Bewitched by the 3 Idiots Lake – A Travel guide to Pangong Lake Ladakh

posted in: Asia, India, Jammu & Kashmir, Nature | 55
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.

The famous 3 idiots lake aka Pangong Lake in Ladakh

Travel Guide to Pangong Lake Ladakh

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

A high altitude saline water lake that freezes in winter - Pangong Lake Ladakh

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

The mountains across Pangong Tso Lake belonging to China

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?

The 3 idiots climax scene at Pangong Lake.

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

Sunrise at Pangong Tso 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 plethora of colors around Pangong Lake Ladakh

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.

The colors of Pangong Lake Ladakh
Green color of the Ladakh Pangong Lake - also called 3 idiots lake

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

Reflections seen at the Ladakh Pangong 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.

More Pangong Lake pictures capturing the reflection of the sky
A piece of the sky and the mountains in the still waters around Pangong Lake Ladakh

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

Prayer stones at Pangong Lake Ladakh

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.

The heaps that create the mystic environment of Pangong Tso

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

Brown headed gull at Pangong Lake Ladakh

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.

Marmot and me near Pangong Tso Lake

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.

Kiang at Pangong Tso Lake

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

Me during my first Pangong Lake Trip

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

Sunrise over Ladakh Pangong Lake

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

Driving along Pangong Tso

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

Thiksey Monastery near Leh

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

The ascend to Chang La Pass

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!

At ChangLa Pass - one of the highest motorable passes in Ladakh

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.

Chang La Baba temple at the Changla pass in Ladakh

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.

Spangmik Village

Pangong Lake Ladakh - as seen from Spangmik Village

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.

Tangtse Village

The pretty river near the Tangtse village in 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

How much time do you need at Pangong Lake Ladakh?

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?

The Kharu-Changla Road that takes you to Pangong Lake

What is the best time to visit Pangong Lake?

What is the best time to visit Pangong Lake Ladakh?

Where to stay at Pangong Lake Ladakh?

Pangong Lake Retreat - one of the places to stay at Pangong Lake

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?

Streams that you will have to cross enroute to Pangong Lake - make sure you have a good 4x4 vehicle

Pin This

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 resources

  • There are a few properties in Spangmik available on Booking.com. You could use the link given to book your stay there.
  • Another online resource for your hotels around Pangong Lake would be Tripadvisor and their partners. 
  •  Klook.com has a listing or two for a Pangong Lake Tour. You could use the given links to check the same out and book one for yourself. The Pangong Lake itinerary offered is for not just a single day but even a night stay.
  • For any of your travel or home needs, consider using Amazon using this link. You definitely need good thermal jackets, water proof hiking shoes, caps, thermals and sun glasses. 
Disclaimer: This article includes affiliate links. This means that at no cost to you, I will receive a small commission if you purchase through my link. Thank you for supporting me with this. 
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