One of the main “Attractions” that Luang Prabang has become famous for is the Tak Bat or Morning Alms giving ceremony. This takes place every morning as the local Laotian people wake up before sunrise to prepare food for the Monks. Around 6am, just as the sun comes up, the saffron-robed monks come out from their temples in single file, from oldest to youngest, to walk along the streets where the locals then give them food (mostly sticky rice) and other gifts, such as incense. This is a sacred and important part of the Buddhist lifestyle and national culture of Theravada Buddhist states such as Laos and Thailand.
By preparing food for the monks, the lay people seek spiritual blessing by way of the monk’s acceptance of their offering. The whole ritual is done in silence as the monks walk in a meditative state and the alms givers respect this by not disturbing the monk’s meditation.
There are 33 temples in and around the old town and nearly 80 altogether in Luang Prabang so this makes for a lot of monks walking around.
Unfortunately, in Luang Prabang this sacred ritual has become a bit a circus!
While I don’t want to take a self-righteous stance and say we’re better and more respectful than the other tourists who wake up early to witness this event because we did too, but there a level of decency that a lot of tourists don’t seem to understand. What I really felt ashamed of as a tourist is that around 5:50am we saw three minivans worth of foreigners pile into the main road outside a temple and as the first procession of monks came out the circus began. The people crowded around the monks and were using big flash cameras in their faces and getting in the way of their route.
It seemed more like a red carpet paparazzi show than the peaceful spiritual ceremony it should be. Then as they passed by the crowd followed behind the monk’s procession like circling vultures continually snapping flash photos and disrupting the silence. All the while the monks carry on walking silently trying to ignore what is going on around them.
The first morning we saw this spectacle and we were quite saddened and embarrassed to be a part of the crowd along the main road. So the following morning we headed to a really quite side street and silently waited to see if the monks would pass us by. What we witnessed was something really special. To see how the Laos people show so much respect and veneration towards the monks and how the monks in return were very humble in accepting their offerings is just magnificent.
Sadly it’s not just the tourists that are responsible for this behaviour. Some hotels and tour companies are offering Alms Giving package tours. These come with rows of mats and stools for tourists who can pay for the privilege of giving alms for fun and a photo rather than for the sincere offering that this event is for. If this is part of your culture and you genuinely feel the need to participate then great but it seems that the authenticity has been lost on tourists looking for a bit of self-satisfaction. One guy we saw started off by offering food the correct way but halfway through the procession he just stood up to take photos and forgot about what he had in front of him.
And its not just the tour companies but also some woman who have found it easy to make a bit of money in the mornings by selling rice and snacks to tourists so they can get involved.
Despite the town’s efforts to educate tourists on how to witness, or even participate in, the Tak Bat ceremony there is sadly many people who would happily disrupt the age-old tradition in pursuit of an easy photo. There are information visible at every temple around town with the information below written in Laos, English and Chinese. We have subsequently witnessed this ceremony in other cities in Laos and thankfully it seems that it is only in Luang Prabang has Tak Bat become such an “attraction”.
So to answer my question – No, I don’t think its completely ruined…yet!
The tradition is still very alive and tranquil away from the main streets. Maybe its a good thing that the companies offering “tour packages” line up all the tourists in one place and allow the rest of the town to carry on as usual. But then, along those streets, the monks and locals can never interact as they would like to. Currently it’s really not a good situation and there seems to be no decent end to this problem.
Perhaps I’m being too optimistic but I really hope the people visiting Luang Prabang to observe the Tak Bat would show more restraint as it’s sad to see how a few inconsiderate and ignorant tourists can ruin the serenity of an ancient tradition.
If you are planning on heading to Luang Prabang and want to observe or participate in the Alms Giving ceremony then please bear in mind the following guidelines as stated on the Luang Prabang tourism website;
- 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 monk’s 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 appropriate: Shoulders, 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.