Morning alms in Luang Prabang: the respectful traveller's guide
When you wake up in Laos’ Luang Prabang, it won’t be to the sounds of modern life.
Nor will it be to the calls of ‘tuk tuk’, nor the rumble of garbage trucks or heavy traffic.
And it certainly won’t be to pollution, or the clattering of a bustling city rising for another day.
Instead, when you rise in Luang Prabang, it will be to burnt ochres and saffron, lush greens and golds. It will be to a feeling of mysticism enhanced by a gentle fog across the city, to reverent silence and tradition.
The Buddhist monks of Luang Prabang are truly a sight to behold; their traditional orange robes and calm presence adding to the charm of the crumbling French provincial architecture and 33 active temples around the city.
The ancient ritual of the morning alms ceremony (Tak Bat in Lao) takes place daily, as local Laotians rise before the sun to prepare food offerings (most commonly, sticky rice). At dawn, a reverent hush falls over the city as hundreds of barefoot monks stream out of the various temples, - single-file and oldest first - to collect their offerings from locals on their knees with heads bowed. This is the monks only meal for the day, and is a hugely sacred and important aspect of Buddhist lifestyle.
We were fortunate to witness this exotic tradition on our recent trip to Laos, and even as non-buddhists we found it a truly humbling and beautiful interaction. Indeed, the daily alms ritual has become somewhat of a major tourist attraction in Luang Prabang, drawing curious spectators from around the world.
Unfortunately however, with increased tourist numbers comes an increased feeling of entering some kind of theme-park, where the monks are Mickey Mouse in costume and visitors lose sight of the authenticity and meaning behind the event. To be fair, while most visitors we saw behaved with the respect you'd expect, we did notice a few things that made us, well, uncomfortable to be in the same category.
In case you're thinking of heading to Luang Prabang to check out this ritual yourself, here's our list on how to participate without being that guy.
HOW TO BE RESPECTFUL AT THE MORNING ALMS IN LUANG PRABANG
WATCH FROM AFAR
This is probably the biggest and most important point you should remember: watch. from. afar.
The worst thing we saw during the morning alms ritual was tourists interrupting the ceremony by getting too close (or worse, standing directly in the way of monks). The morning alms are a state of meditation for the monks, and the alms givers respect this by not disturbing them. Being present to witness this is a privilege, so you can imagine how offensive it is to both Laos locals and monks alike if you hamper proceedings by getting in the way!
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DON'T BOOK A MINIBUS TOUR
Some tour agencies have organised minibuses full of people, complete with blaring megaphones (the alms are conducted in silence) which follow the procession. Aside from the fact that it turns the whole event into some horrifying tourist circus, there really isn't any need to book a tour as most of the temples are within walking distance regardless of where you stay. It's also considered incredibly rude to stand higher than a monk, which is exactly where sitting in a bus will place you!
Gravitate away from the main streets and into the back streets instead, which are generally full of locals and provides a more genuine viewing experience anyway.
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DON'T PARTICIPATE UNLESS IT MEANS SOMETHING TO YOU
Look, we're going to be pretty blunt here. Would you participate in Sunday mass if you aren’t Catholic? A call to prayer at a Mosque without following the muslim faith? We’re guessing probably not, and though it’s tempting to get swept up in the beautiful ceremony in front of you, the same really does apply here too.
For all its exoticism and intrigue to tourists, the morning alms is a religious ritual that dates back centuries and is a vital component of Theravada Buddhist culture. Through their offerings, lay-people seek spiritual blessings by way of the monks acceptance of their food, and this interaction is hugely significant for both. Participating in the alms should only really be done if the ceremony holds spiritual significance for you too.
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PHOTOGRAPH WITH A CONSCIENCE
What could possibly be better visually than lush surroundings, UNESCO heritage listed architecture, and the serene march of monks in traditional garb?! The morning alms procession in Luang Prabang really is a photographers' dream.
When photographing the ceremony, try and keep a few things in mind: a) keep well out of the way, and don't interrupt the procession for the sake of a winning shot b) this is not the place for running in for a cheeky selfie c) leave the big intrusive lenses and flashes at your accommodation d) remember that monks are humans too, and deserve the same respect as any other portrait subject. Here's a really useful guide on photographing monks respectfully (including in temples).
Singlets? Nope. Shorts? Nope. Dress you're still wearing from the night before? Nope nope nope. Stick to the same kind of clothing as you'd wear in a temple - that means ankles and shoulders covered.
Have you been to the morning alms ritual in Luang Prabang (or SE Asia) before? Share what you experience was like in the comments below!
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