I never thought I would describe waking up before first light to sit on a pavement as "captivating". But there is no other way to describe how I felt in that moment. As the sun began to rose, a procession of mustard coloured monks made their way towards me. The tendrils of the early morning mist blurring the horizon and twisting around corners.
In complete silence, I watched the Laotian people of Luang Prabang begin an ancient Buddhist ritual that has been around since the 14th century.
But as I sat there watching the monks go by, I felt the crushing weight of my own mortality. It reminded me of the insignificance of my presence in the black hole that is time. Even those of us that achieve superstardom, will one day be swallowed up into the void. But this ritual has marched on despite the time. It has become just as ceaseless as the pounding waves of the ocean.
Or has it?
The cultural significance of alms giving in Luang Prabang has attracted travellers from all the world. While this boost of tourism has done wonders for a region known for its poverty, it has come at a cost. Numerous travel bloggers have spoken up about how tourists are slowly eroding this ritual by not respecting it, sucking out all the authentic culture from the procession and leaving it to become a faint shadow of its former self.
I find that a difficult reality to imagine. It's like living in a world where the waves just one day - stop.
We all have the power to make sure this and over significant rituals all over the world don't meet this fate. By practicing self-awareness and educating ourselves we become responsible travellers committed to preserving the cultural authenticity and not evolving it into an unidentifiable tourist trap.
If you are planning to visit Laos, here is everything you need to know about how to be a responsible traveller at Alms Giving in Luang Prabang!
A Brief History of the Alms Giving Festival in Luang Prabang
For over 600 years, locals of this UNESCO World Heritage City have been waking up before dawn to prepare for "Tak Bat". As the sun rises, locals will take their spot on the sidewalk and wait for the procession of monks to start.
Hundreds of monks from the 35 temples of Luang Prabang walk in silence, meditating as they collect their daily alms from devotees. This is the Buddhist practice of making merit, a symbiotic relationship between the monks and alms givers.
By feeding the monks the lay people generate good karma and the monks grant merit to the devotees that counts towards their future lives.
What Time Is Alms Giving?
During summer the alms giving starts at 5:30, while in the winter months the sun doesn't start rising until 6:30.
I recommend getting there a bit early to find a spot and spend some time watching the locals set up and prepare the food for the monks.
For me, it put in perspective how unproductive I am with my day. Can you imagine getting up before first light every day? I need four alarm clocks to get my ass out of bed for work.
Where Does The Ceremony Take Place?
The alms giving ceremony takes place all over Luang Prabang. One of the most popular routes to witness the giving of alms is by Wat Mai temple on Sisavangvong Road. But, this means that the location is usually filled with tourists.
If you are looking for a quieter spot and a chance to experience a more authentic side to the ceremony, head to one of the side roads. I'd recommend attending an alms giving in both locations to see for yourself how the ritual is being affected by tourism.
How to not be a dick & participate in the Alms Giving Ceremony
If you are planning on participating in the ceremony, here are a few things to keep in mind to respect the ritual and the Laos people:
- Only take part in the ceremony if it is means something to you.
- Buy your rice at the morning market rather than at the street food vendors on the main road.
- Remove your shoes during the ceremony.
- Dress conservatively. Cover your shoulders, chest, and legs.
- Do not make eye contact with the monks or touch them.
- Be silent.
- Keep your phone on silent
- Women must keep their heads lower than the monks at all times.
- Bow your head to show respect to the monks.
How to Not be 'that' guy & take photos respectfully Alms Giving
Here is what you need to know about observing the procession and taking photos:
- Turn off your camera's flash
- Take photos from across the road. Keep a respectful distance.
- Dress conservatively. Cover your shoulders, chest and legs.
- Don't follow the procession. Plan your shots beforehand and pick a spot.
- Keep your phone on silent.
- Don't try to talk to the alms givers or monks.
- Don't touch the monks or get in their way.
When I took part in the ceremony last year, I never experienced any of the bad tourist behaviour. All the foreigners that took part or observed the ritual were respectful and kept to all the above rules.
I hope that when I go back to Luang Prabang (one of my favourite places in the world) that the alms giving ceremony will still be going strong and continue it marches through time.
How do you think travellers can help stop the erosion of cultural rituals?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hey, I'm Lauren! I'm passionate about inspiring young South Africans to travel for less and sharing my experiences and how to navigate the endless visa paperwork along the way. When I'm not busy preparing for the inevitable zombie apocalypse, I'm having a travel fail somewhere and geeking out in countries all over the world. Connect with me on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat!