Ladakh

A Quick Guide To Himalayan Buddhist Sites

So you’re planning a trip to the Himalaya and you keep reading about the stupa, chorten, mani, lhakhang, gompa, and dzong that you will see along the way. Wait … the what?

These terms can be confusing to travellers who aren’t so familiar with Buddhism, so we’ve put together a quick guide to help you understand what they all mean. Use this guide so you can spend more time enjoying - and understanding - what you’re seeing, and less time getting lost in language.  

1.     Gompa = Monastery

Ubiquitous in the Himalaya, gompa means monastery. Gompa can range in size from small structures to village-like campuses, but all serve the same purpose of educating monks or nuns and taking care of their surrounding lay community’s religious needs.

Gompa usually contain a courtyard, assembly hall used for prayer services, apartments for the monks, various temples, scripture halls, and a communal kitchen. Their primary function is as a university – engaging students in programmes of study to take them from novice to graduate geshe (the Buddhist equivalent of a PhD) over time. You may see children as young as seven years old who have been sent to begin their monastic education, as new entrants are welcome at any age.

A secondary function, which enables the gompa to partially provide for itself, is as a company providing religious services to the surrounding community. These services include the performance of rituals, reciting of prayers for ill or deceased loved ones, and selling blessed objects for protection or spiritual development.

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2.     Lhakhang = Temple

Lhakhang comes from the Tibetan language, and means “House of the Gods”, which we translate into English as temple or chapel. Lhakhang can exist both inside monasteries and separately, and some big monasteries will have multiple different lhakhang that you will visit.

Each lhakhang is dedicated to a specific god or saint, who you will see images of on the main altar inside. Many Himalayan monasteries will also have a gonkhang, which is a different type of temple dedicated to the wrathful protector deities. Gonkhang are dark and disquieting places, and women are traditionally forbidden from entering them.

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3.     Stupa/Chorten

Whether you hear it called a stupa or a chorten, this word means the same thing (stupa is from the Sanskrit language, chorten is from the Tibetan). This is one of the most recognisable Buddhist sites you’ll see across the Himalaya, and serves several different functions.

One function is as a reliquary – housing the remnants of the Buddha, his disciples, or saints. As well as ashes or bodily relics, these remnants can also be important scriptures, which are regarded as the speech of the Buddha, or a saint’s begging bowl.

Stupa can also serve a symbolic function, representing events in the life of the Buddha, or aspects of Buddhist theology. These ones are subtly differentiated by their shape and form, see if you can spot the differences!  

4.     Dzong = Fortress

This term is primarily found in Bhutan, as the fortresses of old in Nepal and Tibet are mostly in ruin nowadays. Dzong means fortified place, and can be used to refer either to a fortified watchtower or fortified palace.

In Bhutan, dzong are usually part-administrative and part-monastic, reflecting the duality and close connection of religion and government in the country. Their strong structure was necessary during past conflict and invasions, but these days serve only peaceful purposes.

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5.     Mani = Prayer

You’ll see and hear the word mani used plenty in the Himalaya, usually referring to either mani wheels (prayer wheels) or mani walls, which are long walls made of piles of stones that have been carved with auspicious prayers.

You may also think that prayer flags would be called “mani flags”, but in fact they’re not! Prayer flags are referred to as “lung-ta” which means “windhorse”, in reference to the idea that as the wind blows, it will carry the prayers on its back like a galloping horse.

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 6.     Lha-tse = Mountain God’s Shrine

Although you may not hear these words said much, you’ll definitely see the site they refer to on your Himalayan journey. Lha-tse refers to the small shrines planted at the top of hills or mountains, dedicated to the local mountain gods. Usually decorated with prayer flags, and sometimes armed with wooden spears or swords, these are maintained by local villagers for the purpose of appeasing the mountain gods, in a tradition that pre-dates Himalayan Buddhism.

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Now you know your lhakang from your lha-tse, we hope you enjoy exploring the Himalayas in confidence.

Haven’t booked yet? Contact us to have a chat about where you’d like to go in the Himalayas, get inspired by our Bhutan, Ladakh, Nepal and Tibet itineraries, and share this post with a friend who’s going there too.

Eight Buddhist Pilgrimages in the Himalaya that Every Buddhist Should Take

Eight Buddhist Pilgrimages in the Himalaya that Every Buddhist Should Take

Looking to combine your next adventure with a spiritual journey? Explore these well and lesser-known Buddhist pilgrimages in the Himalayas. The Buddhist power-places of Bhutan, Tibet, Ladakh and Nepal have many possibilities.

Is Trekking in the Himalayas Hard?

Many people like the idea of trekking in the Himalayas (whether that’s Nepal, Ladakh, or Bhutan) but don’t know whether it would be too far out of their physical comfort zone. There’s also a lot of confusion between mountain climbing and mountain trekking. Yes, thousands of people flock to Nepal each year to trek to Everest, but only a fraction of these actually attempt to climb the mountain! You don’t need to be a uber-fit superhero to enjoy trekking in the Himalayas.

Like many things in life, trekking in the Himalayas is easier and more enjoyable if you have a reasonable level of fitness. If you regularly attend yoga classes, the gym, go for bike rides, long walks, or swim, a Himalayan trek should not be outside your comfort zone. Of course, if you have any particular health issues—especially related to the joints, lungs, or heart—you should seek professional medical advice before planning a trip. But the Himalayas offer everything from low-altitude jaunts to weeks-long expeditions at high altitude, as well as everything in between.

It’s also important to realise that fitness and the body’s reaction to high altitudes are not related. Some very fit trekkers can feel the effects of altitude badly, whereas averagely fit trekkers may have no problems at all. There are ways to mitigate the effects of altitude but fitness is not necessarily one of them.

Here are a few different options for travellers with varying levels of fitness.

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‘Easy’

No Himalayan treks are necessarily ‘easy’. They all involve uphill and downhill walking over uneven terrain, often at high altitude and while staying in basic accommodation. But the following treks are popular among less experienced trekkers.

Annapurna Panorama Trek, Nepal

This trek is perfect for travellers wanting a short (four night) but spectacular trek in Nepal. Climb from pretty river scenery through beautiful rhododendron forests to Ghorepani, then up to Poon Hill for sunrise. The panoramic view from here of Dhaulagiri and the Annapurna range is superb. The trek continues through abundant rhododendron forests to a number of Gurung villages and more spectacular mountain views from Tadapani, before returning to Pokhara via Ghandruk. The highest altitude reached is at Poon Hill, which is 3,210 metres, but nights are spent at a lower altitude that should not cause any problems. This trek does involve a steep ascent up many stone steps on the first day, so trekkers should definitely carry poles to help the body along.

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Sham Valley Trek, Ladakh

The whole of Ladakh is high-altitude, and the capital city of Leh—where most travellers arrive—is over 3,000 metres. The highest point on the Sham Valley Trek is 3,800 metres. It’s really important that trekkers in Ladakh give themselves several days to acclimatise before heading off on a trek. Once that’s done, the Sham Valley Trek is an easy option. The three-four day route allows you to meander through the midst of Ladakh’s barren yet oftentimes surprisingly colourful landscape, pass monasteries, and stay in cut village homestays with the local people.

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Mid-level

If you know you’re pretty fit but don’t want to exhaust yourself while on the trip of a lifetime, check out one of these medium-difficulty options. They will challenging you without requiring years of training beforehand.

Druk Path Trek, Bhutan

The five-day Druk Path trek is one of Bhutan’s most famous. It highlights the great diversity of Bhutan’s landscape. It passes through a gorgeous landscape of blue pine forests, high ridges and pristine lakes. There’s also the opportunity to visit ancient dzongs and villages. The highest altitude reached is 4,235 m, so it’s important to take your time. Find out when is the best time to visit Bhutan here.

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Mardi Himal, Nepal

Mardi Himal is an under-visited mountain with a recently developed trekking trail that’s waiting to be explored. The mountain landscape is as spectacular as the nearby Annapurna region, but the trek itself is less challenging than the Annapurna Base Camp trek. This trek is an ideal option for adventurous travellers who want to get off the beaten path. Walk though pristine rhododendron forests (especially vibrant in March-April), cloud forests, and charming villages to high-altitude pastures where yaks graze. From Mardi Himal Base Camp, the entire Annapurna range is visible, including Hiunchuli, Annapurna South, and Machhapuchhre (Fishtail). Follow the Mardi Khola Valley for part of the way. If you are looking for a short, rewarding trek with stunning mountain views without the crowds, the Mardi Himal trek is the perfect choice. The highest altitude reached is 4,450 metres.

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Challenging

If you’ve done a lot of trekking before, and consider yourself fit and up for a challenge, there are plenty of choices in the Himalayan region. Longer, more difficult treks require good support, so make sure you have a good guide and porter.

Three Passes Trek, Nepal

The Three Passes Trek offers unparalleled views of dramatic summits and captivating valleys. Take in the entire Himalayan Range from Chukking-Ri and Gokyo-Ri, including the best views of Mount Everest’s summit. Follow the well-worn trail to Everest Base Camp via Kala Patthar before leaving the main trail to climb the Cho La Pass to the cobalt blue Gokyo Lakes and on to Gokyo Ri. The views are spectacular and you will see the spectacle of the Khumbu Icefall cascading from the Western Cwm. Crossing the Renjo La pass, follow a little of the route used for centuries by the Tibetan Traders via Nangpa La to get to Thame. Following the classical route, drop down to Lukla and fly back to Kathmandu. The highest altitude reached is 5,540 metres, which is very high, so be well prepared and know how to act if you or anyone in your party succumbs to altitude sickness.

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Laya Gasa Trek, Bhutan

Trekking in Bhutan is like nowhere else in the Himalayas. It’s an untouched natural wonderland. Rated as one of Bhutan’s most spectacular, the Laya Gasa trek takes you to Bhutan’s northern border with Tibet. Enjoy fabulous views of snow-capped mountains and experience the unique culture of the friendly Layap people in a truly remote corner of the Himalayas. If you’re trekking in October, don't miss the annual Royal Highlander Festival that takes place in Laya. See the local people showcasing their unique culture over a two-day event in the remote countryside. The highest altitude reached is 5,005 metres, so be prepared to stop or take it slow if you need to.

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Shopping for Handicrafts in Nepal, Bhutan & Ladakh

Shopping for Handicrafts in Nepal, Bhutan & Ladakh

A fun addition to any trek or sightseeing tour across the Himalaya is a morning or afternoon of retail therapy. There are so many beautiful products available across Nepal, Bhutan and Ladakh, but, there is also a lot of poor quality ‘tourist tat’. If you have limited time for shopping in the region and want to go directly to the best places, follow our handy guide to shopping for handicrafts in Nepal, Bhutan and Ladakh.

A Handy Packing List for Trekking in the Himalaya

A Handy Packing List for Trekking in the Himalaya

As experienced Himalayan travellers, we have had plenty of trial and error with our packing styles. While the different regions of the Himalaya have different climates and conditions, there are many important similarities. When planning a trek in Nepal, Bhutan or Ladakh, it’s important that you pack properly. You don’t need to pack the kitchen sink, but under-packing or over-packing can both ruin a trip.

Choosing the Best Trek in the Himalaya for Your Needs

Choosing the Best Trek in the Himalaya for Your Needs

If you think trekking in the Himalaya is all about super-challenging hours upon hours of walking then we’re here to tell you about many different options. Here are a few options of the best treks in the Himalaya for your individual needs.