The most intrepid travelers have long been making a pilgrimage to the Buddhist kingdom of Ladakh to experience its supernatural mountain landscape and a Buddhist culture seemingly preserved in amber. High in the Himalayas, wedged between Pakistan and China, the tiny Indian region is a land of monasteries, stupas, and forgotten villages all dressed up in fluttering prayer flags.
Once only on the itineraries of backpackers, the creation of Shakti Ladakh has opened the region up to the PRIOR traveler. The latest in a string of Himalayan projects by Indian hospitality legend Jamshyd Sethna and his daughter Maia, it sees six faithfully Ladakhi farmhouses punctuate the region in a dispersed hotel where walking from house to house is encouraged. The staff and guides are so thoroughly embedded in your experience that there is never a false note of cultural voyeurism. Rare is the hotel that so seamlessly integrates into the landscape and the culture—a stay at Shakti Ladakh is to feel as if the entire region is within the hotel’s grounds.
Style & Surrounds
The design? The genius of the Shakti project—and it does often feel more like an exercise in anthropology than a hotel at times—is the way it respects and helps to retain the culture of Ladakh. Nowhere is this more tangibly evident than in the renovation of the traditional farmhouses that act as accommodation. In an extremely unorthodox approach, Shakti has helped to restore the local families’ homes and, in a timeshare-style arrangement, take the houses over in the summer when the locals can sleep in other, less-insulated properties. In the winter, the houses are returned to the families and their herds of farm animals (yes, animals take the first floor for the season). Improbably made of mud, poplar and willow, each house dotted through the valley has been impeccably modernized in a minimal yet decisive way. Retained are the low ceilings, wooden roofs and hearth-style kitchens with glittering and embellished collections of pots, pans and vessels. Banished are all traces of the barnyard.
The scene? Spirituality seekers and former backpackers who haven’t lost their sense of curiosity and adventure.
The dress code? Functional adventure wear in the day, cozy cashmere in the evening (you’re adjacent to Kashmir, after all).
The surrounds? An arid moonscape of soaring Himalayas and plunging valleys dotted with Zen monasteries, villages that time forgot and oasis-like apricot orchards in blossom.
Day beyond the hotel? Jamshyd Sethna, the visionary behind the Shakti project, is known for his flawless instinct for personnel, including particularly affable and insightful guides. His handpicked team often end up being the highlight of the trip, gently unraveling the mysteries of the region in daily itineraries that see guests visit monasteries at dawn, hike through rarely seen villages or visit local mystics. Each itinerary is instinctively drawn as the guides get to know their guests. Put yourself in their sophisticated and good-humored care and you’ll experience each day as you should.
Which celebrity or character from fiction would set up camp here? Had Austrian mountaineer and Seven in Years in Tibet author Heinrich Harrer returned to the Himalayas in Ladakh instead of Tibet after the Communist Chinese invasion he would not have wept.
The room type: In the bedrooms there is the slightest nod to modernity, with some walls painted in dusty red, others duck-egg blue and others still a wheat-like hue. Each is different in color but the consistent factor is a perfect mattress in every room (how on earth they got them there is anyone’s guess).
Bolthole, palatial or something in-between? Like any house, the rooms vary greatly in size but the joy of being in a private home is that you can rush through the front door to divvy up which room suits each guest.
Room with view? Almost all are blessed with some kind of extraordinary aspect, whether it is down the Indus River, or overlooking a distant monastery or a rice paddy being tilled by buffalo.
Tub, towels, and toiletries? Only showers, but given you would imagine water is rationed here, it is a refreshing surprise to know a long hot shower at the end of the day is possible. To hydrate the skin in the bone-dry air, Shakti supply local apricot-kernel oil.
If you could, what would you steal? That oil. It is the heavy artillery of natural moisturizers.
The turndown touches? Tucked into bed is a cashmere-wrapped hot-water bottle, perfect for the chilly nights. Time to bring these back.
Room for improvement? In one of the driest places on the planet, trying to keep skin, lips and even nostrils hydrated is a challenge. A humidifier in every room would be a welcome addition.
Lobby, Bar & Amenities
If you weren’t staying here, would you go to the restaurant? Each house comes with its own chef and the cuisine ranges from well-executed Western fare, a good edit of local dishes and some of the owner’s favorite Parsi recipes. Picnic lunches are done with particular aplomb.
If you weren’t staying here, would you go to the bar? Once you recover from the inevitable altitude sickness, most find that alcohol becomes less appealing. It is readily available but mountain air, spirituality, solitude and the simple way of life sees the desire for a drink drip away.
Room service? On a tray at dawn a traditional tea-and-coffee set arrives with made-that-morning warm madeleines. It’s equal to anything in the grand London hotels but done with twice the sincerity.
The breakfast? Alternate between some of the world’s most deliciously intense apricots served with sheep’s-milk yoghurt and the jewels of pomegranate and a fragrant Indian poha.
Bring a bathing suit? The Indus is glacially cold, leave it at home.
Salon, spa and treatments: Not a spa treatment but consider visiting the mystical oracle for a moment of spiritual insight.
Be warned about: While Shakti Ladakh provides an ideal base to explore a completely foreign culture while staying in elevated luxury, it is the most extreme of the Sethnas’ properties and not for those with a complete disinterest in Buddhism. But for those beguiled by that exquisite culture, it is a place to experience enlightenment in a hotel.
The Green Card
PRIOR preferences hotels with green credentials who give back in a real way to their communities. Our criteria were created in partnership with Bouteco, an enterprise celebrating truly sustainable hotels.
Shakti hires and trains local staff and guides, organizes activities that help sustain Ladakhi traditions, and supports a village-development fund for community projects.
The hotel sources regional produce for cooking and local materials for buildings and decorations. It also uses hydroelectric and solar power and harvests rainwater where possible.
Address Leh, Ladakh
Number of rooms Six traditional houses.
Activities Guided tours of nearby villages. The hotel can also arrange cooking lessons, white-water rafting, archery, camping, cycling, yoga and meditation sessions, morning prayers, monastery tours, and visits to local mystics.
Restaurant Private dining in the house, including Western, Tibetan and Indian dishes.
Children Over-eights are welcome.
Closed From October 1—April 31.
Co-Founder and CEO David Prior was formerly Contributing International Editor of Condé Nast Traveler and Contributing Editor at Vogue Living. David was named by Bloomberg Businessweek as “One to Watch” in 2018 as part of the publication’s prestigious Global 50: the people who defined business in 2017.