Ladakh, India

Ladakh (La-Dags – “land of high mountain passes”) is mainland India’s most remote and sparsely populated region, a high-altitude desert cradled by the Karakoram and Great Himalaya ranges and crisscrossed by myriad razor-sharp peaks and ridges. Described as “Little Tibet” or “the last Shangri-La”, and culturally and administratively separate from the rest of India, this area is one of the last enclaves of Mahayana. Buddhism, which has been its principal religion for nearly a thousand years, is most evident in Ladakh’s mediaeval monasteries: perched on rocky hilltops and clinging to sheer cliffs, these gompas are both repositories of ancient wisdom.

The best travel tips for visiting Ladakh

The highest concentration of monasteries is in the Indus Valley near Leh, the region’s capital.

Set in a sublime landscape and crammed with hotels, guesthouses and restaurants, this atmospheric little town, a staging post on the old Silk Route, is most visitors’ point of arrival, and an ideal base for side-trips.

North of Leh, across Khardung La, one of the highest driveable passes in the world, lies the valley of Nubra, where sand dunes carpet the valley floor.

It is also possible to visit the great wilderness around the lake of Tso Moriri in Rupshu, southeast of Leh, and to glimpse Tibet from the shores of Pangong Tso in the far east of Ladakh. For all these areas you will, however, need a permit.

West of Leh, beyond the windswept Fatu La and Namika La passes, Buddhist prayer flags peter out as you approach the predominantly Muslim district of Kargil.

Ladakh’s second largest town, at the mouth of the breathtakingly beautiful Suru Valley, is the jumping-off point for Zanskar, the vast wilderness in the far south of the state that forms the border with Lahaul in Himachal Pradesh.

Leh palace, India - Ladakh © Shutterstock

Leh palace, India - Ladakh © Shutterstock

Restricted areas in Ladakh

Parts of Ladakh are still inaccessible to casual tourists, but with the easing of tensions along the border between India and China, much of this incredible land has been opened up.

Three areas in particular are now firm favourites with travellers: the Nubra Valley bordering the Karakoram Range to the north of Leh; the area around Pangong Tso, the lake to the east of Leh; and the region of Rupshu with the lake of Tso Moriri, to the southeast of Leh.

How to obtain Ladakh Protected Area Permit?

Indian and foreign visitors need permits to visit these areas, the cost of which includes an environmental fee, though Indian tourists now only have to carry photo ID. Permits are issued by the Deputy Commissioner’s Office in Leh but the office deals only through Leh’s many tour operators, who charge a fee – usually around ₹550–660 per head. As the areas in question are served by infrequent public transport, you may well choose to use a tour operator anyway.

In theory, permits are only issued to groups of at least two people accompanied by a guide. However, in practice travel agents are generally happy to issue permits to solo individuals travelling independently, though you’ll have an imaginary friend (usually somebody applying at the same time) listed on the permit to fulfil the official requirement. As long as your name and passport number are on the permit, the checkpoints are quite relaxed about how many of you there are.

You will need two photocopies of the relevant pages of your passport and visa. Provided you apply in the morning, permits are usually issued on the same day. Once you have your permit, which is valid for a maximum period of seven days and covers all restricted areas, make at least five copies before setting off because officers at checkpoints sometimes like to keep a copy when you report in. If you go on an organized trip, however, the driver takes care of all this and you may never even handle your permit.

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Kashimir carpet shops in the main shopping street in downtown of Leh City © Shutterstock

Kashimir carpet shops in the main shopping street in downtown of Leh City © Shutterstock

What to do in Ladakh

#1 Browse the bazaar in Leh

After settling into a hotel or guesthouse, most visitors spend their first day in Leh soaking up the atmosphere of the bazaar.

Eighty or so years ago, this bustling area was the busiest market between Yarkand and Kashmir – merchants from Srinagar and the Punjab would gather to barter for pashmina wool brought down by nomadic herdsmen from western Tibet, or for raw silk hauled across the Karakorams on Bactrian camels.

These days, though the pedestrianized streets are awash with kitsch curio shops and handicraft emporiums, it retains a distinctly Central Asian feel.

Even if you’re not shopping for trekking supplies, check out the surviving provision stores, where bright pink, turquoise, and wine-red silk cummerbunds hang in the windows; tourists stick to the pedestrianized roads, but the local action is in side-alleys to the north and east, which also feature a few little markets.

#2 Lore it over the old town at Leh palace

Lording it over the old town from the top of a craggy granite ridge is the derelict palace of the sixteenth-century ruler Sengge Namgyal. A scaled-down version of the Potala in Lhasa, it’s a textbook example of medieval Tibetan architecture, with gigantic sloping buttressed walls and projecting wooden balconies that tower nine storeys above the surrounding houses.

Since the Ladakhi royal family left in the 1940s, damage inflicted by nineteenth-century Kashmiri cannons has caused large chunks of it to collapse. Despite recent restoration work, there’s not much to see in the dark interior; most visitors spider up to the rooftop for lovely views out over Leh.

#3 Hike up to the Namgyal Tsemo Gompa

Once you are acclimatized to the altitude, the stiff early-morning hike up to Namgyal Tsemo Gompa, the monastery perched precariously on the shale-covered crag above Leh palace, is a great way to start the day.

Two trails lead up to “the Peak of Victory”, whose twin peaks are connected by giant strings of multicoloured prayer flags: the first and most popular path zigzags across its south side from the palace road, while a second scales the more gentle northern slope via the north-Leh suburb of Chubi.

This is the route followed by the lama from Sankar gompa, who tends to the shrine each morning and evening. Alternatively, the place is accessible by road.

Namgyal Tsemo Gompa with prayer flags - Leh - Ladakh - Jammu and Kashmir - India © Shutterstock

Namgyal Tsemo Gompa with prayer flags - Leh - Ladakh - Jammu and Kashmir - India © Shutterstock

#4 Geek up at the Central Asian Museum

The Central Asian Museum is housed in a modern re-creation of a Lhasa mansion, with a gently tapering brick tower crowned by a wooden balustrade.

It has a reasonable collection of artefacts, clothing and photographs that focus on the deep connections between Ladakh and the rest of Central Asia, forged through its position on the Silk Route.

#5 See the Peace Pagoda at Shanti Stupa

Easily visible above Leh is the toothpaste-white Shanti Stupa, nearly 3km west of the bazaar by road.

Inaugurated in 1985 by the Dalai Lama, the “Peace Pagoda”, whose sides are decorated with gilt panels depicting episodes from the life of the Buddha, is one of several such monuments erected around India by a “Peace Sect” of Japanese Buddhists.

#6 Read the “dos and don’ts” at Sankar Gompa

Nestled amid the shimmering poplar coppices and terraced fields of barley that extend up the valley behind Leh, Sankar Gompa, 2km north of the town centre, is among the most accessible monasteries in central Ladakh.

The monastery is the official residence of the Kushok Bakula, Ladakh’s head of the Gelug-pa sect. Above the Du-khang (main prayer hall) stands the gompa’s principal deity, Tara, in her triumphant, one-thousand-armed form as Dukkar, or “Lady of the White Parasol”, presiding over a light, airy shrine room whose walls are adorned with a Tibetan calendar and tableaux depicting “dos and don’ts” for monks – some of which are very arcane indeed.

#7 See the colossal metal Shakyamuni Buddha at Shey Palace

The palace, a smaller and more dilapidated version of the one in Leh, sits astride the ridge, below an ancient fort. Crowned by a golden chorten spire, its pride and joy is the colossal metal Shakyamuni Buddha housed in its ruined split-level temple.

Installed in 1633, the 12m icon allegedly contains a hoard of precious stones, mandalas and powerful charms. Entering from the second level, you come face to face with the massive Buddha, and a balcony allows you to survey the statue’s torso.

Preserved for centuries by thick soot from votary butter lamps, the gold-tinted murals coating the walls are among the finest in the valley.

The golden statue of Shakyamuni Buddha at Shey Palace Monastery, Ladakh, India © Shutterstock

The golden statue of Shakyamuni Buddha at Shey Palace Monastery, Ladakh, India © Shutterstock

#8 Seek out the rock carving of the five Tathagata

Easily missed as you whizz past on the road is Shey’s most ancient monument. The rock carving of the five Tathagata or “Thus gone” Buddhas, distinguished by their respective vehicles (vahanas) and hand positions (mudras), appears on a smooth slab of stone on the edge of the highway; it was probably carved soon after the eighth century, before the “Second Spreading”.

The large central figure with hands held in the gesture of preaching (turning the wheel of dharma), is the Buddha Resplendent, Vairocana, whose image is central in many of the Alchi murals.

#9 Visit Thikse, Ladakh’s most photographed gompa

Ladakh’s most photographed and architecturally impressive gompa is at Thikse. Founded in the fifteenth century, its whitewashed chortens and cubic monks’ quarters rise in ranks up the sides of a craggy bluff, crowned by an imposing ochre- and red-painted temple complex whose gleaming golden finials are visible for kilometres around.

Thikse’s reincarnation as a major tourist attraction has brought it mixed blessings: its constant stream of summer visitors spoils the peace and quiet necessary for meditation, but the income generated has enabled the monks to invest in major refurbishments, among them the Maitreya temple immediately above the main courtyard.

Inaugurated in 1980 by the Dalai Lama, the shrine is built around a gigantic, gold-faced Buddhato-come, seated not on a throne as is normally the case, but in the lotus position. The bright murals on the wall behind, painted by monks from Lingshet gompa in Zanskar, depict scenes from Maitreya’s life.


Thikse © Shutterstock

#10 See the fascinating collection of the Ladakhi royal family’s most precious heirlooms at Stok

Visible from Leh, at the head of a huge moraine, the elegant four-storey Stok Palace overlooks barley terraces studded with whitewashed farmhouses.

Built early in the nineteenth century by the last ruler of independent Ladakh, it has been the official residence of the Ladakhi royal family since they were ousted from Leh and Shey two hundred years ago.

The present queen mother Deskit Wangmo still lives here during the summer, and has converted one wing of her 77-room palace into a small museum.

The fascinating collection comprises some of the royal family’s most precious heirlooms, including exquisite sixteenth-century thangkas illuminated with paint made from crushed rubies, emeralds and sapphires. The pièces de résistance, however, are the gyalmo’s peraks; still worn on important occasions, the ancient headdresses are encrusted with slabs of flawless turquoise, polished coral, lapis lazuli and nuggets of pure gold.

#11 Visit the magnificent gompa of Chemrey

Clinging like a swallow’s nest to the sides of a conical hill, the magnificent gompa of Chemrey sees very few visitors because of its location – tucked up the side-valley that runs from Karu, below Hemis, to the Chang La pass into Pangong.

Founded in 1664 as a memorial to King Sengge Namgyal, the monastery is staffed by a dwindling community of around twenty Drugpa monks and their young novices. Its main Du-khang, off the courtyard on the lower level, boasts a fine silver chorten and a set of ancient Tibetan texts whose title pages are illuminated with gold-and-silver calligraphy.

Upstairs in the revamped Guru-La-khang sits a giant brass statue of Padmasambhava. The museum on the top floor houses statues, thangkas, scrolls and utensils.

#12 Conquer Khardung La, one of the world’s highest stretches of road

First things first – Khardung La is not the world’s highest stretch of road, driveable or otherwise. There are at least two loftier places in Tibet, and another in Bolivia, while the highest of the lot opened in late 2017 in the southeast of Ladakh: Umling La, which tops out at just over 5800m.

Regardless, Khardung La is probably still the most dramatic of the lot, and it makes for an exciting journey. Most of the route north from Leh to Nubra is now good, metalled road, though there’s still around 7km of rough, bus-battering surface on either side of the pass; the ascent from Leh (1h 30min–2hr) is rapid, and on the way you may luck out and see planes landing at the airport, 20km away and a full 2km below – a wonderfully weird feeling.

Prayer flags at Khardungla Pass, the highest motorable pass in the world, ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, India © Shutterstock

Prayer flags at Khardungla Pass, the highest motorable pass in the world, ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, India © Shutterstock

#13 Go rafting and kayaking

When water levels are high, between the end of June and late August, Leh’s more entrepreneurial travel agents operate rafting trips on the Indus and Zanskar rivers.

The routes are tame in comparison with Nepal’s, but floating downstream in a twelve-seater rubber inflatable is a hugely enjoyable way to experience the rugged and beautiful landscape.

Two different stretches of the River Indus are most commonly used: from Phey near Spitok to the Indus–Zanskar confluence at Nyemo (3hr), and from Nyemo to below the ancient temple complex at Alchi (2hr 30min).

Experienced rafters may also want to try the more challenging route between Alchi and Khalsi, which takes in the 1km-long series of rapids at Nurla.

#14 Look for the ancient wall paintings of Alchi

Driving past on the nearby Srinagar–Leh highway, you’d never guess that the spectacular sweep of wine-coloured scree 3km across the Indus from Saspol conceals one of the most significant historical sites in Asia.

Yet the low pagoda-roofed Choskhor, or “religious enclave”, at Alchi, 70km west of Leh, harbours an extraordinary wealth of ancient wall paintings and wood sculpture, miraculously preserved for more than nine centuries inside five tiny mud-walled temples.

The site’s earliest murals are regarded as the finest surviving examples of a style that flourished in Kashmir during the “Second Spreading”. Barely a handful of the monasteries founded during this era escaped the Muslim depredations of the fourteenth century; Alchi is both the least remote and most impressive of them all.

#15 Visit Zanskar, Land of White Copper

Walled in by the Great Himalayan Divide, Zanskar (“Land of White Copper”) has exerted the allure of Shangri-La on visitors to Ladakh for decades.

The region’s staggering remoteness, extreme climate and distance from the major Himalayan trade routes has meant that the successive winds of change that have blown through the Indus Valley to the north have had little impact here.

The annual influx of trekkers and a driveable road have certainly quickened the pace of development, but away from the main settlement of Padum, the Zanskaris’ way of life has altered little since the sage Padmasambhava passed through in the eighth century.

The nucleus of the region is a Y-shaped glacial valley system drained by three main rivers: the Stot (or Doda) and the Tsarap (or Lingit) join and flow north as the Zanskar. The valley sees a lot more snow than central Ladakh. Midwinter temperatures can drop to a bone-numbing -40°C.

Camping with spread tents along The frozen Zanskar river in Ladakh, India © Shutterstock

Camping with spread tents along The frozen Zanskar river in Ladakh, India © Shutterstock

Best places to stay in Ladakh

Ladakh offers a range of accommodation options to suit different preferences and budgets. From cozy guesthouses and homestays in the villages to bigger resorts in Leh, there are ample choices for visitors to find their ideal place to stay amidst the breathtaking landscapes.


Leh is glutted with accommodation, much of it refreshingly neat and clean. Most places close between October and April; due to the short season prices do not fluctuate much, but you can bargain in the shoulder months.

Most of the town’s cheaper guesthouses are in the leafy areas of Changspa to the west and Karzoo to the north. Rooms in Leh’s few mid-range and increasing number of upmarket hotels all come with piped hot water.


The number of places to stay has grown as Alchi’s fame has spread but prices are generally quite high. Most serve food, so apart from a couple of dhabas in the village centre, there is just one independent restaurant.


You can find basic homestay accommodation in the village beneath the gompa.

Tso Moriri

Accommodation is in local homestays dotted around the lake area and an overpriced tent colony or in Korzok, 1km back from the lake.


Room tariffs soar in July and August when most travellers pass through; rates lower than those given here are usually available at other times.


Apart from the state-run bungalow listed below, your only option here is to homestay, which is incredibly easy to arrange; even if the first person you talk to has no room, they’ll probably introduce you to someone who does.

Browse the places to stay in Ladakh.

Chemrey Monastery, Ladakh, India © Shutterstock

Chemrey Monastery, Ladakh, India © Shutterstock

How to get around

From private jeep and rented motorbike, here is how to get around Ladakh.

By bus

Long-distance buses cover much of the state, but be warned: roads are often winding and slow.

By private jeep

If you’re travelliong In a group then a private jeep is a great way to get around as it's cheap, economical and can leave whenever you are ready.

By motorbike

Lots of travellers are now renting their own wheels and zipping around the mountainous road of Ladakh.

How many days do you need in Ladakh?

You’ll need at least 5 to 7 days in Ladakh to do the region justice. This duration allows you to visit popular destinations like Leh, the capital city, and nearby attractions such as Thiksey Monastery, Shey Palace, and Shanti Stupa. You can also embark on day trips to beautiful lakes like Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri.

If you have more time available, you can explore remote areas like Nubra Valley, which is known for its sand dunes and the famous Diskit Monastery. Additionally, you may consider including the scenic Zanskar Valley and the ancient monasteries of Alchi and Lamayuru in your itinerary.

It's worth noting that Ladakh is situated at high altitude, and it's essential to acclimatize properly to prevent altitude sickness. It is advisable to plan for additional rest days and take it easy during the first few days to allow your body to adjust to the altitude.

Looking for inspiration for your trip? Check out our India itineraries.

Shanti Stupa also known as Peace Pagoda on hilltop of Chanspa, Leh city, Ladakh, India © Shutterstock

Shanti Stupa also known as Peace Pagoda on hilltop of Chanspa, Leh city, Ladakh, India © Shutterstock

What is the best time to visit Ladakh?

Kashmir’s harshest climate is in Ladakh, with passes into the region open only between late June and late October, when the sun is at its strongest and the weather, at least during the day, pleasantly warm.

Although it is officially a high-altitude desert, recent years have seen increasing bouts of rain in July and August, sometimes making trekking difficult. From November onwards, temperatures drop fast, often plummeting to minus 40°C between December and February, when the only way in and out of Zanskar is along the frozen surface of the river. Note that nearly all hotels and guesthouses are closed from some time in October until April, while many garden restaurants only open in the peak summer months

Traditionally beyond the reach of the monsoons, Ladakh receives little snow, especially in the valleys, and even less rain (sometimes as little as 100 mm per year). Only the most frugal methods enable its inhabitants to farm the thin sandy soil, frozen solid for eight months of the year and scorched for much of the other four.

In recent years, however, climate change has meant even drier winters and less snow; the consequent loss of snowmelt has put pressure on traditional farming and irrigation, resulting in a real risk of drought, though this has been offset to some extent by increased rainfall during the summer months.

Find out more about the best time to visit India.

Gompa or monastery on the way to Stok Kangri, 6000+ meters high peak © Shutterstock

Stok Palace on the way to Stok Kangri, 6000+ meters high peak © Shutterstock

How to get here

To reach Ladakh, located in the northernmost part of India, the most common mode of transportation is by air. The Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport in Leh, the capital city of Ladakh, is well-connected with regular flights from major Indian cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and Srinagar. But there are slower, more rewarding routes too.

By road

Two legendary “highways” connect Ladakh with the rest of India: the Srinagar–Leh road, and the route up from Manali, almost 500 km south. These two, plus the rough road from Kargil to Padum in Zanskar, also link the majority of Ladakh’s larger settlements with the capital.

By plane

These days, the majority of visitors arrive at Leh airport, though doing so can raise the risk of altitude sickness.

By bus

Services along the main Indus Valley highway are quite frequent and reliable, but become less so the further you get from Leh. Some services have been given as “summer-only”; the season generally runs Apr–Oct.

By jeep or taxi

It is much easier to reach off -track side valleys and villages within a single day if you splash out on a jeep or minibus taxi, widely available in Kargil and Leh.

Find out the best ways to get to India.

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Andy Turner

written by
Andy Turner

updated 31.05.2023

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