Laos

Observing an Ancient Ritual in Luang Prabang, Almsgiving

Planning out what to do while in Luang Prabang, one thing I read conflicting opinions on was whether to observe almsgiving.

Luang Prabang is often referred to as a temple town. Because of the city’s many temples, there’s a population of over 1,000 Buddhist monks residing in or near Luang Prabang. Home to the Buddhist Heritage Project, the city is one of the last few places where almsgiving takes place.

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What is almsgiving?

Known as Tak Bat, it’s a sacred Buddhist tradition that occurs throughout Laos. In the early hours of each morning, as the sun rises, local Buddhist monks softly walk the streets barefoot in a single file line, accepting gifts from locals as they go.

Locals kneel before the monks to offer gifts of rice, fruit and sometimes, sweets to contribute to their one daily meal.

It’s estimated 200 monks participate in the ceremony in Luang Prabang. The tradition lives on as a way for monks to maintain their vows, including a vow of poverty, and for locals to practice their faith and gain merit.

The tradition of alms dates back to the 14th century, and takes place every single morning- rain or shine, holiday or not.

It’s a ceremony you won’t find in all parts of SE Asia, and for that reason, it’s considered special to see in Luang Prabang.

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Why is observing controversial? 

Because, as with most local customs, it’s become a bit of a tourism spectacle.

I’d heard there are a few streets in town where tourists eagerly queue behind locals, and sometimes, even offer their own gifts of rice or sustenance.

While I don’t have an issue with observing, if it’s done respectfully, I do question the motivation behind participating- especially if the person isn’t Buddhist.

Almsgiving in Luang Prabang isn’t another ‘Instagram moment’ – it’s a very special and sacred tradition that visitors should consider themselves fortunate to even have the chance to observe.

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I didn’t watch almsgiving in town. Doing so had been my intent, but then, my hotel informed me a smaller version of the in-town ceremony happened near the hotel every morning. Because of the hotel’s location, slightly outside of town, the ceremony is always just locals and monks, with the occasional hotel guest standing far enough back to be respectful, but still observe.

I’m glad I got to observe this ancient tradition this way.

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Hearing the monks chant, and watching the care and devotion with which the locals prepared their offerings and then gave them to the monks was absolutely incredible.

It’s an experience that wouldn’t have been nearly as special if there were dozens of people vying for photos, or tourists making offerings and dually posing for pictures.

Talking to a few locals, what I heard from them, was that they don’t mind if tourists observe. But, they ask tourists be respectful. They’re even okay with visitors participating- if they’re practicing Buddhists.

What does being respectful mean?

Not disrupting the process. It should be like you aren’t even there- arrive before the ceremony starts, stand far enough back to not be a noticeable presence, observe silence (not just low voices), ensure flash is turned off on your camera, and dress modestly. The recommended way to observe is on the other side of the road- out of the way of the monks and the locals presenting offerings.

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I took a few photos to remember the moment, but barely had my phone out. The ceremony I saw only lasted 10-15 minutes, so I wanted to actually watch as much as I could.

If you can, I’d recommend observing a smaller almsgiving in Luang Prabang, as I did.

The smaller ceremony felt organic, and because I was the only tourist, I didn’t feel my presence was intrusive. For most of it, I stood behind a truck, so I was truly out of the way, and just peeping around a corner to take in everything that was happening.

Have you ever witnessed an almsgiving ceremony, or would you do so, if given the chance? 

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