About Ladakh

Ladakh: Little Tibet, The Land of High Passes…

Nestled high in the Himalayas on India’s Tibetan Plateau, Ladakh is truly a hidden gem. This high altitude desert landscape provides a stunning backdrop for such rich and colorful Buddhist traditions. Although part of modern India, Ladakh provides one of the last glimpses into traditional Tibetan culture available in the world. In fact, at times Ladakh was part of Tibet. Ladakh & Tibet had a number of conflicts over centuries until the 13th century when they developed friendly relations. Ladakh remained an independent kingdom until 1834, and it is currently a Union Territory of India. Ladakh only opened to tourism in 1974, and 30,000 foreign tourists visit Ladakh each year. 

The Union Territory of Ladakh is highlighted in light purple at the top, with the red arrow. 

About Thiksey Monastery

Thiksey Monastery was founded in the mid-1400’s along the banks of the Indus River. The monastery’s temples, halls, and living quarters span over 12 stories on a picturesque hill, earning it the nickname “Mini Potala” for its resemblance to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. Thiksey is affiliated with the Gelug, or Yellow Hat, school of Tibetan Buddhism, and there are 2 additional monasteries, a nunnery, and 12 temples that operate under Thiksey’s care.

The monastery’s head lama, Ngawang Jamyang Jampa Stanzin Rinpoche (or, Thiksey Rinpoche for short), is a well-respected, influential, and progressive voice within the Ladakhi community. He has worked tirelessly to improve the lives of Ladakhi lamas (monks) and lay people since his narrow escape from Tibet during the Chinese invasion.



Helena Norberg-Hodge was one of the first westerners to visit Ladakh when it opened to tourists in 1975. She spent much of the next three years in the region studying the language; she is the first outsider in modern times to become fluent in Ladakhi. She was a positive presence in Ladakh during this region’s time of sudden modernization and change. We don’t “require” reading for our Ladakh trips, but if we did, Ancient Futures would be it.

Helena Norberg-Hodge is the founder of both Local Futures (formerly ISEC) and the International Alliance for Localization (IAL), and is a founding member of the International Forum on Globalization (IFG) and The Global Ecovillage Network. A pioneer of the new economy movement, she has been awarded the Alternative Nobel prize and the Goi Peace Award. She is also the producer and co-director of the award-winning documentary The Economics of Happiness.

Perhaps the most important lesson of Ladakh has to do with happiness … In Ladakh I have known a people who regard peace of mind and joie de vivre as their unquestioned birthright.

Helena Norberg-Hodge, Ancient Futures


Ladakh’s highest point reaches 25,171 ft (7676 m) and its lowest point a “mere” 9,000 ft (2740 m)–but then again, Ladakh does mean “Land of High Passes”! Our home base at Thiksey rests at nearly 11,000 feet (3350 m).

We take altitude acclimatization seriously in order to ensure you have a wonderful time on the Tibetan Plateau. Please visit our post on Preventing Altitude Sickness by clicking the button below.


“The land is so barren and the passes so high that only our fiercest enemies or our best friends would want to visit us.”

Ancient Ladakhi saying


Western Archaic Tibetan, another name for the Ladakhi language, has about 130,000 speakers in the world. Please click the “learn more” button below for our Ladakhi language primer!

JULLAY! The Ladakhi Aloha

If you learn one word of Ladakhi, let it be “Jullay.” This all-purpose phrase means hello, goodbye, please, and thank you. There is even a song about the word “jullay” which says, “The good word that brings friends closer is jullay / The good word that make strangers friends is jullay.”  For a more respectful “jullay” to monks, you can say “Choktsel Jullay!”

Ladakh’s population density is just 3 people per square mile—that’s .01% of New York City’s.

Ladakh is a high-altitude desert that receives an average of 4″ (10 cm) of rain annually.

39 hours: the amount of time you save when you fly from Delhi to Leh (1 hour) rather than drive.


Butter tea, colloquially called gurgur cha, is made with tea leaves, salt and butter in wooden churns. Nourishing and moisturizing for chapped lips, its said that monks drink up to 40 small cups of butter tea a day in the winter. We’ve found it can be an acquired taste–one which you can acquire much more quickly by thinking of as a salty broth instead of a traditional tea.

Tsampa is roasted barley flour and is typically mixed in with the butter tea (as well as the local barley beer, chang). This combination is a filling and satisfying treat during our time in morning puja (prayers).

Ladakh and Thiksey on the Screen

Thiksey Monastery was featured heavily in 2011’s breathtaking film by Ron Fricke, Samsara. This follow-up to 1992’s Baraka is a wordless documentary set to music, highlighting some of most beautiful and unique scenes on this planet.  We HIGHLY recommend both films!

Ladakh has attracted the Indian film industry for decades, but has also provided a rich backdrop for many Hollywood films, as well, including The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Hector and the Search for Happiness, and The Razor’s Edge. Television has caught on well, including series such as Game of Thrones and even Ice Road Truckers.

Click below to watch the Samsara trailer.

Why Travel to Ladakh with Us?

RetreaTours founders Lauren Rathvon and BJ Graf have a very special relationship with Thiksey Monastery. BJ has been visiting this region since 1995 and has fostered close relationships with Ladakhi lamas (monks) and laypeople alike. This intimate personal connection allows us to reach deeper and more meaningfully into the culture and community. 

We have been bringing guests to Ladakh since 2006, and in 2015, we created the first yoga retreat ever hosted at Thiksey Monastery, with internationally-recognized teacher Nikki Costello. We also partner with Tricycle: The Buddhist Review to bring interested Buddhist pilgrims and teachers to the Tibetan Plateau. With our unprecedented access to ancient prayer halls and intimate friendships with Thiksey’s monks and their families in the village, our Ladakh guests always come away inspired and uplifted.

BJ was invited to serve as Thiksey Monastery’s official photographer in 2010, 2016, and 2017 for three very special Thiksey-sponsored events with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In addition to capturing these events in photos, BJ enjoyed conversation, some good-natured ribbing, and a good luck head rub by the Dalai Lama himself.  In 2017, we were blessed to create an opportunity for our retreat group to have an audience with His Holiness on his birthday.  

Over the years, BJ has had the good fortune to spend time with and photograph the 20th Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, as well as the 102nd Ganden Tripa, Ling Rinpoche, Khen Rinpoche (current abbot of Tashi Lhunpo), KelKhang Rinpoche, Kachen Lobzang Zotpa, and HHDL’s sister and humanitarian, Jetsun Pema.

We are eternally grateful to Thiksey Rinpoche, KelKhang Rinpoche, Khenrap-la, and countless others for their endless support in crafting transformative experiences in Thiksey, Leh, and beyond.


One of the gems of Thiksey is the figure of Maitreya, the Future Buddha, which was consecrated in 1983 by the Dalai Lama. This 49′ tall statue has a two-story temple built around it, surrounded with vivid wall paintings depicting the life of the Buddha. Upon seeing the Maitreya, the Dalai Lama said,


Rinpoche, you are very lucky. This Maitreya is very beautiful. Even if you see this Maitreya again and again, you will never see it enough; you will always want to see it more–you will never be satisfied. I have seen many statues, but this Maitreya is very special for me. I have never seen a Maitreya like this before.”

Want to see Ladakh for yourself?

Take a minute to check the menu on the top of this web page for upcoming Ladakh trips or shoot us an email.  Jullay!

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