Laos, Musings

To Alms Or Not To Alms?

I was already in two minds whether to attend the alms ceremony in Luang Prabang.

Tak Bat is definitely seen as one of the ‘must do’ activities whilst you are there. There is no doubt that it is one of the most iconic images of this city.  Every morning the monks from the many temples in the area leave their grounds and file down the main street to receive alms – that is to collect food offered by the local residents for their daily meal.  It is an age old tradition, and is as important for the alms-givers as it is for the monks.  However, it now also seems to have turned into a bit of a tourist circus.

I had heard and read about the ceremony and the tourists who would get up too close to the monks, stick cameras in their faces and disturb the ritual with their noisy and disrespectful behaviour. 

When we arrived, we noticed that there were signs everywhere in Luang Prabang, almost imploring people to act respectfully if they do go to view it. It looked like it had become a huge problem.  

But as mentioned, it is billed as one of the activities that you can’t miss if you are in the city. When we arrived at our guesthouse, we were asked if we wanted to see it the following morning, they could arrange for us to take part if we wished.  It was our first day in Laos and I hadn’t decided whether I wanted to go at that point, so we politely declined. 

I’m sure it must be an awe inspiring sight to see the line of monks receiving alms in the early morning light, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to witness such a traditional ceremony being ransacked by disrespectful tourists. I would only get annoyed and embarrassed.

After much debate, we ended up talking to some of the staff at one of the hotels that we were staying at about it and found out that quite a few of them had taken part when they were young and going through their ‘monk training’ as they called it.  They told us that they had, at times, found it to be an uncomfortable and even intimidating experience, because of the crowds that now turn out to witness it. This was really the nail in the coffin to be honest. I had no desire to be part of that.  

Did I miss out for not going? After all I didn’t actually go to see what is happening for myself, I was only acting on hearsay. I don’t feel I did, I had many other amazing experiences in Luang Prabang which has cemented it in my memories. 

Do I regret that decision now?  No, I still feel that it was the right thing for me to do at the time. I must say that another factor in my decision was that I am not a Buddhist and I didn’t want to intrude on a ceremony that is important for them and is not there just for the tourist masses. Why would I be going to see it?  Was it just to see this sight and capture it on camera? It raised a few questions in my mind.

I don’t know what the future holds for this tradition, it seems that the number of tourists who are turning out to see it is now actually endangering its future.

I made my decision not to attend and this was the right decision for me. That is not to say that it is the right decision for others.  But I hope that anyone who does go along to witness it, or take part, is respectful of the ceremony and does not see it just as a tourist attraction, or photo opportunity.

There is plenty of information available regarding the do’s and don’ts of attending around the city. Read it, take it on board and ask and discuss it locally if you are not sure what to do, or if you feel unsure whether to actually attend it or not.

The advice we were given regarding attending was:

  • Don’t take part unless you are Buddhist and it is meaningful to you
  • If you do take part, be very careful where you buy the food from (sometimes the food is below par and will just be thrown away, or even worse, will make the monks sick) and seek advice on the correct etiquette to follow as an alms-giver
  • If observing, stay a respectful distance away from the monks and the alms-givers
  • Don’t block their way
  • Don’t use flash photography
  • Dress appropriately – shoulders, legs and torso should be covered
  • And observe in silence

If all visitors did that, then I’m sure it would be a much more rewarding experience for everyone.

19 thoughts on “To Alms Or Not To Alms?”

  1. Thank you for this. I don’t think I’d have gone to view it if I were there, because of similar qualms about the spectacle (not the practice itself, which I find to be part of a rich tradition or ritual, interconnection, and faith).
    I was in Thailand just this summer, and we had an excellent local guide who explained the etiquette in every place we traveled to — including to the children in our family. It was important to all of us to follow, and I was glad to know the nuances of what would be most helpful to do or not do, and what customs were about (not just the most visible parts of those). The youngest member of our family became adept at polite gestures toward any Thai elder, which was visibly appreciated, coming from a ‘foreigner.’ Learning how to be allowed all of us, and especially the children and teens, to be more aware. Respect translates, and it led to less ‘touristy’ stuff and more direct interactions that were just human-lovely (like my nephew, at 16, who played impromptu soccer with a little boy in one of the mountain villages. This delighted everyone, but especially the local little boy, who happened to be raised in a village where he had mostly girl age-mates). Our guide, perhaps sensing that we were ‘suitable company,’ took us to some places where ‘locals’ hang out, and where there were hardly any tourists if at all. It was delightful to be off the beaten path a bit, and the relaxed family atmosphere and the amused looked on the locals’ faces when they saw us attempting to ease feet into the seemingly boiling water they delightedly dunked their feet in … led to many laughs for everyone. I’ve enjoyed that more than some of the more touristy stuff.
    Personally, I prefer quiet observing to spectacle chasing, so yeah, I’m with ya.
    Na’ama

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It sounds like you had a fantastic experience in Thailand! Having a good guide can be invaluable can’t it, as you have demonstrated. It also led you to have some unique experiences, which I agree, can be more rewarding and memorable than seeing the ‘big’ sights sometimes. Learning a little of the customs, etiquette and language can go a long way when you are visiting another country and culture. We have definitely found that as well, even if we don’t always get it right, the effort is appreciated. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments x

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  2. It’s quite sad that these beautiful traditions are ‘tainted’ (for lack of a better word) by tourists like that, with all the downsides that come with it. It seems like you made the right decision by not going. Perhaps the same reason why I didn’t climb Uluru when I was in Australia for the first time. I think you can’t climb it anymore these days but back in 2002 you could. It just didn’t sit right with me to climb something so spiritually important to the Aborigines. Years later, I read the story of Uluru and why it’s so important. It reconfirmed my belief that I did the right thing by not climbing it. Thank you for being thoughtful and for sharing your story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much. It’s difficult isn’t it, it’s interesting to hear you have had a similar experience with Uluru. Before they banned climbing it, It felt like there was a disregard for the importance of that site too. I think the pure numbers of visitors these days plays a part in all of this too. But that is a different issue which I’m not sure how you solve!

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      1. Yes, it’s very difficult. I remember a similar discussion in our classes about cultural heritage: when something is recognised as UNESCO world heritage it can actually be detrimental to said cultural heritage they’re trying to preserve. What if people/countries can’t handle the upkeep or the number of people it would attract because of its status? It’s a recognition of importance for sure, but there’s a whole other side to it that is often overlooked or not recognised because everyone wants their piece of that heritage. It’s a complicated conundrum that I too don’t know how to solve. But, despite all that, I do think it’s important to keep thinking about it and to always remain respectful. To this day, I do not regret not having climbed Uluru. Instead, I walked halfway around it which was beautiful! And I can climb another monolith or mountain if I so wish.

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        1. This is such an interesting but complicated issue and I totally agree, we do need to keep thinking about it and be mindful when visiting these sites. Uluru is amazing isn’t it, I’m so glad that you enjoyed your walk around it. I did that too, it was rainy season so was a bit wet, but definitely worth it! I would love to go back again and take my Aussie partner who hasn’t yet seen it!

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  3. This is a really interesting and thoughtful post.

    I guess it depends how the monks are marketing it all as well. I mean, if the general rule is “don’t take part unless you are Buddhist and it is meaningful to you,” then I would not want to go.

    However, I have taken part in similar ceremonies in Japan, where the monks were really keen for us to get involved and experience their rituals and culture (when you stay the night in a temple). I suppose the main difference is there were *very* few tourists there to take part.

    I guess this is the difference between experiences vs spectacles.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your experience in Japan sounds wonderful! I think you are right, I think the one of the big problems with this now in Luang Prabang is the number of people who turn out to see it and take part. As with so many places these days, visitor numbers are growing and managing that can be very difficult. I’m not sure what the answer is but an awareness of cultures and customs is surely a good place to start. Thank you so much for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You made the right decision. There is a difference between viewing respectfully at a distance so as not to interrupt the ceremony, and intruding on something that should be private. Good for you!

    Liked by 1 person

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