the new checkpoint being built at Phuentsholing will enable this.

Health of the dogs

I think there are more strays in Thimphu than in Sikkim. However, I was shocked at the number of dogs we saw that had mange in Sikkim. I would say that there was a ratio of about 1:3 of dogs that had mange to dogs that didn’t. I’m not sure if this is partly due to genetics, or if there was just a bad infestation amongst the dogs that hasn’t cleared up.

Getting a SIM card

We managed to buy an Indian SIM card, valid for the month. As it turned out, I think the person at the store may have cheated us. We had bought the SIM card so that we could use the hotspot, and we were told that there was one gigabyte a day. I suspect the man we bought it from had already used it, so we didn’t get the promised gigabyte. I think that because we bought the SIM card at a major brand telecoms store, we were too trusting, and as tourists, we would (naturally) make an easier target for dishonest deals.

I think the storekeepers in Bhutan tend to be more honest, because everyone seems to know everyone. The shopkeepers will not want one person to tell another that they conned someone of their money, because that would tarnish their reputations.

Rachna bookstore

I didn’t really get to see many of the sights of Sikkim because my dad and brother both came down with stomach flu, possibly due to local bacteria. We did, however get to visit a bookstore called Rachna Books. It reminded me a bit of Junction Bookstore here in Thimphu, just because of the layout and ambience. To make a profit, the owner of Rachna Books runs two other enterprises, a café and hotel on the same premises. He told us that because many people just come and browse, he doesn’t make as much money off the bookstore as he could. I thought his method of supporting his passion was very entrepreneurial.  I wonder if sustaining business is an issue for other stores in Bhutan.

What I’ve Learnt

I think what I’ve learnt from this trip to Sikkim is that even if you do not get to do much, you should still try to find something good about every day. For me, coming to Sikkim, just like living in Bhutan, may or may not be a once in a lifetime opportunity. We truly do not know where tomorrow may take us, and no matter how solid plans may seem, they are always subject to change. What really matters is to always strive to change for the better.

Contributed by  Emma Chan