When you talk about tourist attractions in the Zanskar valley, places like Drang Drung Glacier, Nun-Kun Massif, Pensi La and the twin lakes at the top of the pass take precedence. One of the main reasons behind this is that all of these places are on their way to Kargil and Padum. Therefore, to visit, you do not need to extend your stay in Padum or a special place to stroll. But the Zanskar valley is much more than those few names. I am not saying that the places mentioned above are not worth your time, because they certainly are; but there are also many other tourist attractions that many people do not visit, but that are definitely a marvel. One of those places that I want to talk about in this article is the beautiful Phugtal Monastery, which in many ways can be termed as the hidden jewel of the Zanskar valley.
For a brief introduction, Phugtal Monastery, also known as Phuktal Monastery or Phugtal Gompa, is a Buddhist monastery located in the remote Lungnak Valley, in the southeast of Zanskar. It is one of the only Buddhist monasteries in Ladakh that can still be reached on foot. Supplies for the monastery are brought in on horses, donkeys and mules in the warmer months; and the frozen Zanskar River in winter. A road to the monastery is expected to be built; however, for now, it is a day’s walk from Dorzang, the end of the road that leads to Padum.
Interesting fact is that this monastery is built around a natural cave and now houses a temple, prayer rooms, a library, kitchen, accommodation, holy spring and about 70 monks in total.
Because it is located in a cave (as you can see in the image above), the Phugtal Monastery is also known as “Cave Monastery” or “Gompa Cave”. Its name Phuktal is derived from the word Phukthal; where Phuk means “cave”; and Tal or Thal means “leisure”. An alternative spelling of the name is Phukthar, where Thar means “liberation”. Putting the words together, the name Phuktal Monastery means ‘Monastery of the cave of leisure’ or ‘Monastery of the cave of liberation’.
Throughout the description, visiting this monastery seems like a lot of fun, which it really is. A walk to the gompa offers stunning views of Zanskar; and a vision of the simple life of the people of Zanskari and their Lamas. So, why don’t people visit here? Well, on the one hand, it’s a walk to a cave that many people don’t want. As I mentioned above, it is one of the last remaining monasteries in Ladakh that are still accessible only on foot. In recent years, road connectivity has been created for almost all remote monasteries in the region, but Phugtal still requires tourists to walk all the way. The hike can also be a little challenging and sometimes scary, which isn’t really everyone’s cup of tea.
Time needed for walking in Phugtal monastery
Second, including Phugtal in your itinerary means adding at least another 2 day stay in Zanskar, which not everyone can afford to do. It is not a day of walking and, to be honest, you will have to dedicate a total of three days if you want to walk without haste. If you are in a hurry, you can complete it in 2 days, but extending the trip for those days can also be a challenge for some people, due to which they end up skipping Phuktal completely. Even I didn’t go there during my first trip to Zanskar and only did it when I visited Zanskar for the second time last year.
If, however, you have time and want to walk a little up and down the hills, a visit to Phugtal Monastery is highly recommended.
How to get to Phugtal Monastery
To reach Phugtal Monastery, you will first have to reach the small town of Padum, which is also the administrative center of Zanskar. From Padum, then, you will drive for about 30 kilometers to the village of Ichar, also called Lchar. The road will end in Ichar and from now on it is a hike to the end. The Google map will show a motorized road to Anmo, which is not really the case. The dirt road that previously existed until Anmo was washed away by the Zanskar floods in 2015 and has not yet been restored. For now, you can only drive to Ichar (and a little further after the village, in fact) and then you will have to walk to Phuktal Gompa.
You will be hiking for several kilometers over a period of at least 2 days. The walk in some places will also become very narrow and a little difficult to handle. There are two ways in which you can approach the monastery; one is via Chah village and the other is Purne village. I explained these two routes later in this article, but the Purne route is a little wider and easier. You can also,
Go up to the gompa via Anmo and Chah; and return the same way
Go up to the gompa via Anmo and Purne; and return the same way
Or go up on Anmo and Chah and back on Purne; or vice versa. I will recommend doing the walk this way.
A minimum of 2 days is required to cover the Phugtal Monastery. If you can add another day and take a three-day trip, it would be more fun and more enjoyable.
Walk to Phuktal Monastery
Below is a detailed description of how you can complete the hike to Phuktal Monastery. First, I will explain the journey spread over a total of 3 days; which will ensure that you walk in a relaxed way and enjoy many sightseeing tours. This also required you to spend two nights as a paying guest in the local villages; which, in turn, will give you some time to chat with the locals and sample their culture.
If, however, you have little time, later in this article, I will also explain how you can complete the entire journey in 2 days; returning to Padum at the end of the night on day 2. Your route will be as mentioned below.
- Padum to Ichar: 1.5 hours by car
- Ichar to Anmo / Anmu: approximately 4 to 5 hours walk
- Anmo to Cha: 2 hours walk
- Cha to Phugtal Monastery: 2 – 3 hours walk
- Phugtal Monastery at Purne: 2-hour walk
- Purne to Anmo: 2 hours walk
- Anmo to Ichar: 4-5 hours of walking
- Ichar to Padum: 1.5 hours by car
From Padum, hire a private taxi to take you to Ichar. You will also have to ask that driver to pick you up on your way back to Padum. If you arrived in Padum with your own vehicle, you will have to leave your car or motorcycle parked in Ichar. My advice would be that you leave it parked at the hotel only in Padum and rent a taxi to travel to and from Ichar. Depending on your negotiation skills, this will cost between Rs. 3000 to Rs. 4000 for a drop to Ichar; and resume your way back.
Day 1 – Padum a Chah
The small and beautiful village of Chah will become your destination for the first day. The journey today will be a mix of walking and trekking. Ichar, as I mentioned, is the last village accessible by road on this route. It is approximately 30 kilometers from Padum and will take approximately 1.5 to 2 hours to complete.
In fact, the road goes a little further ahead of Ichar village, so ask the driver to drop you as far as possible. This will slightly reduce the distance of your journey. From Ichar, it will take you about 4-5 hours to reach Anmo; and then another 2 hours to reach Chah from there; so, plan your journey accordingly. Your choice of accommodation is only in the form of paying guest and is available in Anmu and Chah. However, I recommend that you try a little and arrive in Chah on the first day, instead of interrupting the journey in Anmu. If you were planning to complete the hike in 2 days, it is extremely important that you start early from Padum and arrive in Cha.
Your stay as a paying guest will be very basic and simple, but comfortable. Remember that you are staying with a simple resident, so as not to keep your expectations too high. The food provided will also be very simple, but delicious enough.
Day 2 – Cha to Phugtal Monastery until Purne
If done in a relaxed manner and with a relaxed pace, the entire walk will take no more than 6 hours. This will give you plenty of time to spend at the monastery talking to the Lamas and observing their lifestyle. Spend time with your host in Cha and start from 8 am to 9 am in Cha. The walk from Chah to Phugtal is a little narrow and difficult in some places; if possible, ask a local resident to accompany you. You will obviously pay him for your services during the day; but it will facilitate navigation and the completion of the journey in time, instead of trying on your own.
It will take you about 2-3 hours to reach Phuktal monastery from Chah. If you got here in time, you can actually have lunch at the monastery with all the monks. Spend some time touring the gompa and then start your way back, but this time to reach the village of Purne. It will take you two or three more hours to return from Phuktal to Purne. So, start your journey just in time.
There are two ways to plan that day. You can go from Chah to Phugtal Monastery and back to Chah; or you can go to Purne, which is across the river Lungnak. Personally, I would recommend going to Purne and staying there on this day. A third way would be to return to Padum, which I talked about later in the article.
Day 3 – Purne to Padum
From Purne (or Chah, if that’s where you stayed the night), you’ll first take a walk back to the village of Anmo, which will take about 2 hours to complete. Take a break at Anmo and start back to Ichar, which will take another 4-5 hours to complete. In Ichar, your taxi driver will be waiting and will take you back to your hotel in Padum.
How to complete the walk in Phuktal monastery in 2 days
If you have little time, you can also complete the walk in 2 days. The journey will be a little rushed and will give you less time to spend at the monastery; but it is doable, however. Your journey on day 1 will remain the same as I explained above. You will start from Padum in the morning, drive to Ichar, start the hike and interrupt the journey in ChaVillage for one night.
On day 2, however, start with the first light of day. Keep a good pace and aim to reach the monastery between 9 and 10 am. It will be a long walk, so an early start is required. You will be walking a little distance and will also need to return to Padum before it gets dark. Arrive at the monastery from 9 to 10 am; spend some time there and go back to Purne. From Purne, you will return to Anmo and then return to the village of Ichar by the same route. After that, it’s an hour’s drive back to Padum, where you’ll arrive late at night.
Night at Phugtal Monastery
Another way to do this walk is to spend a night at the monastery. You can start from Padum on day 1 and reach Phuktal in the evening. Then, on day 2, you can return to Padum.
A better way to do this, however, is to arrive at Cha Village on day 1 and spend the night there. On day 2, arrive at the monastery and spend the whole day observing the simple lifestyle of the lamas. Spend some time there in complete peace and tranquility and learn about its culture. On the third day, you will be able to travel back to Padum.
Staying at Phuktal can take two forms. You can stay in the guest house, located about half a kilometer before the monastery. Or you can talk to the monks and ask them to give you a room in the monastery itself. They will let you stay and accept any amount of money you offer in return. They will not quote a price on their own; it will be entirely up to you how much to pay.
Accommodation on the promenade at Phugtal monastery
For accommodation, the option to stay as a paying guest is available in the village of Anmo, Chah and Purne. If you want to stay in a guest house, this option is available in Purne or in the monastery itself. However, these two guest houses are also very simple and basic, but the one at Phuktal Monastery has an attached bathroom.
Many people are looking forward to camping on the trail. If you were also carrying your own equipment, you can set up your tent in any of the villages. Please make sure that you don’t go camping in the middle of nowhere. Camp near a local’s house and pay him a little to give him a place to set up his tent.
Other facilities on the route
There are shops in the villages of Anmu, Cha and Purne, where you can buy some basic products. You can have tea and snacks at Anmo and Chah. Medical assistance is only available in the village of Chah, at the health center here.
Telephone services in Phuktal Trek
There is no network available anywhere on the route. BSNL provides coverage in Padum, but connectivity is very poor. After leaving Padum, even BSNL will stop working and the phone will have the paper weight.
However, satellite phones are available in the village of Cha and the monastery. Therefore, in an emergency, a call can be made at these two locations.
Make sure to bring at least 2 liters of water for each of the 3 to 4 hours of walking. Carry a bottle that is not too heavy or difficult to transport; one that you can fill in every village on the way. You can also buy snacks in the villages, but you can also bring some chocolates or cookies from Padum itself. It would also be wise to bring some basic medicines for headache, stomach pain, body pain or fever.
The sun at this altitude is very severe and can cause severe burns. Please bring a cap that covers your face well and a sunscreen lotion of higher SPF. Wear some warm clothes, as they can get very cold in the morning and at night. Cold cream and lip balm will be very useful. The sun will be severe not only on your skin, but also on your eyes, so carry a pair of sunglasses as well.