Sandakphu has always been known as the trekkers’ paradise and located at north west of Darjeeling town at an altitude of about 12,000ft. This is the highest point (or peak) of the Singalila mountain range. Many tourists who find the 3 days trek too strenuous to bear, take a 4-wheel drive vehicle like a jeep or a Land Rover from Manebhanjan and go all the way up to Sandakphu along the steep gravel road. The motor road is full of loose stones and boulders, and takes about 5 hours to reach. The distance from Manebhanjan to Sandakphu is about 32 kilometers. From Darjeeling, the distance to Sandakphu is 58 kms (26km up to Manebhanjan). But once you reach Sandakphu after a tiring Landrover journey, you will be rewarded with the real bounty of the nature. If you love snow peaks, then you will feel privileged that you made it up to this point and joined the group of few who have witnessed an end-to-end panoramic views of the Himalayan peaks. And these include four of the five highest peaks of the world.
Sandakphu and Phalut Safari By Old British Land Rovers
What to expect
So what’s the big deal if you can’t trek? You can in fact relax and equally enjoy the magnificent views of Sandakphu and Phalut without having your tongue sticking out in complete exhaustion. Just take a Jeep safari. Although both Sandakphu and Phalut have been traditionally known as trekkers paradise, jeep safaris to these places are increasingly becoming popular.
You can see many families visiting the places by 4-wheel drive vehicles which are old Jeep like Land Rovers left behind by the British since the colonial days. There are around 40 of them now in Manbhanjan which are used for taking tourists along the route to Sandakphu and Phalut. However this is not a day trip, and will require night stays.
If you are coming directly from NJP Railway Station or Bagdogra Airport, you will first need to come to Manebhanjan via Mirik. Manebhanjan is at a distance of little less than 100kms from both NJP and Bagdogra. It will take about 4 hours to reach by car.
From Darjeeling, Manebhanjan is only 1 hour 15 minutes (26kms). So while coming from NJP/Bagdogra, most tourists prefer to stay overnight at Mirik or Manebhanjan and then proceed for Sandakphu next morning. However from Darjeeling, there is no such issue of long driving hours and you can proceed directly to Sandakphu.
From Manebhanjan, the distance to Sandakphu is about 32kms and takes about 4.5 hours by Land Rover with tea breaks in between. So from NJP or Bagdogra unless you start early, you can not reach Sandakphu on the same day. The Land Rovers do not run on Sandakphu route at nights.
The climb from Manebhanjan is quite steep at some places and the route is a gravel road all along made of boulders. Only 4-wheel drive vehicles can go up this route, normal cars can’t make it. So the journey from Manebhanjan all the way up to Sandakphu and then to Phalut will be slow and quite bumpy. So be prepared for some real bumpy dance along the way 🙂
Most tourists stay at Sandakphu for a night or two and then proceed to Phalut which is about 21kms away and takes about 2 hours from Sandakphu. The terrain between Sandakphu and Phalut is relatively flat. But due to narrow and uneven road, the vehicle still needs to move quite slowly.
Once you reach Manebhanjan, there is a small booth in the main market area where the Land Rover booking takes place. The vehicles are allotted by turn and you need to pay and hop into one (there is no system of advance booking). Now a Land Rover association has been formed at Manebhanjan (called Singalila Land Rover Association) and the rates are fixed by the association. So you do not have to worry about haggling or bargaining with the drivers.
About Sandakphu & Phalut, and the Route:
Sandakphu (almost 12,000 ft) is the highest peak in Singalila Range and Phalut is the second highest peak with an altitude of about 11,800ft. The main reasons why most people visit the two places and stay there are for the magnificent views of the snow peaks. You will get to see four of the five highest peaks of the world including Mt. Everest, Makalu, Kanchenjunga, and Lhotse. You will also see many other spectacular peaks of Sikkim, Nepal, Tibbet and Bhutan as well.
And if you can time it right you will see a range of flowers and flowering plants like the Rhododendrons, giant magnolias and orchids. Some 600 varieties of orchids can be found in this region itself.
From Maneybhanjan, the route goes through:
- Chitre(which is known for its monastery or gompa). There is a small local restaurant here on an open field serving momo, eggs, snacks and tea.
- Lamay Dhura(a small hamlet of Tibetan families where tourists stop for a cup of tea). The lady Chockey serves nice tea from her stall.
- Meghma, a small mountain village on Indo-Nepal border and so named because it remains covered with ‘megh’ i.e. cloud most times. From here you will enter Nepal area but no visa or paper formality is required.
- Tumling(another small hamlet at 9,600ft) where many tourists prefer to stay overnight to see the sunrise and the views of Kanchenjunga.
- Singalila National Park which starts soon after Tumling and known for amazing high altitude small animals like Red Panda, Pangolin etc. Note that at the entrance of the Park, you will be required to pay for a permit to enter/pass through the park.
- Other small villages like Gairibas, Kalipokhri, Bikheybhanjan and then finally Sandakphu and then further onward Phalut.
Best time to visit Sandakphu & Phalut
There are two great seasons to visit Sandakphu and Phalut. The first is April until May when the temperature ranges from 6 – 12°C and flowers like rhododendrons and orchids bloom in full. And then again after the monsoon is over (i.e. between October and early December when the temperature ranges from 1 – 6°C) and the snow peaks show in their dazzling beauty in a clear blue sky.
June onwards the monsoon starts and lasts until September end. This is not a good time to visit Sandakphu and Phalut as the sky remains cloudy, it’ll be showering frequently and you practically get no views. Note that Singalila National Park remains closed from mid June to mid September, so one needs to take an alternative route after Tumling to reach Sandakphu.
Although you can visit the places even in December, it can get biting cold. From January until March, often the route remains closed due to heavy snowing.
How to visit Sandakphu & Phalut by Jeep/Landrover
We will organize all logistics for you including vehicle, guide, stay and entry permit. They will be glad to organize this trip and offer you a package. If you are coming from NJP/Bagdogra, the operator can even pick you up from the station or airport and begin the journey.
If you however want to manage on your own, then come down to Manebhanjan (1hr 15 minutes from Darjeeling by taxi, 4 hours from Bagdogra/NJP). This is from where the journey to Sandakphu/Phalut actually starts. You can get pre-paid taxi from both NJP and Bagdogra to reach Manebhanjan. Shared taxis (usuallySumos/ jeeps) are available from NJP, but requires a change (i.e. transfer) to another one at Sukhia.
Once you reach Manebhanjan, you can take a 4-wheel drive Land Rover to proceed to Sandakphu and Phalut. However remember, during high season it is often not possible to get any decent accommodation along the route unless you book well in advance. All good lodgings get full.
All are required to take a permit from the forest department office. This is required for entry to the Singalila National Park near Tumling and the route passes through the park. The office is located on the roadside just before the uphill route starts from Manebhanjan. Foreigners need to show their identity proof. There is an entry fee to be paid. This permit can be either taken from the Forest Department office at Manebhanjan or at the entrance to the Park near Tumling.
Where to stay
There are several places to stay along the route. GTA (Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, erstwhile DGHC) lodges and trekker huts are available at places like Tonglu, Gairibas, Sandakphu and Phalut. You will also get private lodges and huts at Meghma, Tumling, Jhaubari, Gairibas, Kalipokhri and Sandakphu.
In Tumling where many like to stay overnight, Shikhar Lodge is a good choice. Another nice accommodation is Hotel Siddhartha. In Sandakphu, I prefer the private lodge Sherpa Chalet over the GTA lodge because of its rooms with great views of the peaks. In Phalut, DGHC Lodge is the best option although not very impressive. Remember all these are basic accommodations. There is no electricity at these places and the lodges use solar lights for some hours at night. So do not expect luxury amenities like TV etc. However cell phones do work for most part of the route.
For booking rooms/beds in GTA lodges, you can visit one of the GTA tourism offices nearest to you (see Tourism Centers for location & contacts of GTA Offices). We, Deys Holidays will usually book you in private lodges. However they offer packages including transport and stay (food is optional).
Clothes to carry
Sandakphu and Phalut are high altitude places, and expected they remain very cold throughout the year. However in winter and early spring, temperature becomes sub-zero and it’s freezing cold out there. Unless you take adequate precautions against cold, it can easily ruin your trip.
First note that round the year it remains very cold in all these high altitude places. So irrespective of the time of your visit, you will need heavy winter clothing, particularly for the nights and early mornings. The month of your visit will determine how heavy the woolens should be.
During winter and early spring, you will get heavy snow in all these high altitude places. If you want to play with snow, you can rent snow gears like long overcoats, high cover boots, leather gloves etc which are available before you reach the spot.
March – April (Spring)
Average high and low temperatures would range between 10°C to -2°C. Early March can be extremely cold. So heavy woolens like thermal full body inner wear, jackets with heavy woolen linings or fur, muffler, woolen gloves, cap, woolen socks, shoes are must.
May – July (Summer)
Average high/low varies between 15°C to 6°C. You should carry moderate to heavy woolens like jackets, muffler, cap, gloves, socks etc. Thermal full body inner wears can come in handy at nights.
June – September (Monsoon)
Average high/low temperature ranges between 13°C to 8°C. You need to carry moderate woolens like a good jacket, cap, gloves, socks etc. Sometimes due to wind chill it can get very cold. So woolen inner wears, shawls etc should be carried.
October – November (Autumn)
Average high/low temperature ranges between 12°C to -5°C. It starts getting very cold towards the evenings and early mornings. In November, you are likely to find a layer of frozen water in your bucket if you stored water overnight.
So carry heavy woolens which should include two to three layers of clothing like thermal full body inner wears, sweater, jacket, muffler, good pair of woolen gloves, cap, socks etc.
December – February (Winter)
Average high/low temperature varies between 7°C to -10°C. It’s the peak winter and it’ll be freezing cold at the high altitude places. So take all possible winter precautions including full body thermal inner wear, full sleeve sweater, heavy jacket (preferably with fur lining), wind cheater, extra pair of socks, cap (monkey cap would be very useful), muffler, good pair of woolen gloves etc.
Are there shops renting winter clothing?
Unfortunately you won’t get winter clothes on rent at any stores in Darjeeling town. Which means you should carry your own. However if you land up and find what you have is inadequate, then you can certainly buy at the stores in both these places.
An economical option in Darjeeling town is to visit the Bhutia Market which sets up on two sides of a narrow road off Chowrasta (Mall). Lots of local Bhutias sell all kinds of winter wears including jackets, shawls, caps, gloves etc at reasonable prices. Ask any local around the Chowrasta Mall and he will show where the Bhutia market is.