Almost 20 years ago, when a young Swiss student made her way to the Tibetan Buddhism Centre in San Francisco, little did she know that her life was going to be altered forever. Helen Kamph, then in her mid-twenties, had already spent a year volunteering at SEMCOL in Ladakh while falling in love with India and its many mysteries. Naturally, when she met Topgay Tapaka, a young Sikkimese (people from the land of Sikkim, north east India) man at the Centre, they hit it off instantly.
The love story that transpired sustains a huge organic estate today where travellers can enjoy the magnificent views of the mighty Himalayas while also learning all about organic gardening.
When Helen and Topgay came back as a married couple to make Sikkim home, they set up base in Topgay’s native village, Rumtek. Barely an hour’s drive from Gangtok, the state capital, Rumtek has the perfect makings of an idyllic refuge in the mountains. About 3 km near the famous Rumtek monastery, the road curiously turns uphill, opening up to a 3-acre organic garden.
Growing up in the countryside, Helen had always had a penchant for big gardens. As a child, she helped her mother grow all sorts of herbs and vegetables and process them into healthy homemade foods, a practice that she brought with her to The Bamboo Retreat.
The estate uses its produce of flowers, fruits and vegetables, to sustain the hotel and the restaurant that boasts of a delicious traditional Sikkimese spread. Several plants like nettle, wild fern, mustard, and bamboo shoot, all come from the garden. As do the garlic, turmeric, ginger, lettuce, potatoes, and tree tomatoes. The recent additions of the strawberry and sweet lime plants have just begun to bear fruit.
The star attraction from the garden, however, is the herbal tea section. Spread across almost a kilometre is an assemblage of pudina or mint, peppermint and stevia plants. While the mint and the peppermint add the unique flavour to the tea, stevia is the natural sweetener. The herbal tea is also a favourite amongst the guests. A relaxing cup of this particular mix, not only gets you a good night’s sleep, it’s also known to help with relieving symptoms of gas and indigestion.
The tender leaves, tips, and buds are carefully selected and plucked and dried in the sun to be stored for future use and to be sold to curious city dwellers.
At a very young age, Helen had begun to realize the benefits of eating healthy and living in harmony with the land. Instead of moving further and further away from agrarian societies, she think humanity would be much better off, much happier, if they would begin to re-connect with the earth through growing food, caring for animals, protecting and safeguarding domestic animals, vegetables, grain and fruit varieties.
The garden also produces its own supply of smudge-sticks, spice powders, grain varieties—all of which are housed in the eclectic souvenir shop within the estate itself. Additionally with the purpose of promoting eco-tourism and local culture, the estate regularly organizes workshops on bamboo handicrafts, carpet weaving, thanka paintings for inquisitive guests.
In another feat of generosity altogether, the proceeds from the souvenir shop and all such workshops go into safeguarding the future of Sikkim, one child at a time. Every year, the estate funds the education of one underprivileged child at the Human Development Foundation of Sikkim. The estate also regularly organizes workshops that impart skill training to the locals. One such workshop that The Bamboo Retreat staff takes pride in is a recent course in administering first aid with Travel Agents Association of Sikkim (TAAS) with a couple of Swiss volunteers.
Helen, who has spent almost 20 years in India now, is as much Indian as others. She notes how Sikkim, beautiful and monumental, is much like her childhood home in the Alps. Helen and Topgay first started Bamboo Retreat, because they wanted a confluence of cultures—the East and the West have many things that they can learn from each other. Bridging the two parts of world by providing a platform for intercultural exchange where both visitors and hosts could benefit from each other in a natural way was their objective.
At Bamboo Retreat aim is to introduce the guest’s to the local traditions and culture with all senses. Come and taste Sikkim’s unique cuisine and spices, smell its herbs, touch its handicraft and textiles, dance and sing its rhythm and songs, read its history, observe its nature and connect to its people. Re-connect to a natural and quiet way of life to revive your own roots and sense of belonging.