Early Morning Alms Giving to the Monks in Luang Prabang, Laos.

Early Morning Alms Giving to the Monks in Luang Prabang, Laos

The early morning alms giving to the monks in Luang Prabang, Laos, is one of the main attractions that lures many travellers to the laidback Mekong River town although it’s not unique to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed city.

The few times we’ve been out at the crack of dawn in Bangkok – generally on our way to the airport – we’ve seen tangerine-robed monks collecting sticky rice, curries and other donations of food from Buddhists in backstreets right across the city. (We’d also seen witnessed an organized mass alms-giving that attracted 12,600 monks for Visakha Bucha Day.)

And on our early morning drives to temples in Thailand’s Isaan region, we saw monks on alms rounds in all sorts of places, from highways in the middle of nowhere to tiny remote villages with only a handful of houses. But there were no signs of foreigners taking photos.

What partly makes the ritual of Tak Bat, as it’s called, so captivating in Luang Prabang is the spectacle created by the sheer number of monks in such a compact area, and this is due to the abundance of Buddhist temples and monasteries in the small city.  There are over 33 temple-monasteries and therefore hundreds of monks, and, as a result, soon after dawn, there are streams of monks in mandarin- and mustard-coloured robes silently, in meditation, criss-crossing Luang Prabang in single file at any one time.

Another part of the appeal of observing the ritual in the riverside town is the scenic backdrop that Luang Prabang’s historic architecture provides, and the serenity of the town – there is no blare of traffic or any other kind of noise pollution as there is in Bangkok or, say, Phnom Penh.

But it’s not only about the chance to witness an everyday spiritual ritual at such close quarters and in natural circumstances. It’s also, frankly, and somewhat unfortunately, about the photo op. The image of monks parading through the picturesque streets, from the most senior monk in the lead, right down to the most junior novice monk scurrying along at the end of the line, has become the iconic image of Lunag Prabang, if not Laos.

The ease with which it can be possible to capture an image that is so exotic and so spellbinding that it looks just like the photographs on the postcards or in the pages of travel magazines, and then be able to proudly upload the picture to a blog or Facebook page, is very compelling for tourists in this media-saturated age in which we live.

And there’s one more dimension too – one that we write about a lot here on Grantourismo – that of experiential travel. Because in Luang Prabang, unlike other places, there is the opportunity to participate in the ritual in a way that has become acceptable and, by some, encouraged.

The act of offering alms to the monks has become a must-do activity for many visitors to the city, whether they’re Buddhists or not. It’s included on tour itineraries, guides offer their services as escorts/advisors to tourists who wish to make offerings, guidebooks provide tips on where best to see the spectacle, and touts roam the streets selling packaged offerings, often very aggressively.

As a result, the ritual has sadly become a bit of a circus with tourists elbowing each other out of the way so they can snap the best photo, getting too close to the monks so as to be disrespectful, and reacting angrily to the aggressive nature of the touts so that they cause a scene that disrupts the solemnity of the occasion. Because it is, after all, a religious event. It’s as much about feeding the monks as it is about the monks helping alms-givers make merit, and thereby achieving spiritual redemption, by the monks’ acceptance of their offerings.

Things have got so bad in Luang Prabang, however, that both hotels we stayed at provided information on ‘do’s and don’ts’ for their guests, and in various locations around town, including outside temples, we saw posters and leaflets plastered on windows and notice boards advising travellers how to behave.

We were so deterred by what we’d heard that for two days we couldn’t decide whether to see the ritual or not. It was only that we were in town to gather content for magazine stories and we knew our editors wouldn’t be happy if we didn’t have the iconic images that they expected and included the event in our text that we decided to go in the end.

We witnessed the first processions of monks from nearby monasteries from right outside the second hotel we stayed at, the Amantaka, where the staff had set up cushions on the footpath – two of which we learned were for us, although we politely declined to participate.

It was a simple thing really, the monks passing by fairly swiftly, just stopping long enough for each of the kneeling alms-givers to place a scoop of sticky rice in each bowl, and in a matter of seconds they were quietly trooping off to their next destination. It was all done in silence, and I stayed discretely behind the walls of the property allowing Terence to respectfully shoot some photos from a distance with a couple of long lenses.

When it appeared the last of the local monks had been and gone, we hurried discretely to the historic centre, a couple of blocks away, to watch local shopkeepers and stall-holders from the morning market readying themselves for the line of monks we could see approaching.

Once again, we kept a distance, as did a few other foreigners near us, yet we were astounded to see some tourists get very close, snapping photo after photo after photo of the monks, right in their faces, and following them down the street until they were satisfied they had got the perfect picture.

For us, they were a distraction, taking away from a spiritual ritual that is also about demonstrating humility and detachment from material things – a ritual that should be humbling for the observer. Ironically for the tourists, their determination to capture proof that they’d witnessed the spectacle with their own eyes meant in fact that sadly they hadn’t observed or experienced it at all.

TIPS FOR PARTICIPATING IN & PHOTOGRAPHING THE ALMS GIVING

  • Ask your hotel where you can best watch the alms giving ritual so that you can avoid the circus.
  • If you must participate, try to do it with the hotel staff or other locals so you are respectful and follow etiquette, for instance, you need to ensure you withdraw your hand immediately after serving the rice so you don’t touch a monk.
  • Don’t buy rice or other offerings from vendors; if you can’t make it yourself, your hotel will make it for you.
  • Dress modestly (don’t wear revealing or tight clothes) and remove your shoes if you’re making an offering.
  • Kneel, as it’s important that your head is not higher than the monks’ heads.
  • Don’t make eye contact, and this is especially important for women.
  • If you want to take photos, use a long lens so you can maintain a respectful distance.
  • Arrive early so you’re not a distraction.
  • Find out which direction the monks are coming from and where they’re heading to so you can plan your shots before they arrive.
  • If there are several groups of monks, then you will have several opportunities to get different angles, so move discretely to different positions in between groups rather than running around all over the place like an idiot.
  • Concentrate on getting a few carefully composed shots rather than snapping off hundreds of shots and disturbing the moment with the noise of your shutter.
  • Do not use a flash. Most cameras these days have sensors that allow you to shoot high ISO so you don’t need to temporarily blind your subjects.

Have you witnessed, participated or photographed the alms-giving at Luang Prabang? What was your experience? Do you have any tips to share?




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  1. jim johnston

    I was in Luang Prabang five years ago and saw exactly the same spectacle of agressive tourists greedy for a photo. The hotels had the same printed guidelines, which were obviously ignored by many.
    Luang Prabang remains our standard for places that have been (partly) ruined by tourism. It felt like a museum then–albeit a great museum–and I assume it has gotten worse. UNESCO has done a lot of good with its heritage designations, but also a lot of bad.

  2. Lara Dunston

    Hi Jim – we got a small taste of it and it was distasteful. We saw just a few people behaving badly, but heard that at one spot in town, and I won’t name which as I don’t want to encourage people to go there, there are hundreds of people every morning who are in the monks’ faces. We’d encourage people to stick to the area they’re staying in and participate with hotel staff or locals they befriend.

    I don’t think Luang Prabang has been completely ruined. When we visited there were definitely too many 20yo backpackers who arrive en masse from the slow boats and take over the town. Conversations overhead revolved around where to find the cheapest drinks and how they’d bargained a $2 room down to $1.

    However, we got the impression the town was working at getting the balance right by introducing more upmarket accommodation. Hoping they do. Balance is what’s needed. And education re the alms-giving ritual.

    Thanks for dropping by!

  3. Turtle

    Sometimes I think people believe that holding a camera up to their eye somehow transports them away from the real world. You see so many people in places like Luang Prabang who are oblivious to their own presence as they shoot away. Sometimes it’s fine, other time it’s blatantly disrespectful.
    Great post – such an important issue to raise!

  4. Lara Dunston

    Thanks! Totally agree! I think, for a lot of people (not all, of course), the moment they put their camera to their face they think they’re a photo-journalist and are documenting ‘reality’ for the world and therefore have a right to do as they please. You’re right, it’s a strange phenomenon.

  5. Terence Carter

    Thanks, I took around a thousand (!) but I had two cameras and long lenses. It’s lovely to experience it – away from the crowds – and you can visit the markets afterwards…

  6. Alex in Wanderland | Travel and Diving Blog | Tourists Behaving Badly

    […] So, is it possible to observe Tak Bat in a respectful way, without degrading a centuries-old tradition? I believe so, but be forewarned that other won’t and that as I’ve said before, you will likely walk away feeling more frustration than spiritual enlightenment. In my opinion, a good guideline is you should never step foot off of the sidewalk opposite the street from the monks, never use a flash and generally conduct yourself as you would in any religious setting. You can find more tips (and beautiful photos from those who followed them!) here. […]

  7. Niki

    Just wanted to say thank you for the article which I read at 5.30 this morning before heading out to the Alms giving!

    Experienced most of what’s been described above and as a keen amateur photographer I tried to be really aware of my positioning & distance.

    My reflections would be; if you’re there before 6.00 ask the alms givers if you can take photos-it always feels better with some consent. Remember to put the camera down; for someone who takes a lot of photos (ask my husband!) I took around 30. Your advice on choosing the shot was spot on. It also meant I watched mesmerised whilst two groups of monks accepted their food and then came and stood in front of me whilst I sat on the ground & they chanted. It was extraordinary and if my camera had been pointed at them I suspect they’d have just walked further.

    Thanks for the great tips!
    Niki

  8. A Cook Not Mad (Nat)

    It’s turned into a spectacle. I remember a time when photos weren’t allowed or was that just in Thailand? No matter, it just doesn’t seem right, people flocking there, buying rice to observe and feed the monks…seems a lot like buying a bag of carrots to feed the deer at the nature reserve.

  9. Lara Dunston

    Hi Niki

    That’s what we love to hear! We’re so pleased you found the tips useful and you enjoyed the experience.

    Thanks for dropping by to tell us. Greatly appreciated.

    Got a link to your pics?

    all the best,
    Lara

  10. Lara Dunston

    It’s a shame, isn’t it? I don’t know if photos have ever been *not* allowed.

    You can see the same thing any morning in any number of cities in Laos, Thailand and Cambodia. For instance, in Battambang, where strangely enough they do it later, around 9am, you can see monks filing down most streets. If you wait at the local markets, you’d see group after group file by and it’s not an issue to take photos – they seemed to enjoy it when Terence did recently and were smiling for the shots – but the town sees so few tourists, so it’s not an issue like Luang Prabang.

    We are all for engaging and people participating obviously, but unless they’re Buddhists and making an offering for that reason, that’s taking experiential travel too far. We think it’s best to watch from a respectful distance and take photos with a long lens from afar. Poor blokes, they must get tired of it day after day. Or perhaps they see it as a lesson in patience and tolerance! :)

    Thanks for dropping by!

  11. Simone

    O wow, I didn’t know it was so bad!! We were in Luang Prabang last year and yes the monks passed our hotel in the morning so we watched it silently from the terrace of the hotel, staying away. I chose not to take photos as I had left my long lenses at home and didn’t want to interfere with the ceremony in any way.
    But I do remember a few tourists running after them and at the time we even discussed how ridiculous and disrespectful that was. But I somehow thought it was a freak accident, only to now find out it is apparently more the norm than the exception. I hate it. It makes me feel ashamed to be a tourist sometimes!!

  12. Lara Dunston

    Yes, it’s a shame, isn’t it? We’ve noticed that since we wrote this post a number of blogs have published similar posts, so hopefully travellers are reading them and will start to get the message soon. I think the tour guides and hotels need to educate people too. Thanks for dropping by!


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