Every morning in the UNESCO-protected town of Luang Prabang in Laos, Buddhist monks dressed in vivid saffron-coloured robes quietly line up and collect offerings from devout Buddhists along the streets. The alms giving ceremony, or Tak Bat, is a longstanding tradition in Laos Buddhist culture and a sacred ceremony for the locals and the monks, who depend on these offerings (often homemade sticky rice) for sustenance during the day. The ritual is conducted in silence and has become a “must-see” attraction for tourists – a spectacle.
While it is possible to observe the ceremony, over the years there have been many horror stories about tourists who disrupt and disrespect this longstanding tradition hoping to get that money shot. Many hotels will provide pamphlets on how to respect the ceremony, and there are posters around town reminding tourists of the sanctity of the event, but not everyone reads up on the issue.
I recently spent a few days in Luang Prabang prior to teaching yoga for a month in Vang Vieng, and when I was researching things to do it’s no surprise that witnessing the alms giving ceremony was high up on the list. I am not Buddhist, but my mother is and we were raised around many Buddhist traditions and practices, so I felt that the ritual would be an important one to observe.
I diligently read up on the do’s and don’ts, asked the tourism office at my hotel where was the best place to watch the ceremony from, set my alarm for 5 am on a quiet Thursday morning, got dressed and made my way out to the front of the hotel. The hotel had informed me that there was a smaller and quieter route that took place right in front of the property (“the ceremony on the main road is mainly for tourists,” said the lady), so I had planned on finding a spot further away to witness the ceremony from a distance.
Photo credit: Poswiecie / Pixabay
But then it hit me deep in my gut – something felt off. I can’t quite put my finger on the feeling but I almost felt that my presence would be intrusive. I wondered how it would feel to be a one of the people presenting offerings, humbly participating in the ritual, only to be watched and photographed by strangers. I wondered if I wanted to be that person quietly watching, and I pondered what my motivations were for wanting to be there.
Before I realized what was happening, I had turned around and started walking back to my room. I spent the day reaching out to my friends, family, boyfriend and even the Twittersphere for advice on whether to observe the ceremony the next morning before my flight back to Hong Kong, and I received some very valuable advice.
Make no mistake, the purpose of this post isn’t to convince you to skip the alms giving ceremony or lecture you into not attending.
I wrestled with the decision and eventually decided it wasn’t right for me, but you might decide to attend and observe the ritual; however, before you make that decision, here are 5 things you should think about as well as alms giving do’s and don’ts.
5 Things You Should Think About Before Observing the Alms Giving Ceremony in Luang Prabang
1. What is your motivation for attending?
The ceremony is a very deep and meaningful one for the local people of Laos, many of whom have been participating for generations. Please bear that in mind when you decide to observe the ceremony and be respectful of the proceedings. If you are there to document the ceremony through photographs, make sure you turn the flash off and keep a respectful distance between yourself and the proceedings.
Whatever your motivations are, make sure you have carefully thought about it and know what you are hoping to get from the experience.
2. Have you done your research on the customs and guidelines?
If your motivation is to learn about the culture and practice, great! Make sure you read up on the customs, alms giving do’s and don’ts and guidelines and help protect the dignity of the ceremony. For example, your shoulders, chest and legs should be covered, and you should never make any physical contact with the monks.
3. Are you a Buddhist?
If you are not a Buddhist, don’t participate and contribute an offering. If you are and want to make an offering, ask your hotel to prepare sticky rice for you ahead of time or purchase it from the local market instead of getting it off the street vendors lining up along the monks’ route.
4. Are you 100% comfortable with playing a part in turning the ceremony into a tourist attraction?
This factor played a large part in making me turn around and skip the ceremony. While tourists are not actively discouraged from observing the ceremony, something in my gut made me feel that I wouldn’t have felt 100% comfortable being an extra body at the proceedings and playing a role (albeit small) in turning it into a TripAdvisor “to do” item. A lengthy conversation with my family also cemented my decision not to attend this very sacred ritual for the local people of Luang Prabang.
Photo credit: Poswiecie / Pixabay
Many others have also mentioned that it can be incredibly infuriating to witness fellow tourists acting in unruly and disrespectful ways (especially along the main route along Sisavangvong/Sakkaline Road), and I opted not to put myself through that.
5. Have you thought about some of the alternatives?
Observing the alms giving ceremony may be on many “Top 10” lists of things to do in Luang Prabang, but there are plenty of other options to make your trip an incredible one: visit the Kuang Si Waterfall and bear rescue centre, visit the dozens and dozens of temples in Luang Prabang, hike up to the top of Mount Phousi for incredible views, visit the night market, take a cooking class or take a boat ride down the Mekong.
For more ideas check out my list of 9 things to do in Luang Prabang (and what you might want to avoid) or this list of 13 things to do in Luang Prabang. My point is that you don’t have to attend just because it is on a list.
If you’d like to do your own reading on the impact of tourism on the monks and culture in Luang Prabang, I recommend that you read this research article. Though it dates back to 2008 and mainly focuses on anecdotal data collected from 152 monks, it sheds some light on how monks in Luang Prabang feel about the effects of tourism and their relations with tourists. Here are a few interesting excerpts from Dr. Wantanee Suntikul’s study:
A question regarding monks’ opinion about tourism development in Luang Prabang proved to be difficult for the monks to answer. A large number of monks expressed their concerns such as “A lot of tourists see temples as places to visit, but do not see any importance and meaning in them”, “If there are too many tourists in Luang Prabang, local people will be busy and won’t give alms”, “As many tourists stay in town and locals have to move outside the town, there will be less local people in Luang Prabang”, “Tourists and we need to understand each other’s cultures more”, “Many tourists give alms without understanding the meaning of it. They need to dress properly and have good manners”, “Tourists should help Luang Prabang preserve Lao culture and tradition for the younger generation, and dress properly. Even when they talk in a different language, tourists can still use the Laotian way of talking”. The majority stated that they wanted tourists to learn more about the local culture and Buddhism.
An elder abbot told the researcher “Some tourists regard binthabat [alms giving] as an activity. They want to have their pictures taken while giving alms. Some tourists don’t dress properly. They look like they just got out of bed. I don’t like seeing that and I don’t even feel like eating food. If they want to do it, they should follow our way of doing it”. Another young novice said “We are actually happier when we see local people giving alms in the morning”.
However, it’s not all bad news. The report also noted the following:
Monks were far less likely to express that they felt a negative impact on their way of life from tourism. Nor, however, were they unreservedly enthusiastic about tourism. The general attitude seems to be one of acceptance of tourism, with an expectation that tourists also respect simple boundaries.
For the tl;dr crowd, here are the main takeaways: when deciding whether or not to attend the alms giving ceremony in Luang Prabang, make sure you understand your own motivations for being there, understand the do’s and don’ts to preserve the dignity and sanctity of the ritual, ensure that you are comfortable with participating and look into all the other things you can do and see in the wonderful town of Luang Prabang.
You can also venture beyond Luang Prabang to amazing places like Vang Vieng to explore the countryside and all the lagoons, caves and waterfalls that Laos has to offer!
Head on over here for more Laos travel tips or read this article for things you should know before visiting Southeast Asia!
What are your thoughts on this issue? Have you observed the ceremony before? Tell me all about it in the comments section below!
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Feature image from Bluebird666 / Pixabay