First Published on August 21, 2017
The deep blue abruptly changed to bright red and then equally quickly became yellow. The colorful canvas reflected the gorgeous brown and white mountains Spellbound - I gazed on at the famous 3 idiots lake until finally ... My stupor broke as the fluttering white beauties settled onto the perfectly still landscape
Such is the magic of the famous Pangong Lake Ladakh. I had first seen it in the famed movie – 3 Idiots, and since then, I wanted to visit it. I thought that I would be cured of this craving once I had seen the famous lake but honestly, it only increase after my first trip to Pangong Lake Ladakh. The magic that this glistening blue-colored pool encircled by the huge Himalayas unfolded made sure that I had this high altitude lake of India as a part of my Leh-Ladakh itinerary. And so, happened my 2nd visit to the famous Pangong Tso Lake.
Travel Guide to Pangong Lake Ladakh
- 1 Travel Guide to Pangong Lake Ladakh
- 1.1 Facts about Pangong Tso Lake
- 1.2 History of Pangong Lake
- 1.3 Why should you visit the 3 idiots Lake aka Pangong Lake Ladakh?
- 1.3.1 The ever-changing colors of Pangong Lake Ladakh
- 1.3.2 Perfect reflections on the still waters of Pangong Tso Lake
- 1.3.3 Prayer stones & enchantments around the 3 idiots Lake
- 1.3.4 Spotting the birds, marmots & kiangs at the Ladakh Pangong Lake
- 1.3.5 Experiencing a photographer’s paradise at Pangong Lake Ladakh
- 1.3.6 Night skies and sunrises at Pangong Tso
- 1.4 Places to visit near Pangong Tso Ladakh
- 1.5 Suggested Pangong Lake Itinerary
- 1.6 How to get to Pangong Lake Ladakh?
- 1.7 What is the best time to visit Pangong Lake?
- 1.8 Where to stay at Pangong Lake Ladakh?
- 1.9 What to eat at Pangong Lake?
- 1.10 Do you need a permit to visit Pangong Lake?
- 1.11 Is it safe to visit Pangong Lake?
- 1.12 What should I pack for a visit to Pangong Lake?
- 1.13 What are the other important tips for Ladakh Pangong Lake?
- 1.14 Pin This
- 1.15 Booking resources
Through this travel guide to Pangong Lake Ladakh, I will share all that I know about this gorgeous 3 idiots lake. Besides the valuable information on how to to get to Pangong Lake, what is the best time to visit Pangong Tso, where to stay etc, you will also, be able to witness the enchanting shades of the place. I will not only tell you about the lake, but the various interesting places you will see along the way to Pangong Tso Lake. Don’t be surprised if by the end of this post, you start planning an exclusive Pangong Lake itinerary.
Facts about Pangong Tso Lake
Pangong Lake is often referred to as the Hollow lake and I frankly, don’t know where that term comes from. I thought it might be owing to its literal translation but interestingly, it is not. The word Pangong is derived from the Ladakhi term Banggong and that just means “narrow and enchanted“. If you are going to ask me what the legend behind this enchantment is, trust me, there isn’t any. However, there is a reason which I believe gives it the term enchanting and that reason is something, you will yourself, realize at the end of this Pangong Lake Travel Guide.
In Tibetan, however, the name of the lake means “high grassland lake.” This might make sense to a lot of you, especially if you know that Pangong Lake Ladakh is a high altitude lake. Here are some interesting facts about Pangong Tso Lake.
- Enclosed by the Himalayas, you can visit only one-third part of this lake from India for the remaining lies within China. In fact, when on the Indian side, the ranges that you see behind the magical blue waters of Pangong Tso are actually China.
- The lake is set at around 4350m above sea level and is a saline water body.
- Interestingly, though it is saline, it freezes over in winter and you can witness some ice skating in winter
- The lake has no river flowing into it and despite the same, it never dries up
- Pangong Lake is around 134 km long and the estimated depth is around 91 m.
- The Ramsar Convention has identified Pangong Lake Ladakh as a wetland. If passed, then this lake will become one of the first South Asian wetland and that too, with a transboundary.
History of Pangong Lake
Pangong Lake Ladakh does not have any major legend attached to it. Its history is largely connected to Indo-China relations. As mentioned earlier, only 40% of Pangong Tso Lake falls in India. 50% of the rest is a part of China. The remaining 10% is disputed. The reason for this is that the line of control actually passes through the lake.
There are 8 different points on the north bank called the Pangong Lake fingers where the mountains jut into the lake. The space between the Pangong Lake fingers 4 and 8 is under dispute between India and China. In 1960s, there was some military action between India and China around this disputed area. After that, recently in 2019 and 2020, there was a face-off between the two countries. The tensions did affect the Pangong Lake tourism but for now, things are fine.
Why should you visit the 3 idiots Lake aka Pangong Lake Ladakh?
No doubt that the Ladakh Pangong Lake shot into fame with the movie – 3 idiots and thus, got its name the 3 idiots lake. However, the scenic saline lake has been a backdrop for many other Bollywood movies like Jab Tak Hai Jaan, Tashan and Sanam Re. Naturally so, given the pristine blue water with the mighty Himalayas around it.
Pangong Lake Tourism is not just the landscape that you see in movies. It is much much more than that. Here are the reasons that you must visit Pangong Tso Lake.
The ever-changing colors of Pangong Lake Ladakh
My first trip to Pangong Lake Ladakh had me arrive at the destination at night. There was little I could make out in the dark. The faint sound of water made me realize that the lake was close to our Pangong Lake camp. It was only when the sun rays filtered through my tent that I caught the first sight of the 3 idiots lake. Rushing out, I took in the sight of this lake slowly turning blue from gray. Mesmerizing is the only way I can describe this experience.
The change of colors in the morning light was just the beginning of nature’s kaleidoscope. The light blue changed to a deep blue. The browns and the blacks of the mountains behind the lake enraptured us with their stark contrast to this blue. As one drives around the lake, they will find that the same blue sparkles in various shades -from turquoise to midnight and pale hues.
If this interplay of colors was not enough, the greens of the meadows around the lake add further vibrancy to the scene. The ultimate contrast is when you encounter pools of red setting the whole scene on fire. Of course, there are times over my two trips to Pangong Lake Ladakh that I have seen some oranges and yellows. The colors of Pangong Lake are real and occur due to the high refraction of light in water owing to the high altitude.
Perfect reflections on the still waters of Pangong Tso Lake
The one thing that I could not get enough of was the flawless reflections of the mountains on the Pangong Lake Ladakh. It was like watching a landscape painting but on a canvas of water. The fluffy white clouds around the black snow-capped mountains along the horizon felt as if they were just inverted along the line.
You can see these everywhere – in the main lake and the brackish waters around the lake. The smallest of pools became a watery canvas around Pangong Lake Ladakh. It is almost as if the place is a live gallery showcasing the best of the Pangong Lake landscapes.
Prayer stones & enchantments around the 3 idiots Lake
The enchanting quality of this lake was further heightened by the numerous prayer stones that you can find along its edge. Some stacked in a single pile and some in multiples. Though these were quite unlike the Mani stones that I found at Lamayuru and Thicksey Monasteries of Ladakh, they still had the same calming effect. It somehow felt right to see them there.
My mind ran through various reasons as to their presence here – was it to ward off evil? Or for protection? I don’t know the real reason but here is one that I believed in and made a small stack of my own at Pangong Tso. I think it is just so that you do not get consumed by the magic of the Pangong Tso Lake. 🙂
Spotting the birds, marmots & kiangs at the Ladakh Pangong Lake
For an ornithologist, Ladakh Pangong Lake will be a paradise. It is not unusual to see Brahminy ducks and brown headed gulls swimming along those pretty blue water. If you are lucky, you might even spot the migratory bar-headed geese. Among the smaller birds, watch out for the Black Redstarts and the magpies.
The one critter that I fell in love with is the Himalayan marmots. You will find tons of them popping out of the ground around Pangong Lake and even en route from Leh to Pangong Tso. There are plenty of signs around asking you to stop at the point and check out the himalayan squirrels. If you are lucky, some of them pop out right next to you. They might even sniff you around. However, an appeal here – do not scare them or feed them.
Closer to the side leading to Chushul valley, I did manage to see some of the famous wild asses called Kiang. The majestic creatures are inhabitants of the high altitude area and are quite a sight.
Experiencing a photographer’s paradise at Pangong Lake Ladakh
With the flying gulls and ducks on shining blue water or the sandy mountains reflecting on the lake, even a non-photographer can turn into a photographer. And it is not just about photographing the place, you really would want yourself in it. We got our chance as we landed at this strip where you could walk almost into the lake. It just seemed perfect – not just for a photo shoot but just to sit there with water lapping your toes as you stared into infinity.
Night skies and sunrises at Pangong Tso
To experience the true magic of Ladakh Pangong Lake, I highly recommend a stay here. That is when you can experience the captivating night sky. It is almost always so clear and perfect to even see the milky way. I did not have the right lens to capture the night I saw but there are plenty of pictures of Pangong Tso floating around to tell you what it was like.
The night stay also, allows you to see the morning sunrise where the golden rays slowly turn the grey water to a twinkling blue color.
Places to visit near Pangong Tso Ladakh
The best part of visiting Pangong Tso Ladakh is not just the beauty of the end destination but the journey itself. This is why you need to plan your Pangong Lake itinerary properly – so that you have enough time to stop and enjoy the gems along the way. There are three major routes to get to Pangong Lake that I will be covering in a bit. Irrespective of the route that you take, you are bound to cross these pretty places.
Serene Monasteries and Ladakh palaces
You will encounter a line of monasteries if you are on the route from Leh to Pangong Lake. While you might not be able to stop at all of them, it is highly recommended that you pick at least two or three of them for a quick tour. Here is a quick list with a few links to the ones that I have been to.
- Shey Monastery – The erstwhile summer capital of Ladakh is possibly the first one that you will encounter. The stop should not take you more than 30 minutes but is worthwhile, especially to see the 2nd largest Buddha in Ladakh (spanning 3 floors). You can also, see the ruins of one of Ladakh’s first palaces
- Thiksey Monastery – The picturesque monastery atop the mountains will force you to stop and at least take a picture or two from its base. I did that the first time and it was only during the second trip that I managed to visit it. The tour of the monastery will take you at least one hour and this is where you encounter the Tantric Buddha statues and one of the most serene Buddha statues that I have ever seen.
- Hemis Monastery – Considered as the richest monastery in Ladakh, this one requires more than an hour. For one, it is located a little off the main road and second, it has a very well-curated museum that you should not miss.
- Stakna palace – It is located on a hillock that looks like a tiger’s nose. (Stak meaning tiger and na meaning nose). This can be seen from the main road but needs a diversion. I still haven’t been able to visit it.
- Stok Palace – Almost the last one on the list, this one has been eluding me for a while. I have heard of its rich four-level building built for the royal family when they were ousted from Shey.
Chang La Pass – one of the highest motorable passes in the world
5340 m high, the Chang La Pass turned out to be one of the most thrilling experiences of my Pangong Lake trip. For one, it is quite a climb. The 15 km long pass is a steep and narrow drive up, past stunning waterfalls which might be frozen closer to winter. The pass has loose gravel and the streams often cut across them – making the drive quite a challenge but fun!
The pass is maintained by the Indian Army who warmly welcome you at the Chang La tea point – right at the peak. This is where a temple dedicated to Chang La Baba is located. The myth has it that the pass was named after this saintly figure Chang La Baba. It is customary to seek his blessings before proceeding further.
This is a place where you must not stay more than 20 -25 minutes. The high altitude and the low oxygen levels and cause AMS and that can really affect the rest of your trip. Read more about AMS through this link.
Close to the Chinese border, Spangmik village is along the banks of the lake and is a key one, especially when it comes to looking for accommodation near Pangong Tso. It is a perfect place to experience the culture of the local Changpa tribe who rear Pashmina goats. This is where I camped during my first trip to Pangong Lake Ladakh.
The Tangtse village is not close to Pangong but you are likely to pass it on the way. It has a lovely monastery that you can visit. The 40-household strong village also has a palace and fort that is deemed to be older than the Leh palace. Not much of it is preserved but it is definitely worth a stop.
Suggested Pangong Lake Itinerary
A lot of travelers ask me if it is possible to do a day-trip to Pangong lake from Leh. My answer is always – Yes, it is possible. You can leave early in the morning, reach Pangong by noon and leave in two hours or so to reach Leh by night. However, does that really give you a good experience at Pangong Lake?
This is why I recommend at least one night at Pangong Lake. This is the Pangong Lake itinerary that I suggest one follows –
- Start by 6 am from Leh, stop at either Thiksey or Hemis monastery on the way. (Alternately, any other monastery from the list give above)
- Cross Changla and reach Tangtse. Spend an hour or so here before heading straight to Pangong
- Spend the night at Pangong Lake Ladakh.
- Plan to head back to Leh by around 12 noon the next day. You can choose to visit Spangmik the morning. This will also, allow you to see the various other spots along Pangong Tso Lake.
How to get to Pangong Lake Ladakh?
There are three major routes to reach Pangong Lake in Ladakh.
The only airport in Ladakh is Leh. You can fly down from Delhi or any other major city in India. From Leh, you will need to head via this route to Pangong Lake
Leh – Karu – Chang La – Durbuk – Tangste – Pangong Lake Ladakh
The above route takes around 5 hours for 170 odd kilometers. The roads are fairly well done in most parts but there are quite a few tricky patches that involve heights, rough roads and driving through streams. If you are not used to offroading and driving on the mountains, then, do not attempt a self-drive here. It is better to hire a cab from Leh.
The 2nd route to Pangong Lake is from Nubra Valley in Ladakh. This route takes around 6 – 7 hours to reach the saline water lake. Here too, you will find a lot of stream crossing and rough roads. It goes as follows –
Diskit – Khalsar – Shyok Village – Durbuk – Tangste – Ladakh Pangong Tso
The distance is around 180 km. The route sometimes gets blocked owing to landslides. In fact, though planned, I could not use this road owing to the same reason. I had to head to Leh and then take the first route to get to Pangong Lake from Nubra Valley.
There is one more option if you are in Nubra Valley through Wari La Pass but it takes over 12 hours to reach Pangong Lake.
Diskit – Khalsar – Agham – Tangyar – Wari La – Sakti – Chang La – Durbuk – Tangste – Pangong Lake
The roads are not in great condition and hence, it is better to avoid the same. Also, you will need to ensure that you have a special permit for Wari La (over and above the usual permits) as this is one of the remotest passes of Ladakh.
What is the best time to visit Pangong Lake?
Pangong Lake is best visited in summer between the months of May to October. Even in those months, you will need a down jacket to stay warm. At night, you will need to bundle up in layers. By late September, you will start seeing frozen streams and waterfalls along the way to Pangong Lake. The lake starts freezing around October and remains so till around April.
During winter, the roads get blocked owing to heavy snowfall and landslides. Hence, it is best to check on the conditions before setting out for Pangong Lake Ladakh. Also, note that a lot of the accommodations close during winter. You might only get a homestay or two at Tangtse. In winter, you will be able to walk over the lake as it is completely frozen.
Where to stay at Pangong Lake Ladakh?
There is limited accommodation around Pangong Lake Ladakh. These are generally tents on the banks. Alternately, you can opt for the guesthouses and homestays in Tangtse or Spangmik village. The ones in Spangmik overlook the lake. Most of the Pangong Lake stays are priced at INR 4000 and go upwards from there.
I stayed with Pangong Retreat tents and highly recommend them for their clean accommodation. Each tent has its own bathroom making it a lot more convenient as compared to the homestays where you have to share a common one. The food served is also, fresh and hot water is readily available. I highly recommend this Pangong Lake tent.
Besides this, you could look up Pangong Inn, Hermitage and Pangong residency as your Pangong Lake stay options. All these are around the lake itself and can be booked online using the Booking resources below. You can also, give the homestays in Pangong a try but these can only be booked through local agents in Leh or by approaching the homestay directly.
What to eat at Pangong Lake?
Do not expect elaborate restaurants around 3 idiots Lake. You will only find small tents and maggi points – largely at the more touristy spots of Pangong and Spangmik village. You can opt for hot aloo paranthas, maggis and thukpa (my favorite). You might get a few simple egg dishes like egg burji and boiled eggs at these places.
It is highly recommended that you carry your own snacks and a few food items when heading to Pangong Lake Ladakh. There are no grocery shops to buy any.
Do you need a permit to visit Pangong Lake?
Yes – you do need a permit to visit Pangong Tso Lake. This is called the Inner Line Permits. These can be obtained by filling this form online . However, this will have to be printed and stamped at the Leh Office. Alternately, you can get to Leh and either directly or through your cab services approach the same office between 9 am to 3 pm. For this, you have to show a Government ID and pay a total of around INR 420. Check out more details on this through my travel guide on Ladakh
If you are a foreigner looking to visit Pangong Lake Ladakh, you will need a Protected Area Permit (PAP). Just look up the above website and follow the same procedure for it.
Is it safe to visit Pangong Lake?
Currently, there is no problem in visiting Pangong Lake. It is best to check this site for the travel advisory
What should I pack for a visit to Pangong Lake?
Pay special attention to packing when visiting Pangong Tso. Owing to the high altitude and harsh weather, there are certain essentials that you need to carry. Also, the place is quite remote and devoid of usual shops.
– Clothes – Carry thermals, a down jacket, caps to protect your ears, gloves, all weather shoes and socks. Dress in layers as it is cold all through the year.
– Cameras – Carry an extra set of batteries. They do drain fast in the weather. Chargers are a must
– Sunglasses – At that altitude, the sunlight is super harsh. You definitely need a pair of UV glasses. Polaroid is even better
– Snacks – Carry dry fruits or energy bars. Lots of water for the road and also, a few snacks.
– Medicines – Besides your regular medications, carry a few diamox tablets to help with any possible AMS. If you are prone to motion sickness, carry a few tablets for the same.
What are the other important tips for Ladakh Pangong Lake?
– Swimming and boating are not permitted in the lake. Trust me when I say it is super cold even in summer. A dip here is likely to give you a brain freeze or as they jovially say – Ice cream headache.
– There are no ATMs or phone signals at Pangong Lake. Hence, electronic transactions are out of question. Please ensure you have enough cash with you for the few purchases or Pangong hotel settlements that you need to do
– Please be cognizant of Acute Mountain Sickness – AMS. Refer to this post for all the details. Make sure you are well-rested and hydrate constantly. At high altitude places like Pangong and Chang La, this is a very serious problem.
– The nearest medical facility to Pangong is at Tangtse or Spangmik village.
– If you are planning to drive down, hire a sturdy four-wheel-drive like a Scorpio. Alternately, you can hire a cab from Ladakh. There are shared cabs too, available at the Leh market. The locals really know their roads and it is a good idea to do this if you are not used to mountain driving. There are also, two public buses that leave Leh market to Pangong.
– There are no gas stations on the way to Pangong. Fuel up and carry enough for the road and return journey.
Now that you are sufficiently tempted to visit the 3 idiots lake and see the magic yourself, all you have to do is plan your Pangong itinerary using the tips above. Remember to pin one of these to your board so that you have this post as your ultimate travel guide to Pangong Lake.
- Booking.com has a few options for stays in Tangste in Pangong. You will also, be able to book your Pangong stays in Spangmik through this link.
- Klook.com has several local tours for Pangong lake available for booking online.
- For any of your travel needs or general shopping, consider using Amazon through this link.
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Popularly referred to as a Restless Ball of Energy. My Mom refuses to entertain my complaints about my equally restless daughter & assures my husband that I was born with a travel bug.
I am a Post-Graduate in Marketing by qualification and a travel blogger by passion. Besides travel, I enjoy photography and if you don’t find me at my desk, I would be out playing badminton or swimming or just running. I believe in planning for every long weekend through the year. And when I cannot travel physically, I travel virtually through this travel blog. My travel stories have also, got published on various websites and magazines including BBC Travel, Lonely Planet India and Jetwings. I have recently published my first book – When Places Come Alive – a collection of stories that are based on legends, landscapes, art and culture of a place which is available in both ebook and paperback format.