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Discover Magical Ladakh: 10 Amazing Travel Highlights!

Listed among the New York Times Top 52 Places to Go in 2024, Ladakh, India is known for its awe-inspiring scenery and rich cultural heritage. Filled with snow-capped mountains and crystalline lakes, as well as Buddhist monasteries and stupas, Ladakh is also a destination that has a special place in the history of Global Family Travels: It was the first destination that we took travelers to 15 years ago! 

To simultaneously honor our company’s roots and this remarkable destination, we’re pleased to share 10 amazing highlights of a visit to Ladakh.

Ladakh India landscape and Buddhist culture

1. The Magnificent Scenery of Ladakh

Flying into Leh Airport, visitors immediately get a sense of Ladakh’s magnificent scenery.  Located at an elevation of 3,256 meters (10,682 feet) above sea level, Leh is the highest airport in the world.  Once on the ground, the vistas are stunning no matter which direction you gaze in and invite tranquility!

Ladakh India aerial views from airplane

Photo credit: Rick Meinig

Known as the "Land of High Passes," Ladakh is famous for its unrivaled splendor and infinite exploration points, ranging from high mountains to valleys and plateaus that offer  plenty of cultural sightseeing and outdoor adventure opportunities, including incredible trekking!

As described by Helena Norberg-Hodge, an anthropologist and author of Ancient Futures, who lived in Ladakh for many years: “In every direction are mountains, a vast plateau of crests in warm and varied tones from rust to pale green. Above, snowy peaks reach toward a still, blue sky; below, sheer walls of wine-red scree fall to stark lunar valleys.”

2. The Influence of Buddhism on Ladakh’s Culture

It is not only the scenery that’s so peaceful in Ladakh. The region’s compassionate people, who are a diverse population with a rich cultural tapestry, make you feel right at home.  The traditional culture of Ladakh evolved from Tibetan Buddhism.  While Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus also live in the region, the majority of the population adhere to Tibetan Buddhism. 

As early as 930 CE, Ladakh was an independent Buddhist kingdom and part of the great Kingdom of Ngari in Western Tibet. Since the region is also at the crossroads of the old Silk Road, Buddhism also spread into Ladakh via Kashmir during the 2nd century A.D. from traders caravanning and stopping at important trading posts along the route. 

Therefore, Tibetan Buddhism is deeply ingrained in Ladakh's culture and the languages, religions, dance, music, architecture, food, and customs of the region are like neighboring Tibet.  Monasteries, monks, and nuns are integral to the religious and cultural landscape of Ladakh. Other visible signs of the Buddhist faith throughout the country include prayer flags, stupas, and mani walls.

Mani stones and Buddhist stupas Ladakh India

Photo credit: Rick Meinig

Today, Ladakh is still regularly called "Little Tibet" and it remains one of the last places in the world where the Buddhist way of life is lived without oppression. In fact, the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, associated with the Dalai Lama, has a significant presence in Ladakh. His Holiness the Dalai Lama's Summer Palace is located here and he frequents the region each year around his birthday.

Ladakh’s Buddhist history is apparent in the harmonious blend of spirituality, culture, and art, contributing to the unique and diverse cultural landscape of the region. Be sure to read our previous blog: Travel Highlights filled with Culture and Community Experiences.

Ladakh India Views with prayer flags and stupa

Photo credit: Rick Meinig

3.  Monastery Visits in Ladakh, India

Ladakh is home to several ancient and picturesque monasteries that are integral to the region's culture.  Also known as gompas, the monasteries not only serve as religious centers but also as repositories of Tibetan Buddhist art and scriptures. For centuries, the gompas have been important centers for cultural activities, serving as centers for education, art, and social gatherings and today many of them host vibrant annual festivals you can attend.

Some of the prominent gompas include Thiksey Monastery, Hemis Monastery, Shey Monastery, and Spituk Monastery. Rinchen Zangpo (958-1055), who played a crucial role in spreading Buddhism in the region during the Tibetan Renaissance period helped build many of the monasteries. Trained in Kashmir as an artist, Zangpo is said to have brought 30 Kashmiri artists to Ladakh and he oversaw the building of 108 temples, introducing fresco art throughout Ladakh and western Tibet.

It is hard to decide which monasteries our favorite, but you definitely don’t want to miss these four gompa gems:

Alchi Monastery: Situated on the banks of the Indus River and surrounded by lush greenery and scenic views, Alchi Monastery is one of the oldest gompas in Ladakh, founded by Rinchen Zangpo in the 10th century. Its ancient murals, artwork, and architecture are well worth an overnight trip from Leh to Alchi Village.  While en route, be sure to stop at the Saspol Caves, which are filled with 8th – 9th century Buddhist artwork. 

Hemis Monastery: One of the most renowned monasteries in Ladakh is Hemis Monastery. Located  inside a gorge and constructed  in the 17th century under the patronage of King Singey Namgyal, Hemis Gompa is the largest monastery in the region.  Belonging to the Drukpa Order, it boasts of a rich collection of ancient Buddhist relics. Each year in July, the monastery hosts the Hemis Festival commemorating the birth anniversary of Guru Padmasambhava. The festivities include colorful masked dances (cham), traditional music performances, and religious rituals.

Hemis Monastery, Ladakh India

Photo credit: Jennifer Spatz, Global Family Travels

Thiksey Monastery:  One of the largest and most prominent monasteries in Ladakh is Thiksey Gompa, located 16 kilometers from Leh. Perched atop a hill, this gompa offers stunning panoramic views of the surrounding Indus Valley.  There are also 10 temples located here. And below the monastery itself are chapels and "houses" stretching down the hillside. 

Thiksey monastery in Ladakh India - a highlight

Photo credit: Jennifer Spatz, Global Family Travels

Wanla monastery: Wanla Gompa is a small but historically significant Buddhist monastery located in the remote Wanla village in the Sham Valley. Founded in the 11th century by Rinchen Zangpo, the Gompa is filled with ancient Buddhist scriptures, thangka paintings, statues of Buddhist deities, and other religious artifacts. Global Family Travels’ guests have experienced some sacred moments at Wanla Monastery.

Wanla Monastery Ladakh India

Photo credits: Jennifer Spatz, Global Family Travels

4. Festivals in Ladakh, India

The people of Ladakh celebrate several festivals that are an integral part of the region’s  rich cultural heritage. The festivals include masked dances, archery competitions, music, and dance performances. These festivals provide a glimpse into Ladakh's vibrant cultural traditions and offer visitors an unforgettable way to experience the unique atmosphere of the region. 

Ladakh India monastery festival

Photo credit: Rick Meinig

Three of the most well-known Ladakhi festivals include:

  • Hemis Festival:  One of the largest and most famous religious festivals in Ladakh, the Hemis Festival  usually takes place in June or July at the Hemis Monastery and involves masked dances, rituals, and a fair.

  • Ladakh Festival: This is a grand event showcasing the rich cultural heritage of Ladakh. It features traditional music and dance performances, polo matches, archery competitions, and a vibrant parade. The festival usually occurs  in September.

  • Losar Festival: Losar marks the Ladakhi New Year and is celebrated in January or February.  Ladakhis celebrate with a variety of festivities including  traditional dance, music, and various rituals.

5. Cultural Heritage of Ladakh – History Walks of Old Town Leh and Culinary Delights!

Leh, the capital of Ladakh, has a rich cultural heritage deeply rooted in Tibetan Buddhism and Central Asian influences. Overall, the cultural heritage of Leh is a captivating blend of spirituality, art, and traditions that have been preserved and passed down through generations.

Some of our favorite things to do here include visiting Leh Palace, followed by a walking tour of Old Town Leh, led by officials from the Ladakh Arts and Media Organization (LAMO). Then, we enjoy a hearty Ladakhi lunch afterwards!

View of Leh from Leh Palace Ladakh India

Photo credit: Jennifer Spatz, Global Family Travels

Leh Palace: The ancient Leh Palace offers panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. Its architecture and strategic location make it a significant historical site.

Old Town Tour: LAMO’s Old Town Leh Heritage walk takes you through winding labyrinth-like narrow pathways and past artisanal workshops, wood-fired bakeries, and historical buildings. This part of Leh is steeped in history, rich in cultural heritage, vernacular architectural forms, and both traditional and contemporary art practices.

Traditional Ladakhi lunch:  A visit wouldn’t be complete without experiencing the delicious food of Ladakh! Ladakhi cuisine is influenced by the region's geography and Buddhist culture. Local dishes like Thukpa (noodle soup), Momos (dumplings), and Skyu (a hearty stew) are popular among both locals and visitors.

6. Nubra Valley of Ladakh

Ladakh is filled with stunning scenery at every turn, but one of the breathtakingly beautiful areas we visit is Nubra Valley.  With high mountains, great monasteries, white sand dunes and double humped camels, it is a region of Ladakh not to miss! 

To get to Nubra valley from Leh, you also travel over one of the world's highest motorable roads, over the Khardung La Pass at 18,380 feet! As you cross over the pass, the landscape unfolds with each turn on the road, leading to one spectacular vista after another, from glaciated peaks of the Karakoram Mountains to the valley floor. Once there, we recommend exploring Disket Monastery, built in the14th century.

Nubra Valley Disket Monastery Ladakh India

Photo credit: Rick Meinig

7. Village Visits and Homestays of Ladakh

Ladakh is dotted with numerous picturesque villages that offer visitors an opportunity to experience the region's unique culture and way of life.  A highlight of our visits are homestays with a local family in some of the region’s small villages. Homestays in Ladakh typically offer simple yet comfortable accommodations with home-cooked meals prepared using local ingredients. They provide opportunities for guests to immerse themselves in the local culture and explore the local terrain.

Staying in these villages not only provides a glimpse into the traditional lifestyle of Ladakhi people, but also supports the local economy and promotes sustainable tourism practices.

Ladakh India Homestay

Photo credit: Stanzin Dorjay

8. Trekking in Ladakh

Trekking in Ladakh brings many adventurers to explore the region's stunning landscapes, rugged mountains, serene lakes, and remote villages. The Himalayan terrain offers a variety of routes suitable for both novice and experienced trekkers. The Marrkha Valley Trek (6-8 days) and Nubra Valley trek (5-7 days) are two of the popular trekking routes in Ladakh.  

Trekking in Ladakh India

Photo credit: Rick Meinig

9. Shopping in Ladakh, fileld with Pashmina, Tibetan markets

Shopping in Ladakh offers visitors the opportunity to explore and purchase traditional handicrafts, textiles, and artifacts that reflect the rich cultural heritage of the region.  The markets in Leh, such as the Main Bazaar, are good places to buy authentic Pashmina products. Here are some of the wonderful things you can buy while supporting local artisans in Ladakh: 

Pashmina Shawls: Ladakh is known for its high-quality Pashmina wool and  one of the most exquisite fibers in the world is the Changra pashmina. Ladakh's coveted pashmina wool was a highly valued commodity along the ancient trade routes and still is today! Visitors can find a variety of Pashmina shawls, stoles, and scarves in vibrant colors and intricate designs to take home as souvenirs.

Ladakhi Jewelry: Traditional Ladakhi jewelry is made from silver and often adorned with turquoise and coral stones. Necklaces, earrings, and bracelets featuring traditional designs are popular among shoppers. The Tibetan Market in Leh is a good place to look for these items.

Thangka Paintings: Thangka is a traditional form of Buddhist art involving intricate scroll paintings depicting deities, scenes from Buddhist scriptures, and mandalas. Leh is home to skilled Thangka artists and these paintings are often displayed in monasteries and sold as souvenirs.

Thangka Painter in Ladakh India

Photo credit: Rick Meinig

10. Learning from Ladakh

Living close to nature in one of the world’s harshest landscapes, the Ladakhi people have much to teach the rest of the world about maintaining a sustainable, harmonious balance with the environment. In this harsh land, with only four inches of rainfall a year and very short growing seasons, Ladakhis have an elaborate system of cooperation, environmental care, and economic self-sufficiency. We highly recommend that anyone visiting Ladakh read Ancient Futures: Lessons From Ladakh for a Globalizing World.

Ladakh India sustainable farmer

Photo credit: Jennifer Spatz, Global Family Travels

Visit Ladakh on a Learn, Serve & Immerse Adventure!

Custodians of their traditions, arts, and land, the people of Ladakh are honored and proud to host us in their communal culture by participating in culinary experiences, heritage walks, agricultural rituals, and monastic life. Visitors to Ladakh, India have the opportunity to immerse themselves in this unique cultural tapestry through many of Global Family Travels' Ladakh, India offerings, either on a group adventure or a custom-made journey! 

Here are some of Global Family Travels unique adventures to Ladakh in the Summer of 2024:

This 12-day Textile Adventure to Explore Ladakh's Cultural Heritage and History provides travelers with an immersive journey into the textile trade and culture of Ladakh and insights to how this remote region played a large role along the Silk Road. Dates: June 1 – June 11, 2024, with optional extension to Kashmir.

Ladakh India Textile tour

In June of 2024, Global Family Travels will lead a one-of-a-kind Sacred Pilgrimage with Buddhist Nuns, a trip that features cultural and mindfulness experiences including learning about the commitment of the Ladakhi nuns to nurturing their communities and the environment. Dates: June 25-July 5, 2024, with optional extensions included!

In July of 2024, this 10-day Compassionate Retreat to Ladakh to Regenerate Spirit and Nature will truly immerse participants in a the Ladakhi Tibetan healing culture, including in ancient rituals, Buddhist practices, and meditation.  Each day will include both a community and retreat activity to uplift your spirit through intention, movement, and meditation aligned with yoga and qigong principles.  Dates: July 4 – 14, 2024 / Optional Extensions included!

Buddhist Retreat to Ladakh India

If you would like help customizing a unique adventure to Ladakh, India, contact Global Family Travels today!


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