It’s 6 a.m. and the normally peaceful, sleepy streets of Luang Prabang are buzzing. The tourists have arrived.
Vans jam into the main street and people spill out as if from a clown car. Cameras at the ready. Excited chatter in a multitude of different languages. Some people buy containers of rice and take up position on the sidewalk. The tour guide talks into a loud speaker over the din of the crowd. Showtime. Heads down, bowls in hand the monks leave the monastery. A flurry of camera flashes. It’s a religious ritual-turned-spectacle. It’s a humble tradition gone awry.
Tak Bat or morning alms is a living Buddhist tradition in Laos which has become a tourist attraction on the must see/do list of Luang Prabang. It is indeed a beautiful sight and even after living in Laos for years, I never tire of it. How humbling to see hundreds of monks and young novices clad in orange robes streaming out of the temples. You may have just rubbed the sleep out of your eyes but they’ve been awake since 4 a.m. for hours of prayer and meditation. The sight of the villagers is also remarkable, for they dutifully rise every morning to cook sticky rice, kneel and give offering.
But over the years, as more and more travellers discover Laos, the Buddhist tradition has turned into a spectacle with disruptive, disrespectful behaviour from tourists who act like they’re on the It’s a Small World Disneyland ride full of animatronic dolls in bright ethnic costumes. The behaviour is downright appalling: Cameras, iPads, phones, flashes in the face, tourists interrupting the procession for a shot, selfies, group photos, smoking, yelling, people dressed inappropriately, people touching the monks just to name a few.
Tourists have also been buying food from enterprising vendors who are more concerned about profit than quality and hygiene. The rice is inedible, and tourists are charged an exorbitant price.
The morning alms is an important aspect of Lao culture and it’s wonderful that visitors are learning about it, but let’s treat it with respect and dignity. Please obey the following guidelines and spread the word to your fellow travellers.
How to respect the morning alms in Laos
The following information on the morning alms in Luang Prabang came from a pamphlet created and distributed by Department of Information, Culture and Tourism Luang Prabang; Lao Buddhist Fellowship Luang Prabang District; The Badur Foundation, London; The Buddhist Heritage Project, Luang Prabang; and the Amantaka Resort. The pamphlet is in five languages and is distributed to tourists who attend the ceremony.
- Observe the ritual in silence and contribute an offering only if it is meaningful for you and can do so respectfully
- Please buy sticky rice at the local market earlier that morning rather than from street vendors along the monks route
- 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
- Do not stand too close to the monks when taking photographs; camera flashes are very disturbing for both monks and the lay people
- Dress appropriately: shoulder, chests and legs should be covered
- Do not make physical contact with the monks
- 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