Sikkim-Leh Comparison

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June 3rd 2022
Published: June 3rd 2022
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Shimla-Manali (2004), Char-Dham (2016), Ladakh (2021) and Sikkim (2022) – A comparison

For the second time in 9 months, we travelled to Himalayas – to Leh-Ladakh in August-2021 and to Sikkim-Darjeeling in May-2022. Prior to that we had been to Shimla-Manali in 2004 and ‘Chardham’ in 2016. I am comparing only these four tours (omitting South India and other States) as these four tours were in Himalayan regions.

There are many things common among these four trips and many dissimilarities.

All four tours were in ‘peak’ season.

We had planned Shimla and Ladakh tours on our own, ie the itinerary, hotel bookings and internal travelling. Chardham – we had booked for ‘organized’ tour by ‘Radhe-Shyam’ of Ahmedabad. For Sikkim-Darjeeling tour we booked through a ‘Ajay Modi’ of Ahmedabad.

I have always debated – which one is better: self-planned or ‘conducted’ (organized) tour (through travel operator). Both have their pros and cons. I intend to reflect on the advantages and disadvantages of both. However, what I am going to write need not necessarily be the views of all. Everyone has his/her own experiences (good or not-so-good or bad) and views. I accept it.

(A) Itinerary:

In Shimla-Manali tour, we had kept three days exclusively for Shimla, which very few people do. Most tour operators keep just one or two days. We had thoroughly enjoyed sitting on the Ridge every day and relax and observe. It was way back in 2004 and now a days, new, off-beat places are included in the itinerary. But I still believe that it was one of the best tours we had. We could include Kalka-Shimla train journey only because it was self-planned. And it is an experience of a life time.

Chardham is best done in organized tour – because of the difficult logistics. The itinerary will remain the same in any case.

In Ladakh, we could select the places where we wanted to go – or where we did not want to go. Eg, we had skipped Pangong lake – which reduced the risk of high-altitude sickness and more importantly, reduced travelling hours. In lieu of Pangong lake we had included visit to Turtuk village (to include both, an extra day is needed.) We could give more time to Leh proper. Daily sight-seeing / travelling was completed between 9 to 5, giving few hours to rest and relax every day.

In Sikkim tour, these things were not in our control. May be to give ‘value-for-money’ tour operators plan very tight. In Sikkim tour we were on the road from morning to late evening at times for 12 hours a day, reaching the hotel just for dinner and sleep. And in spite of that, there was no time to explore the local place.

(B) Hotel Accommodation:

Because the tour operators have the advantage of bulk booking in advance, they are able to provide better hotel accommodation as compared to booking on our own – for the same cost.

In Shimla – Manali, we had booked hotel only for the first destination (Shimla) and for the other stops (Manali and Chandigarh), we managed on the spot (with the help of taxi-driver in Manali).

In Chardham tour, arrangements by the ‘Radhe-Shyam’ were quite satisfactory. In Kedarnath, the accommodation was not good, but it was just the beginning (resumption) of tourism after the flood-disaster of 2013.

We had a bad experience of goof-up by Make My Trip booking in Leh, where the hotel shifted our booking to an inferior property and MMT refused to reply and blocked my comments on their “review” page. However, for 2 out of 3 hotels (5/6 nights) there was no issue. Hotels in Sikkim tour were reasonably good. Better than Leh tour.

Over-all my experience of on-line hotel booking is mixed. It is very difficult to predict quality from the price-range as prices vary as per season. And there is no standardization of terminologies like ‘deluxe’ or ‘premium’ or ‘three -star’ and so on. Taking help of an agent/agency is not a bad idea. It may increase the cost by 10-15%!,(MISSING) but risk will be lower. Spot-booking is best for off-season traveling.

(C) Food: All Gujarati tour operators provide ‘Gujju’ meals – as their USP.

We did not have any problem in Shimla tour although children were quite young.

In Chardham, the food was simply superb. We had gained weight in those 10 days!

Although food in Sikkim tour was not as good in comparison to our experience of Chardham. It was just about okay especially in comparison to what we had in Leh. Both, in Leh as well as in Sikkim, options to eat-out (free-lancing) were practically non-existent. Both these places have very few good restaurants and good road side eateries are practically non-existent. We had to rely on the food available in the hotel where we were staying or worse still – where driver took us. This last one is a major problem common in these two hilly regions. Shimla / Manali are probably now too commercialized and many food options are available. Ladakh and Sikkim are under-developed in that sense.

(D) Internal travelling:

In Shimla, we had small private taxi for entire tour (from Shimla to Manali to Chandigarh to Jammu). Driver was reasonably good. And travelling was quite comfortable.

In Chardham, all travelling was by mini-bus. Tour operator does give you an option of private taxi (at extra cost) which runs along with the bus. We did not have any problem with the bus journey.

In both the hilly regions of Ladakh and Sikkim, taxi operators have formed cartel and exercise monopoly. They dictate the terms. In both places only six-seater vehicles are available. In Leh, since we were only two, the cost of taxi (per person) was quite high.

In Sikkim, we had ‘shared taxi’ and that reduced the cost. At both places, the taxi drivers were not very co-operative and we were at their mercy for stoppages (especially for lunch). The drivers were not providing ‘guide’ service. In Sikkim we had five different vehicles and five different drivers in six days for different legs of the journey. This could be an advantage also – in case the driver is not well-behaved. At the same time too many changes in drivers are also not good – repo does not develop. They remain indifferent. Tour operators should exercise their clout and find better deal. After-all economy of both, Leh and Sikkim depends and thrives on the tourists. In Sikkim, drivers turn up anytime between 9 and 11 when you are ready by 8.30 – thus wasting your time. We missed the ‘sun-rise’ point in Darjeeling only because of such an attitude of the driver. In Leh and Sikkim, both, we were constantly reminded by the drivers (and local managers of Ajay Modi) that there is scarcity of vehicles due to heavy rush. It may be true, but after collecting money in advance, it cannot be an excuse.

Sharing a taxi with unknown people is also not easy. Although, in Sikkim tour, as the other four people were from Gujarat, there was not much of a problem. However, issues will always be there, as compared to fully private taxi.

Although we were told in Sikkim that only large vehicles are allowed, MMT advertises tours in small three-seater vehicles also. Especially important if you don’t want to join a shared taxi.

(E) Total Cost: Self-arranged tour should be more cost-effective as the profit margin of the tour operator / agent / agency is eliminated.

The cost of local transport by taxi is a very substantial component, Leh turned out to be costly as we had to pay for six-seater vehicle for just two seats.

Hotel rooms – very difficult to compare because of non-standardization. Tour operators have the advantage of bulk-booking. Tour operators also quote prices which range very widely. You can get 7-night Sikkim tour ranging from Rs 30,000 per person to Rs. 50,000 per person (excluding airfare). There is bound to be some differences. For Sikkim tour of ‘Ajay Modi’, the so-called difference between ‘deluxe’ tour and ‘royal’ tour was a sort of cheating. They were supposed to be different in hotel category (everything else – same). However at the hotel we learned that the difference was only in the room allocation (facing mountains v/s facing road-side).

Conclusion: From the recent experience of the two tours, I am of the opinion that one should plan on our own, and use agencies for hotel and taxi booking. This will balance the cost and freedom. If you don’t have time for planning (at least a month is required), then go for tour operators. ‘Conducted’ tour is a misleading term. Sikkim tour was arranged by ‘Ajay Modi’. It was not ‘conducted’ by them. In contrast, the ‘Char-dham’ tour which we took with another operator (‘Radhe-Shyam’ of Ahmedabad) was more like a conducted tour as a guide accompanied us all through the journey – from Delhi to Delhi. It makes a lot of difference.

For Sikkim, it is advisable to go for ‘organized’ tour, rather than ‘self-planned’ as the logistics are difficult.

This tour by ‘Ajay Modi’ was relatively less expensive as compared to tour operators like SOTC or Kesari or Veena. This could also be a reason for some of our dissatisfaction.


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