Updated: Jul 11, 2019
Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site is the former capital of Laos, and you'll see everything from golden-roofed temples to vestiges of colonial French architecture here. Buddhist monasteries abound in Luang Prabang, and early every morning, monks process through the streets collecting alms (their food for the day).
Tak Bat, known as almsgiving ceremony is a profound Buddhist tradition wherein offering of food to a procession of Monks happens every early morning in Luang Prabang. I was told that it perhaps is the unique and beautiful experiences of Laos. To me, it sounded like a perfect introduction to the town and the culture. I wasn’t too sure if it was a parade for tourists or a true tradition and decided to check it out for myself.
To witness the age-old tradition meant waking up at an early hour of the day. Curious of the ceremony I was present very early to catch the entire set-up before the arrival of monks. When I got there, It was dark with only a few locals present. They observed silence and helped each other in unassuming, kind ways no matter the chore or need. Apart from cleaning the vicinity, tiny stools were laid down on the pathways for the people that took part in the procession.
I can’t begin to tell how captivating the entire atmosphere was when several monks appeared and set out to the pathways barefooted. Each worn a swat across the shoulder and carried a bowl tidily under the robe. This was a unique scene to observe until the foreign tourists announced their arrival. The correct etiquette for Alms Giving is easily found everywhere in Luang Prabang or in any good guidebook, but this appears to go out the window with the arrival of the back-to-back minivans about 10 minutes before the monks begin to arrive. The silence now departs and the crowd unabashedly gather around the monks and click endless selfies and pictures with flashes on. To them, the ceremony is a tourist attraction, more like a performance, rather than the deeply religious ritual that it is for the Laotians. Some of them also participated in the ceremony, by offering, but didn’t truly understand the meaning of it, it was kind of a parody.
It is crushing to watch tourists displaying no signs of respect to the monks or the custom whatsoever. And, the guides that have brought them appear to do nothing to correct the behaviour. What can be more terrorizing than to wake up to this callous crowd and patiently deal with them each morning. Rather than feeling like I had observed a humble daily ritual of Buddhism, It seemed like I had merely observed a demonstration of the ignorance and ungracious tourists whose only concern was their social media account.
The cultural significance of alms-giving in Luang Prabang has attracted travellers from all over the world. While this boost of tourism has done wonders for a region known for its poverty, it has come at a cost. This custom is not seen as an act of charity, more a spiritual obligation that connects the common man to the men of the cloth, the former providing physical sustenance, and the latter spiritual guidance. I identified the ceremony to be philosophical and rooted but at the same time not policing the tourists of their devious behaviour takes away from the righteousness of the practice.
This post by no means intends to discourage you from attending the alms giving ceremony, but it does aim to educate and make you think about your reasons for doing so. If you are only going to this to get a close up picture of a monk for your social media, please don't bother. If you choose to participate, do so wholly and modestly, without that selfie. As for observing the alms ceremony, it is once again a personal decision. After all, it will probably be one of the most moving sights you will ever see.
What Time is Alms Giving in Luang Prabang?
There is no set time for alms giving in Luang Prabang. The ceremony takes place daily at dawn. In summer, this will usually be around 5.30am, whilst in winter it tends to be later as the sun rises around 6.30am.
The almsgiving ceremony takes place throughout the town of Luang Prabang. The usual place for visitors to observe the alms giving ceremony is in Luang Prabang old town, along Sakkaline Road. Beginning at Wat Sene, monks and novices will begin their progress along the main street to be joined by others from surrounding wats
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Shilpa Srinivas @flohwithme