Updated: Aug 19
Nestled between the stunning Himalaya and Karakoram mountain ranges, Ladakh, India is a magical destination filled with natural beauty and home to fascinating cultural festivals honoring Buddhist traditions and ancient ways.
As founder of Global Family Travels, I have been blessed to travel to Ladakh almost yearly since 2010 and have provided many of our clients with immersive, unforgettable community-based experiences in this region thanks to our long-time relationship with friends at the Siddhartha School Partnership (SSP), as well as many other local organizations and communities.
Throughout all my travels, Ladakh continues to be my absolute favorite place on the planet, not just because of its beautiful scenery, fascinating history, and culture, but also because of the dear friends we have made there. Each time I visit, my own family circle expands further to include even more of the region’s compassionate people who are proud to share their cultural traditions!
Connecting with Community & Thiksey Monastery in Ladakh, India, photos courtesy of Global Family Travels
Most recently, in July of 2022, I enjoyed a culturally immersive journey to Ladakh with Global Family Travels’ clients, and this visit was as memorable as ever— filled with experiences at centuries-old monasteries, heritage homes, craft workshops, ancient palaces, and meditation caves. While all these experiences were quite amazing, the ones that will be remembered longest and treasured most involved engaging with communities and Ladakhi people and enjoying celebrations with them.
“I suppose most visitors would point to the amazing scenery of Ladakh, or the fascinating history, or the mystique of this spellbinding place as being the highlights of the trip, but for me it wasn't only these aspects, moreover it was also the beautiful spirit of the many wonderful people we encountered. We connected with them in a very heartfelt way.” –Martin Diedrich, Global Family Travels’ fellow traveler and blog co-author.
Top 10 Experiences in Ladakh Honoring Culture and Communities
Siddhartha School Jubilee celebration performance, photo courtesy of Global Family Travels
1. Celebration of the Siddhartha School’s 25th Anniversary
The Jubilee celebration of the amazing Siddhartha School in the village of Stok was a particularly special part of this trip which we enjoyed with students, parents, teachers and local and U.S. board members. It was such a joyous occasion! A longtime partner of ours since our inception in 2010, Global Family Travels congratulates this wonderful school that honors the rich cultural heritage of Ladakh and provides students with high quality education in a remote part of India.
Siddhartha School student Assembly in Stok, Ladakh photo courtesy of Global Family Travels
After the lighting of the butter lamp to bless the auspicious day, guests at this special celebration enjoyed entertainment from students representing each of the Siddhartha School’s 10 classes, and inspiring talks by the school’s local founder, Khensur Rinpoche Lobzang Tsetan.
Visit Global Family Travels Tik Tok page for some of the cultural performances!
Khensur Rinpoche's heartfelt speech described his upbringing as a monk and how he started the school, ending with a quote that represents the compassionate mission of the amazing school:
“Children are the seeds of the future. We must care for them by providing love and education so that they blossom into good human beings.”
Siddhartha School founder, Khensur Rinpoche Lobzang Tsetan, photo courtesy of Global Family Travels
2. Magical Rong Valley & Community Visits in Ladakh
A visit to two villages in the mystical and beautiful gorge of Rong Valley was hands down one of the highlights of our trip. Located 80 kilometers from Leh, it is said this region has the highest density of snow leopards in Ladakh. After viewing rock art en route to Rong Valley that dates back 3000 years BC, we visited the village of Tarchit, which is known for its hidden “beyuls” - or valleys. We also explored the meditation caves of Padmasambhava, the guru who brought Buddhism to Ladakh and Tibet in the 8th century!
Views of Tarchit Village, Ladakh India , photo courtesy of Global Family Travels
We were very lucky to have several amazing guides on the trip with us, one of whom was who was working on a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to train and empower local women in these villages of Rong Valley by helping them create visitor experiences that showcase their cultural heritage.
In the village of Tarchit, we had the good fortune to enjoy tea with a woman who was hosting lunch for her entire community on the day the village was blessing its agricultural harvest. Just after she hosted us, the woman donned her beautiful Ladakhi outfit, and stood at her front doorstep while a stream of villagers delivered gifts and prayer books to her. The local Lama (monk) also visited to bless the woman’s home with barley flour (a sign of abundance). We felt incredibly lucky to witness all of this taking place.
Tarchit Village host greeting her community for puja, Ladakh India, photos courtesy of Global Family Travels
“Here, it seemed people still lived and dressed as they had for centuries, nearly untouched by the outside world,” shared Martin. “In one of the villages, we happened upon a puja festival (prayer blessings), where we were invited right into the midst of the celebration by the village host of the puja. It was almost like a time travel moment into an ancient way of life in a faraway place. Extraordinary and very special.”
Blessing the fields in Tarchit Village, Ladakh India, photos courtesy of Global Family Travels
As I always tell my clients, be prepared to expect the unexpected on any itinerary, particularly in Ladakh because agricultural rituals like this happen everywhere to celebrate community, Buddhist holidays and abundance of harvests.
In the next village we visited, we enjoyed a delicious local Ladakhi lunch at a homestay and learned about their cultural norms and ways of living in this beautiful valley. We were even offered an opportunity to try on Ladakhi attire after our lunch!
Homestay Visit with hosts in Kharphut Village, Ladakh India with Global Family Travels
3. Cultural Heritage Day in Leh with Ladakh Arts and Media Organization (LAMO)
We spent a culturally enriching day with the project director of the Ladakh Arts and Media Organization (LAMO), learning about the history of Leh, which was an important stopping point for caravans on the silk road trade routes.
Leh Palace visit and view from the top with Global Family Travels
At the start of our day, we had the good fortune to explore a part of Leh Palace not open to the public. Because of construction happening in the lower part of the palace, our small group had permission to enter the chambers of the palace. Like Indiana Jones, we had quite an adventure learning about palace life and even discovering old Ladakhi writing on the palace wall.
Leh Palace Exploration, photo courtesy of Global Family Travels
After this fascinating visit, we learned about Ladakhi agricultural rituals, viewing a short film produced by LAMO. Next, we explored Old Leh Town, walking through winding labyrinth-like narrow pathways towards the main street of the bazaar, with the Jama Masjid Mosque on one side and Buddhist stupas across the road. We rounded out the day by exploring the Central Museum of Art, where we learned more about the culture and history of Ladakh.
Exploring Leh Town with Ladakh Arts and Media Organization (LAMO), photo courtesy of Global Family Travels
4. Hemis Monastery in Ladakh with Venerable Tenzin Dasel
Global Family Travels was introduced to Ladakh and the Siddhartha School by my dear college friend, who has since been ordained as Venerable Tenzin Dasel by his Holiness the 14th Dalia Lama. Visiting the famous monastery of Hemis with her was a treat for all of us, as she shared her knowledge of Buddhism and the history of this incredible monastery. (Exciting note: We are developing a trip to learn about Ladakhi nuns and Buddhism practices for Fall 2023 Trip, so join our mailing list to receive information about this!)
Exploring Hemis Monastery in Ladakh , photos courtesy of Global Family Travels
5. Pashmina workshop: Traditions of Natural Dyeing, Spinning and Weaving with LENA in Ladakh
One of the most exquisite fibers in the world is the Changra pashmina and we learned a great deal about the sourcing and making of this product through a hands-on workshop with the founders of the local, women-owned company LENA, whose name means pashmina in Ladakhi.
Pashmina Workshop with LENA in Ladakh, photos courtesy of Global Family Travels
Co-founded by two Ladakhi women who sources and produce the finest pashmina products using sustainable methods, LENA helps the local economy by employing local artisans, especially women. We explored the fundamentals of dyeing, soaking and weaving pashmina, and learned about plant derived dyes, all under the expert guidance of LENA’s founders. The workshop was held in the ambience of the co-founder’s home in Thiksey village, below the famous picturesque Thiksey monastery and near the banks of river Indus among the poplar trees. We also enjoyed some shopping at LENA's store in Ladakh!
Co-founders of LENA in Ladakh with guests of Global Family Travels
6. Library Visit at Thiksey Monastery in Ladakh
A visit to Thiksey monastery is always a must when visiting Ladakh. But before we went to the monastery itself, our group was fortunate enough to visit with the director of the monastery’s new library, Ven. Geshe Jamyang Tashi. He led our group through the library, teaching us about the many ancient prayer books stored there. We also learned about the many special programs and Buddhist retreats that the library hosts for the community and visitors.
Library Visit at Thiksey Monastery, photos courtesy of Global Family Travels
7. Conservation Discussions with Local Non-profit Organizations in Ladakh
As Ladakh continues to become increasingly popular for both local tourists in India and global visitors, the destination has rapidly expanded its urban services and experiences to meet tourists' expectations. With this urbanization and population growth comes the challenge of managing Ladakh’s environment and scarce resources, particularly water, which is one of the biggest concerns for people in the local government, (See Wall Street Journal article: We can’t Waste a Drop” India is Running out of Water. )
With these environmental concerns is in mind, we enjoyed an educational lunch conversation with two non-profit leaders in Ladakh: the executive director of the Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDeG) and the chairman of Wildlife Conservation and Birds Club of Ladakh (WCBL). (Note, in the fall of 2023, we will be visiting these non-profits again for a social impact photo tour with Merrill images, so be sure to join our mailing list for more info!)
Ladakh black-necked crane, photo courtesy of WCBL
During the course of our conversations with these leaders, we learned about the good work that both organizations do to preserve the environment and save endangered species of Ladakh, which is home to more than 300 species of birds including some of the rarest birds and wildlife of the world—some of which are on the verge of extinction.
In the drive towards modernity, Ladakh people are keenly aware of the importance of maintaining their sustainable and self-sufficient lifestyles. In Fact, LEDeG, originally called the Ladakh Project founded by Helena Norberg-Lodge, began as a result of growing trends of 'Western Modernity' and the resultant dismissal of local culture and environmental degradation. As shared in the foreword of Water in Liveable Ladakh, by the Chairman of Ladakh’s Autonomous Hill Development Council:
"Economic development, social equity and environmental protection must all go hand-in-hand for Ladakhi culture to survive." - Gyal P Wangyal
8. Saspol Caves & Alchi Monastery
During this immersive journey to Ladakh, we had the good fortune to visit many monasteries and interact with several of the monks tending to them. The monasteries of Ladakh are havens for Buddhist learning and for safeguarding Buddhist art and artifacts. Hiking up to the Saspol Caves and visiting Alchi monastery were yet another highlight of our Ladakh journey.
Frescos at Saspol Caves, photo courtesy of Martin Diedrich Global Family Travels client
Rinchen Zangpo (958-1055), who was trained in Kashmir as an artist, is said to have brought 30 Kashmiri artists to Ladakh and built 108 temples, introducing fresco art throughout Ladakh and western Tibet. The fresco paintings at Alchi monastery and at Saspol caves represent some of the last surviving pieces of this art that was spread through much of Asia during this time.
Prayer wheels at Alchi monastery, photo courtesy of Global Family Travels
9. Wanla Monastery: A Serendipitous Visit in Ladakh
We enjoyed a glorious morning visit to Wanla monastery, which crowns Wanla village and is tucked away deep in a remote and rugged canyon surrounded by massive mountains. The monastery is located on a hill with an amazing 360-view of the vast spectacular scenery in which it was embedded. The canyon is also home to a small village surrounded by lush green fields fed by rivers of turquoise glacier water at the valley floor.
Wanla Village view, photo courtesy of Martin Diedrich Global Family Travels client
When we arrived at the monastery, which is filled with spectacular murals, the caretaker monk, who had the key to let us in, was away. We were told he would be back in an hour to unlock the door for us. That hour became nearly two and a half hours. But the lengthy wait turned out to be a huge, serendipitous blessing and gift. The time was well spent and almost too short. It allowed us to slow down and enjoy taking in our splendid surroundings.
Wanla Monastery in Ladakh, photos courtesy of Global Family Travels
Having had numerous coincidences of serendipity throughout our journey, we decided it was our blessed "collective Karma" — as we called it among our small group. Eventually the kind caretaker monk did show up to let us in. From Martin again: “Viewing the ancient murals and the huge Buddhist figures in the subdued light provided a spectacular sense of the dimension of antiquity of this place. Truly sublime. It turned out that the caretaker monk was also a very talented artist who had painted some of the newer structures at the monastery, and in the village, with colorful Buddhist designs.”
Wanla Monastery Visit in Ladakh, photos courtesy of Global Family Travels
In 2019, Global Family Travels guests to Ladakh also had and incredible visit to Wanla Monastery and witnessed the dissolution of a monastery, as featured in our blog post by trip Leader, Laura Kozaitis: Sacred Moments at Wanla Monastery: A Mandala Dissolution on the Art of the Silk Road Trip to Ladakh.
10. Beautiful Nubra Valley Visit in Ladakh
Another treasured experience of this trip involved exploring the vast scenery of the Nubra Valley. As Martin shared: “I have traveled to many amazing places, however, this one was exceptionally impressive in terms of the stunning enormity of the scale— not only horizontally— but vertically at the same time. It was quite challenging for the mind to take in. The three days spent in this nearly incomprehensibly vast place was quite remarkable."
Once we drove into the valley from one of the world's highest motorable roads—the Khardung La Passat 18,380 feet—the landscape started to unfold with each turn on the road, leading to one spectacular vista after another from glaciated peaks of the Karakoram Mountains to the valley floor.
Nubra Valley views in Ladakh, photos courtesy of Rick Meinig, Global Family Travels client
At the bottom of the valley flowed the massive and impressively powerful glacier-fed rivers Shyloc and Siachen. Both flow from some of the biggest primordial glaciers in the area, which are 50 to 60 miles in length.
We also explored some of Nubra Valley's famous monasteries, including Disket Monastery, which is one of the oldest and largest Buddhist monasteries in Ladakh, built in 14th century.
Views from Disket Monastery Ladakh, photos courtesy of Rick Meinig, Global Family Travels client
Authentic Travel Experiences Preserve Ladakh's Cultural Traditions & Nature
These meaningful immersive experiences and personal connections with Ladakhis facilitated by Global Family Travels’ strong relationships with community hosts and non-profit partners gave us a rich and deep perspective of Ladakhi culture. The trip also helped us gain a deep understanding of the Buddhist culture and traditions that are still a major part of life in this stunning region.
In the words of Martin again: “We were introduced to and spent time with locals who gave us insights about the ways of traditional lives, local foods, preservation of traditional architecture, and even local environmental issues such as water scarcity, climate change, and land use,” said Martin. “We also got to know traditional craftspeople and engaged in hands-on learning. There was also time spent exploring indigenous agriculture and farming, as well as talks with naturalists who provided education about local ecology, birds, animals, and plants.”
“When the trip came to an end we felt as though we hadn't just visited Ladakh, but that we had lived there.”
Blog Co-authors, Jennifer Spatz and Martin Diedrich, with village homestay host
If you are Interested in traveling to Ladakh and learning about this incredibly special destination with Global Family Travels, we invite you to join our mailing list, or contact us, and we will be sure to share our 2023 Ladakh, India itineraries with you in the months ahead!