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.