A Little Lhasa… 20 Things to Do in the Tibetan Town of McLeodganj, India

Last updated on January 1, 2023

The bus skirted the mountainside as my cousin and I traveled toward Dharamsala, India. In my many weeks backpacking through India, this past week had begun the tour of subgroups and other cultures strongly present within India. En route to visit Dharamsala—or, more accurately the small town of McLeodganj—I stopped for several nights in Amritsar to learn more about the Sikh religion, and to visit the holy Golden Temple. Amritsar is a crowded, congested city and after sitting on the shores of the Temple’s lake, I boarded a bus that would take me further into the Himalayan foothills, and into yet another culture.

Although it’s still technically India, McLeodganj is better known as “Little Lhasa” since it’s the seat of power for the exiled Tibetan government. To walk the streets of this small mountain town is like an exit from India. Although there are some ethnic Indians in the city, the bulk of the town is composed of Tibetan refugees. And, the His Holiness the Dalai Lama calls McLeodganj home.

The views on a hike outside of McLeod Ganj, India

Having spent more than a month in Rajasthan, an intensely populated area bustling with tourists and touts and people. This time in India’s far north was a chance to take a step back from the pace of my previous travels. Arriving in McLeodganj was a sanctuary from the sensory assault of the past weeks. The weather was cooler, the mountains misted in the mornings, and the tall peaks blotted out the sun early in the day. With a gorgeous guesthouse secured (we stayed at a great budget spot the first few nights but then moved nicer when we got sick), my cousin and I decided to camp out in McLeodganj for a week.

Tibetan script on a rock in McLeod Ganj.

History of McLeodganj

McLeodganj is a hill town located in the Kangra district of the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. It is known for its Tibetan culture and beautiful monasteries. The history of McLeodganj is closely linked to the history of Tibet. After the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled to India and settled in McLeodganj, which became the center of the Tibetan exile community in India. Many Tibetans followed the Dalai Lama to India and settled in McLeodganj, bringing with them their culture and traditions.

The town was named after David McLeod, the British Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, who founded the town in the 19th century. It was originally a small hill station that was popular with British officials and tourists.

In the early 20th century, McLeodganj became a center for Tibetan Buddhism and was home to many Tibetan monasteries and temples. The Dalai Lama’s residence, the Tsuglagkhang Temple, is located in McLeodganj and is a popular tourist attraction.

Quick Break: Realities of Traveling in India

I had high hopes that this base would afford me the chance to hike in the mountains around the city. Unfortunately, traveler’s sickness final struck, and it alternated its victim. My cousin and I had done well for five weeks—we avoided even the whiff of sick. But the traveler’s adage proved true—it’s not a matter of if you’re going to get sick in the country, but rather when. I had traveled with a SteriPen for the past weeks in India. This little device was very handy. It saved us money and it also eliminated the assault on the environment that comes from mass consumption of bottled water in a country that has no effective waste management system. The SteriPen never failed us, but instead we were felled by the street dumplings we had craved on arrival. I deeply love Tibetan momos and the chance to eat them all day from every location seemed fortunate. But instead, those dumplings shaved several days from our time in Dharamsala.

Traveling in developing countries has challenges, and now that I am many months into traveling through Asia—first Southeast Asia and now India—I am weary of hugging more toilets. I am also not a huge fan of mega dosing on antibiotics, but it’s a given for long-term travel. Even though I had a huge course of antibiotics to overcome dysentery in Laos, I needed another course for this bout of traveler’s diarrhea. I am stepping up my caution once again. When so many weeks pass, it’s easy to let my guard down and crave fresh fruits even if I have a niggling doubt that they’ve been sterilized.

Best Things to Do in McLeodganj

Anyhow, that took me down for the count for part of my time in McLeodganj. But as for actually visiting the area in and around Dharamsala—there’s a lot to offer! The main activities center on either the Tibetan aspects of the down or the hiking. My cousin and I both took this time to learn more about the situation in Tibet. Knowing only the basics about the conflict between the Tibetans and the Chinese, learning the scope of the was sobering.

1. Visit the Tibetan Museum in McLeodganj

The Tibetan museum is a basic building and exhibits center on rooms full of pictures that tell stories about the many the Tibetan refugees crossing through the snowy mountains to find freedom. It’s harrowing, they faced frostbite, lack of food, and general poverty in their quest to live and find freedom. Once in India, the refugees struggle to rebuild their lives with the support of the Tibetan government in exile.

2. Visit the Dalai Lama Temple

The Dalai Lama Temple, also known as Tsuglagkhang, is a popular attraction in McLeodganj. It is a beautiful Tibetan Buddhist temple that is open to visitors and offers prayer sessions and teachings by the Tibetan monks. The temple complex also includes the residence of the Dalai Lama, the Namgyal Monastery, and the Tibetan Library. Visitors can also attend teachings and lectures by the Dalai Lama, when he’s well and in residence.

3. Don’t Miss Clapping Monks at the Tibetan Monastery

tibetan monastery in dharamsala

Near the museum is a large monastery where the Tibetan monks live. Visiting the monastery was a fantastic experience and a real highlight from my time in the city. The older monks were using the open grounds of the monastery to prepare for their final debates. If you have ever seen a roomful of monks debate, it’s not something you are likely to forget! The debating style is unique. They emphatically argue their points to the other person, then make a large slapping/clapping motion at the end to both emphasize the point and throw the focus to the next person. I wrote a bit more on that here.

It was neat to hang out in the courtyard and observe the process. It’s an open and welcoming place, so there was no pressure to do anything other than enjoy and ask the occasional question when I found an English speaker.

The Dalai Lama wasn’t feel well during my visit, so I wasn’t able to see him speak in person. The week before I arrived, the Tibetans rallied against 50 years in exile (it’s now been over 60 years). Although the event had passed, the general tone of amplifying their message and sharing their struggles was ever-present. Tibetans are a peaceful people, but they wanted to let the world know and remember their struggles and displacement.

4. Hunt Down Tasty Momos and Salted Butter Tea

One of my favorite new finds is a tasty is a salted butter tea. Well, that and the Tibetan brown bread. Oh, and the momos, of course. In fact, all of the Tibetan food was delicious and contained a complexity of flavor within seemingly simple dishes. McLeodganj is small too, so no matter which guesthouse you choose, you can visit any of the restaurants on an easy walk. For the first few days, my cousin and I made a point to try a new lunch and dinner spot each day—that was essentially enough time to try them all! Once we had a few stand-out favorites, we spent the rest of the time popping around to each place, chatting with the owners, and downing delicious Tibetan eats.

With so many tasty options, we ate very well. Before a hike, my cousin and I usually packed some brown bread and snacks and hiked around the outskirts of town and into the nearby mountain towns.

4. Stop for a Photo Shoot at the Bhagsunag Waterfall

waterfall near mcleod ganj india

The Tibetan community is slower paced than the rest of India, but it’s still India. On one of our hikes my cousin and I found ourselves back in the spotlight with the locals. We hiked to the small but pretty Bhagsu Waterfall outside of town and found ourselves a delightful novelty to the Indians also hiking to the waterfall.

I had a mini photoshoot with a few hikers, and then laughed my way away from their group.

After the first impromptu photoshoot, I was still surprised when I was accosted for a second photoshoot with a large and boisterous family. There must have been 12 members of the family. They swarmed us, but in a much more fun and interactive way than the slow stalking at Gandhi’s Ashram when I had first arrived. Once my cousin and I agreed to take a picture with family’s children, the mother of the group decided to gather the whole family together. It was so funny. They all jostled us around so that they could be touching some part of us during the  picture. After they snapped a photo on one camera, the mother would grab our arms in a death grip to hold us in place. She wanted to ensure that we didn’t flee before we had posed for a full lineup of photo in various arrangements. The family gave us a good laugh, they were genuine and friendly, but they would have never let us leave, so we did a walking backwards departure after ten minutes. There were lots of hugs, smiles, and waves until we rounded the bend and my cousin and I fast-walked out of there!

photo of an Indian family
photo with a random stranger
waterfall in dharamsala

5. Explore the Bhagsunag Temple

The Bhagsunag Temple is an ancient Shiva temple located in the Bhagsunag village, just a short distance from McLeodganj. The waterfall mentioned above surrounds it and the entire area is a great place to relax and meditate. The temple is located in a beautiful setting and is a popular spot for picnics and outdoor activities. I had a mini photoshoot with a few hikers, and then laughed my way away from their group.

6. Learn Tibetan Cooking

With a good amount of time on our hands in McLeodganj, we signed up for a cooking class. I have eaten my weight in Tibetan momos these past weeks in India’s north, so I decided to learn the process with a hope that I can make them myself when I’m back home and longing for the flavors. The class was simple and a fun way to pass the afternoon. Sanji Tashee taught two classes each day with several different lessons. Now, there is a great vegetarian cooking class on offer at Lhamo’s Kitchen that comes highly recommended.

For my class, of course I only had eyes for the class that took me through the momo process from start to finish. Traditional vegetarian momos have just a handful of flavor combinations. There are: spinach and cheese; cabbage, onions and veggies; mixed vegetables.

learning how to roll momo dumpling flour
cooking class for tibetan momos in mcleod ganj
vegetarian momos
tibetan momo ingredients
cooking class in mcleod ganj, india

The real treat turned out to be my favorite of the three—a chocolate momo! This is definitely not a traditional Tibetan momo, but Tashee knew his audience well. He won my undying affection with the delicious combination of cocoa, sugar, and sesame seeds all steamed in a dumpling shell. Unbelievably good.

And one of the coolest parts was learning how to roll out the momos, stuff them, and then how to fold them into pretty little dumpling shapes.  Between the Laotian cooking class and now with the Tibetan momos, friends and family back home can expect a special international cuisine night when I get home.

7. Visit the Triund Hill

Triund Hill is a popular trekking destination located just a few kilometers from McLeodganj. The trek to Triund Hill offers stunning views of the Himalayas and is a great place for nature lovers. The trek is not too difficult and can be completed in a day—you’ll need a full day though.. There are also several guesthouses and campsites at the top of the hill where visitors can spend the night.

8. Shop at the Tibetan Market

The Tibetan Market in McLeodganj is a great place to shop for souvenirs and Tibetan handicrafts. It is also a good place to try some Tibetan food and watch local artisans at work. The market is filled with stalls selling handmade Tibetan items such as prayer flags, Thangka paintings, and Buddhist statues.

9. Visit the Norbulingka Institute

The Norbulingka Institute is a Tibetan cultural center located in McLeodganj. It is a great place to learn about Tibetan culture and see Tibetan artisans at work. The institute is home to a beautiful Tibetan garden and offers classes in Tibetan art and culture. Visitors can also watch Tibetan artisans at work and purchase handmade Tibetan items.

10. Relax at Dal Lake

Dal Lake is a beautiful lake located just a few kilometers from McLeodganj. It’s a great place to relax and enjoy the natural beauty of the region. The lake is surrounded by forests and is a popular spot for picnics and outdoor activities. You can take a walk around the lake, go boating, or just sit by the lake and enjoy the peaceful surroundings. It’s also a great place for birdwatching, as it is home to a variety of bird species. Dal lake is accessible by road and is popular with both tourists and locals alike.

11. Go paragliding

Paragliding is a popular activity in McLeodganj, and it offers stunning views of the Himalayas. There are several operators offering paragliding tours in the region. The tours usually include a brief training session and a guided flight with an experienced instructor.

12. Visit the St. John in the Wilderness Church

The St. John in the Wilderness Church is a beautiful Anglican church located in McLeodganj. It is a popular tourist attraction and is known for its beautiful architecture. The church was built in the 19th century and is surrounded by beautiful gardens.

13. Take a yoga class

McLeodganj is a great place to practice yoga and there are several studios and instructors offering classes in the region. The town is known for its peaceful atmosphere and is a popular destination for yoga retreats and teacher training programs.

14. Visit the Kangra Fort

The Kangra Fort is a historic fort located just a short distance from McLeodganj. It is a great place to learn about the history of the region and see some beautiful architecture. The fort was built in the 4th century and has a long and interesting history. It is now a popular tourist attraction and offers beautiful views

15. Plan a Proper Long Trek

In addition to the Triund Trek mentioned, plan some proper hiking in these gorgeous mountains. These are the most popular treks near McLeod Ganj.

  1. The Kareri Lake Trek: The Kareri Lake Trek is a beautiful trek that takes you through the forests and meadows of the Dhauladhar range. The trek starts from McLeodganj and takes you to the Kareri Lake, which is a beautiful high altitude lake surrounded by snow-capped peaks. The trek is moderate in difficulty and takes about 3-4 days to complete.
  2. The Minkiani Pass Trek: The Minkiani Pass Trek is a challenging trek that takes you through the Dhauladhar range and over the Minkiani Pass, which offers stunning views of the Himalayas. The trek starts from McLeodganj and takes about 8-9 days to complete. It is suitable for experienced hikers and requires good physical fitness.
  3. The Bhrigu Lake Trek: The Bhrigu Lake Trek is a beautiful trek that takes you through the forests and meadows of the Dhauladhar range to the Bhrigu Lake, which is a high altitude lake located at an altitude of 4,300 meters. The trek starts from McLeodganj and takes about 4-5 days to complete. It is suitable for moderate to experienced hikers.
  4. The Hampta Pass Trek: The Hampta Pass Trek is a beautiful trek that takes you through the forests and meadows of the Pir Panjal range and over the Hampta Pass, which offers stunning views of the Himalayas. The trek starts from McLeodganj and takes about 5-6 days to complete. It is suitable for moderate to experienced hikers.

16. Enjoy the Relaxed Pace of Life

boy chasing a tire in India

Take time to sit and drink tea at the tiny coffee shops. Browse for Tibetan handicrafts as souvenirs in the shops and street side stalls. Accept a cuppa chai tea when you’re invited. Bundle up and go stargaze in the evening.

In short, McLeodganj is not the place to stick to a frenetic pace of life. The Tibetan community brings a calming influence to the city, and a spiritual one too. Many foreigners take classes in yoga and meditation nearby. Others are there for the same reasons I found myself enjoying McLeodganj—simply to enjoy the pace of life. It’s a pretty little city, and one unlike anywhere else in India. Nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, surrounded by beautiful forests, mountains, and valleys. There is just no shortage of things to do no matter what type of traveler you are.

Quick Travel Tips: McLeod Ganj

  1. Pack light: McLeodganj is a hill town and can be quite cold, especially in the winter months. It is a good idea to pack warm clothing and comfortable walking shoes. However, it is also important to pack light as you will be carrying your luggage up and down the hills.
  2. Stay hydrated: The weather in McLeodganj can be quite dry, and it is important to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water. It is a good idea to carry a reusable water bottle with you at all times so you can fill up at guesthouses (or buy a big jug and fill up from it to save plastic).
  3. Respect the culture: McLeodganj is home to a Tibetan exile community and it is important to respect their culture and traditions. It is a good idea to dress modestly and remove your shoes before entering temples and monasteries.
  4. Be prepared for high altitudes: McLeodganj is located at a high altitude and some people may experience altitude sickness. It is a good idea to acclimatize to the altitude before engaging in any strenuous activities.
  5. Stay safe: McLeodganj is generally a safe place to visit, but it is always a good idea to take precautions and stay aware of your surroundings. Avoid walking alone at night and be careful when carrying valuables.

What am I reading right now?: The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

Essential Travel Planning Resources:

Booking.com: Essentially the only hotel booking site that I use in the region as it has the widest and most affordable selection in Southeast Asia.

Rome2Rio: Super handy to assess the full range of transport options between two cities—shows everything from flights to trains, buses, minibuses, and more.

Expedia: Best site, hands down, for low-cost flights in the region.

IMG Global: A travel insurance option I’ve used for well over a decade and recommend for many other travelers.

2 thoughts on “A Little Lhasa… 20 Things to Do in the Tibetan Town of McLeodganj, India”

  1. What great photos. I love hearing about your travels Shannon, you tell it straight like no one else :)


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