Morning alms giving procession
Every morning after chanting has finished, hundreds of Luang Prabang’s resident monks and novices leave the wats and walk down the streets, barefoot and silent, collecting morning alms from kneeling locals.
It’s truly a spectacular sight, the seemingly endless single-file procession, from elderly monks to young boys, and the devout locals who have also risen early to prepare the offering of sticky rice. This daily ceremony, rain or shine, is the iconic image of Luang Prabang. However, as tourism in Luang Prabang has grown, so too have the crowds. What is supposed to be a humble and deeply spiritual ceremony is now nothing short of a freak show.
Very simply, the ceremony should be observed in silence, from a distance. In reality, without any sort of crowd control or rules, photo thirsty tourists are causing a commotion. The scene is akin to paparazzi swarming red carpet arrivals. Tour groups and tour companies are complicit in this. People are dropped of by the busload to participate in the alms giving, clueless of the etiquette and interrupting the procession to take selfies. Monks and locals are forced to simply bear it. There has been no intimation that authorities will take any action.
If the idea of witnessing this is off-putting, we suggest you skip the procession altogether or simply go anywhere else than the main street. The concentration with the highest number of monks—and proportionate number of tourists—is from the primary school to Wat Sene. Keep in mind that every neighbourhood has a wat and while you may not see hundreds of monks, seeing a few dozen quietly make their way without cameras flashing in their faces can feel more meaningful. Ban Aphai, Ban That Luang or across the Nam Khan at Ban Phan Luang are all walking distance and have significantly less tourist participation.
Only participate in tak bat if it is meaningful for you. If you wish to give alms, do not do so on a whim. Ruthless vendors pressure tourists into buying sticky rice that is old or poorly made. If you don’t ask the price before hand, it is basically a scam and you’ll be charged a ridiculous amount.
The best way is to make arrangements for your hotel to prepare the sticky rice, provide the necessary pha biang (shoulder sash) and show you how it is done as there is an etiquette during the alms. Or rise early and buy fresh cooked sticky rice from the morning market.
Alternatively, make a donation in private by dropping off food or packaged snacks to the temple later in the morning. Again, someone at your hotel should be able to provide advice and point in the right direction. Another way to support is by donating to the Buddhist Heritage Project, who work with Luang Prabang’s temple system on education, research and preservation. They were involved in a pamphlet created to educate visitors on the morning alms. The pamphlet guidelines are as follows:
1) Observe the ritual in silence and contribute an offering only if it is meaningful for you and can do so respectfully
2) Please buy sticky rice at the local market earlier that morning rather than from street vendors along the monks route
3) If you do not wish to make an offering, please keep an appropriate distance and behave respectfully. Do not get in the way of the monks’ procession or the believers offerings
4) Do not stand too close to the monks when taking photographs; camera flashes are very disturbing for both monks and the lay people
5) Dress appropriately: shoulder, chests and legs should be covered
6) Do not make physical contact with the monks
7) Large buses are forbidden within the Luang Prabang World Heritage Site and are extremely disturbing. Do not follow the procession on a bus—you will stand above the monks which in Laos is disrespectful
Take part in the alms giving ceremony by protecting its dignity and its beauty.
Address: Throughout Luang Prabang
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you'll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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