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?