Early Morning Alms Giving to the Monks in Luang Prabang, Laos. Copyright © 2022 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

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

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 it’s a special experience.

Until we observed the early morning alms giving to the monks in Luang Prabang in Laos, we’d never witnessed anything like it before. The few times we’d been out at the crack of dawn in Bangkok – generally on our way to the airport – we’d seen tangerine-robed monks collecting sticky rice, curries and other donations of food from Buddhists in backstreets right across the city.

We’d also witnessed an organised mass alms-giving that attracted 12,600 monks for Visakha Bucha Day. And on our early morning drives on road trips in Thailand’s northeastern 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 at any of these.

The early morning alms giving to the monks in Luang Prabang, on the other hand, has been bombarded with foreign travellers in recent years. It’s partly due to the picturesque setting and charm of the UNESCO World Heritage listed town, which is filled with mural-covered temples and French colonial buildings that provide a scenic backdrop.

But that’s not to say that you shouldn’t go, but if and when you do, ensure you’re participating respectfully or observing from a distance. And I’m sure you will after you read about our experience of the early morning alms giving to the monks in Luang Prabang.

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

What partly makes the ritual of Tak Bat – as the early morning alms giving to the monks in Luang Prabang is called in Lao – 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 early morning alms giving to the monks in Luang Prabang is the scenic backdrop that the historic architecture provides, and the serenity of the sleepy little riverside town – there is no blare of traffic or any other kind of noise pollution as there can in similar sized towns.

But it’s not only about the chance to witness an everyday spiritual ritual at such close quarters and in natural circumstances. For many, 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 Luang Prabang, if not Laos.

The ease with which it can be possible to capture an image at the early morning alms giving to the monks in Luang Prabang is 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 compelling for tourists in this media-saturated age in which we live.

And there’s another 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 rice during the early morning alms giving to the monks in Luang Prabang 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 or 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 early morning alms giving to the monks 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 primarily about making merit by offering food to the monks, 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 during the early morning alms giving to the monks.

We were so deterred by what we’d heard that for the first two days of our trip we couldn’t decide whether to even see the early morning alms giving to the monks in Luang Prabang. 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 include the event in our text, that we decided we had no choice but 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.


  • Ask your hotel where you can best watch the early morning alms giving to the monks in Luang Prabang 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 to find a spot for photography so that you’re not a distraction during the ritual.
  • Find out which direction the monks are coming from and where they’re heading to so that 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 early morning alms giving to the monks in Luang Prabang? What was your experience? Do you have any tips to share?



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A travel and food writer who has experienced over 70 countries and written for The Guardian, Australian Gourmet Traveller, Feast, Delicious, National Geographic Traveller, Conde Nast Traveller, Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia, DestinAsian, TIME, CNN, The Independent, The Telegraph, Sunday Times Travel Magazine, AFAR, Wanderlust, International Traveller, Get Lost, Four Seasons Magazine, Fah Thai, Sawasdee, and more, as well as authored more than 40 guidebooks for Lonely Planet, DK, Footprint, Rough Guides, Fodors, Thomas Cook, and AA Guides.

22 thoughts on “Early Morning Alms Giving to the Monks in Luang Prabang, Laos”

  1. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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!

  7. 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.

  8. 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,

  9. 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!

  10. 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!!

  11. 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!

  12. We just returned from Luang Prabang in November and eleven of us participated in the early morning alms giving to the monks. There was none of the behavior that you describe. The streets were very quiet and almost empty at 6 a.m. except for us and some local neighbors along the route – all of us giving out sticky rice. There were no rude or intrusive tourists about although some of us took photos of each other when our rice baskets were empty. Where we ran into tourists was later at the morning produce and meat/fish markets.

  13. Hi Jackie – ah, that’s great to hear! It’s been such a problem for many years. The hotels began a campaign a year or so ago to better educate their guests on how to behave and the ministry for tourism was also discouraging operators from taking their groups into the centre and instead to participate with their hotels, so that must have had some effect. We’ll be back there again shortly so will look forward to quieter streets. Thanks for letting us know.

  14. Thank you for writing this, we actively teach our guests the meaning of the Tak Bat procession and how to respect it.


  15. I am in Luang Prabang right now and one member of our group went out and reported exactly what you said two days ago. So we’ve stayed in to try to offset the spectacle. Got a great photo in the afternoon though of a monk passing me on the old wooden bridge.

  16. Hi Sarah – thanks for the update. I don’t think it hurts to watch from afar and use a long lens, as it is quite a sight with the mandarin-robed monks in those beautifully preserved streets. It’s just not respectful to get up close in their faces. Your photo sounds just lovely though. I love Luang Prabang. Looking forward to returning soon. Thanks again for the update.

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