Spiti or Ladakh? How to choose between the two arid jewels of Himalayas

Sunday, May 15, 2016

When I first visited Ladakh in 2008, it ended up becoming my most impulsive trip ever! With no prior information, no prior planning, no proper clothing, me and my family took off on a whim from Srinagar ditching Kullu/Manali and had the adventure of our lifetime. Luckily at that point, Ladakh was still wild, pristine and lived up to its reputation as one of the most badass road trips in the world. Flights weren't as common as they are today and getting Leh'd meant not just Pangong or Khardunga La. It was the promise of a rugged journey that was the defining trait of a Ladakh road trip. Leh - Manali Highway and Leh - Srinagar road journeys were as harrowing as legendary. Pangong wasn't a place where 3 Idiots was shot and Khardung La was not a place where boys would get semi naked for a selfie!

Ladakh wasn't a destination then, it was more a feeling of arriving blind into an unknown land crossing unexpected hurdles. In the age of death-by-information-overload and listicles pontificating in painful detail about how you should feel when visiting Ladakh, the charm of the once undisputed king of offbeat journeys is at the end of its tether burdened by its own glorious past.

Dusk at Mudh, Pin Valley National Park, Spiti
Meanwhile, Spiti, that has always played second fiddle to its more famous cousin, is slowly creeping up into the mainstream zeitgeist as an alternative to the now-bucketlisted-and-discarded Ladakh. With a reasonably well-to-do agrarian community, Spiti hasn't yet fully woken up to its so-called "tourism" potential and that has become its biggest hallmark! It's amazing that a small strip of a valley could give such fierce competition to the vastness of Ladakh but that's probably a true testament to the allure of pristine mountain cultures and landscapes.

While both Ladakh and Spiti share a similar culture and landscape, the resemblance is only skin-deep. Beyond the prejudices and preferences of eager travellers, both Spiti and Ladakh have plenty to offer to the discerning and it's hard to pick one over the other. However, based on personal proclivities and travel styles, you could have an easier time of choosing one because unfortunately in real world, we can't have it all. If by any chance you can, go to Spiti and Ladakh both!

If not, this table might help you decide.

P.S - In case you're wondering why you should listen to me, I have been to Ladakh six times and Spiti thrice so far.

Tashigong, frontier village in Spiti Thicksey Monastery in Ladakh
SPITI LADAKH
Minimum time required to reach (Ex-Delhi)
2 Days 1hr
Ease of Access
It takes at least 2 days to get in and 2 more to get out. The journeys are long and tiring. You'll have to reach either Manali or Shimla and change another bus/jeep to get to Spiti. From Manali, it takes a day and from Shimla, it takes 2 days by road.
Comfort Level: Low
There was once a time where reaching Leh took at least 3 days. Now all it takes is two flights from down south and you're there at the roof of the world in half a day! Also, the roads are much better compared to Spiti.
Comfort Level: High
Open Season
Technically open all year round but road blocks are common and travel within the valley is restricted during off season, which is pretty much most of the year except June to October. Open all year around thanks to flights. Within Ladakh, roads are kept open by the Indian army so you can get around easily all through the year.
Tourist Infrastructure
Minimal
There are now guesthouses/homestays in many of the major villages across Spiti but getting around isn't as easy as Ladakh. You'll have to hitchhike or walk if you don't come with your own vehicle. There's only one ATM in the valley and forget Internet while you're here.
Well developed
All ranges of hotels/guesthouses available and it's very easy to find a shared ride to many of the famous places of Ladakh. Multi cuisine restaurants, Internet cafes, Bike/Equipment Rentals, Trek Operators etc, you have all of these in Leh.
Altitude and Acclimatization
Most of the villages in Spiti are at a height in between 3800m and 4500m, which makes acclimatization a major concern considering it is not easy to get out of the valley. Kaza is the only place that has a big hospital which proves to be inadequate most of the time since the only cure to AMS is going to lower altitude.Leh is at 3500m but all other places of interest are between 4000m and 5800m high. Acclimatization wise, Leh is a perfect base to get your body used to the low oxygen before heading into higher grounds. Evacuation out of Leh, in case of a casualty, is super convenient and there are plenty of army camps across the region to help with basic medical aid in worst case scenario.
Major Attractions

  • In Spiti, the biggest attraction at the moment is the lack of crowd. 
  • Here, you can still expect to walk into a village or a food joint/cafe and strike up a conversation with fellow travellers or locals. 
  • The villages are much more atmospheric, accessible and picturesque.
  • Highly recommended for solo/independent travellers and those who enjoy sauntering.

  • The variety of landscape in Ladakh is unparalleled. From shimmering blue lakes to vast plateaus to big mountains, there's plenty to see here.
  • The area is so huge, you can escape the crowds easily whenever you want to.
  • Brok Pa people, Islamic community, Buddhists, Changthang nomads and more. There's a huge variety in the culture as well.
  • I want to add landscapes again because the scenery in Ladakh is so epic, I can't explain in words but perhaps repetition will drive home the point.
Going Offbeat
Kind of difficult to go offbeat in Spiti as there are not many options in the valley to be fair. But it works now because entire Spiti itself is offbeat so far, like how Ladakh was probably 10 years ago.

Any exploits to go beyond the usual path would require a lot of planning and support from locals. The valley's only artery, the national highway is limiting when it comes to exploration. However, smaller metal roads to the far flung villages of the valley can provide an exhilarating alternative to those interested in offroading.
Ladakh is so vast, it's a gold mine for offbeat explorers. Beyond the well trodden paths, there's a whole other world waiting to be explored. Since it is also an army bastion, there are little traversed routes that can take you to the most remote corners of the region like Chumur, Demchok, Hanle, Chushul etc.

Ladakh is the classic case of the journey being more important that the destination. You might have seen Pangong Tso before but reaching there through Chushul/Tsaga La in Changthang or via Agham/Shyok route from Hunder is the stuff that dreams are made of!
Best suited for
Culture vultures/Independent travellers Landscape lovers/Road trip aficionados
Lakes
Dhankar Lake and Chandratal, both need hiking.
Vehicles can't reach
Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri among many others. Vehicles can reach both.
P.S - Spiti's lakes are no match for these two mammoths!
Monasteries
Kye and Dhankar whose location and setting is unmatched!
There are plenty of old monasteries in Spiti apart from these two but none as big as those in Ladakh.
There are more monasteries here in Ladakh than you can visit. You'll be spoilt for choice.

Advice for first timers:

Despite reading all the differences and still unsure which one to choose out of the two, here's my advice.
If you're only going to visit Leh, Pangong, Tso Moriri and Khardung La in Ladakh, I'd recommend Spiti as you'll have a much more immersive experience there when compared to the now done-to-death Ladakh trip. In case you'll be going beyond these well known places, I'd recommend Ladakh all the way!

Kiagar Tso, Ladakh

Does this help you decide between Spiti and Ladakh?

Let me know in the comments if you need me to add something else!

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28 comments

  1. I think one of the most important differences that you missed was the fact that reaching Spiti in itself is a huge thrill.
    While taking the Shimla route, you pass through almost all major districts of Himachal Pradesh and the cultural diversity at unparalleled.
    Also, the stop over at Reckong Peo/Kalpa is an independent destination in itself.

    But overall, you've listed things beautifully. I've always wanted this comparison to advocate Spiti over Ladakh. :D

    I visited Spiti last year and I have been in love with the place ever since. Another important point i'd like to add is the opportunity to volunteer/live with the locals in Spiti. It is an experience that broadens your horizon like nothing else..

    Love reading your blog. Keep writing!

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    1. Hello! Thanks for the comment: am in love with the valley too... How can you volunteer in Spiti, please? Any link or more precise hint? Thank you!

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    2. Contact incredible spiti Web site Mr. VISHESH SHOURIE. He has many options on internship in Spiti

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    3. For those wanting to volunteer in Spiti, contact Spiti Ecosphere. It is run by Ishita Khanna and is the oldest NGO in Spiti. They have brilliant tours and volunteering options

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    4. True that! Spiti is best suited for cultural explorations, so easy to mingle with the villagers in Spiti. Lovely people.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting! :)

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  2. lovely read and a true comparison between both these heavenly places..
    I have been in love with spiti since I visited it..and secretly wish that it doesn't become a ladakh in time and stays the raw beauty it is.

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    Replies
    1. I fully agree with you... as N. rightly pointed out about Ladakh ten years ago...

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    2. I love Spiti too but I think I love Ladakh more! :)

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  3. Hello N.! Thanks for the beautiful pics and precise useful information - you're a pro! How can I also commment your pics on FB, please? (It seems all we can do is "like" your posts)?

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    1. Thank you, glad you found it useful! :) And about the comments on facebook, if you can like, you should be able to comment as well. Not sure why it isn't working for you. Try again?

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  4. Lovely piece...thanks for the details!

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  5. I have never believed in comparisons. But this is such a wonderful work, Neelima. Would love to club both sometime this year.

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    1. Thanks Niranjan, that's the best thing to do, club both! :)

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  6. Loved it! Especially the "P.S."
    And agree with them all. Quite like my own thoughts after I'd been to Spiti about 2 years ago :)

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    1. Thought I should make it clear just in case someone doubted my "wisdom"! ;)
      Thanks Elita.

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  7. Oh my god Neelima, you have confused me even more :P I think my safest bet is going to be doing both. Ah come on universe, this year and the next year Ladakh and Spiti! Knock, knock universe? :)

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    1. Ha ha, seems like I've done a terrible job of it then! And yes, if possible, visiting both is what I'd highly recommend. Make it happen! :)

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  8. awesome post!!!! i did get a chance to visit spiti late last year!!! still waiting for a chance to visit ladakh!

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    1. thank you! i hope so too..! meanwhile, if you can check out my blog posts at thetransientsoul.wordpress.com, and maybe give me some pointers, it would be great!

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  9. Good comparison in that table, very succinct and helpful for first timers.

    I hope you get to go to the crown jewel, Zanskar - soon enough. I found out in February, that Spiti has been done to death as well. :(

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  10. Wow! The number of times you've been there just makes me go like.. "so lucky you" :D Yet to go there. Soon! :)

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  11. Reading your post has made me eagerly look forward to visiting both these fascinating places! Thanks for providing such intricate details about Spiti and Ladakh. :)

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  12. Very, very well written post.
    Beautiful places to visit with chill climate.
    Thank you for sharing.

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  13. thanks for this post neelima. I have decided that my next trip will be to Spiti. Another reason for selecting Spiti is, 'every second person these days is going to Ladakh', so i should do something off-beat. ;)

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