It is 4:30 am in the dark streets of Luang Prabang, and I feel the chill air on my cheeks. I am still wondering if all this was a good idea, as we are walking the empty alleys of the former capital of Laos before sunrise. Somehow, I still want to form my own opinion about the morning alms ritual that is so famous in Luang Prabang and try to answer the question that has been bugging me for a while: how can an ancient religious tradition of meditative nature become a controversial tourist attraction?
Ancient tradition that can be found in many religions, giving alms is a morally good deed by which one person gives something to another. Morning alms giving in Laos is a century-old Buddhist ritual in which food is offered to monks in a humble way. As it is a deeply spiritual act, the offering has to really come from the believer, and definitely not be bought nor bargained in the street. At sunrise, dozens of monks in their orange robes walk barefoot in a meditative procession to collect the homemade offerings.
The scene is slightly different in Luang Prabang… Passing a street corner, a woman carrying two woven baskets of sticky rice, balancing on a metre-long bamboo stick she carries on her shoulders approaches us. “You buy, food for monk!” Surprised, I study the scene and realise that little plastic stools are lined up along the sidewalk, and some tourists are taking a seat. A man is still placing the last stools of what seems to be an uncountable number of them, when a bus load of tourists approaches lead by a guide loudly explaining the ritual. Another woman jumps at us: “Please buy food now!” she screams. Shocked, we step back to a seemingly quiet street corner at a distance to observe. More street vendors are showing up, selling their rice to some tourists who eagerly buy it and sit down on the stools. The excitement gets more palpable as the first monks are in sight. Tourists are running up and down the procession of monks in an attempt to get that great shot. In the darkness, flashes brighten up the expressionless faces of the monks and selfie sticks pop up.
Urban legend or not, it is said that the monks threatened the local authorities to stop the ritual. To what the authorities would have replied that then they would hire actors… Discouraged, it seems that the problem was solved by sending the youngest monks out for this tough mission. If in Luang Prabang, the tourist attraction the alms ritual has become makes it difficult for monks, in Vientiane, we learnt that modern life is another challenge monks are facing: less and less people can cook food to give it to the monks, as their busy city lives get in the way.
The circus around the morning alms ritual of Luang Prabang is all the more ridiculous as this tradition is very common all over Laos and neighbouring countries. In many villages, monks walk the streets every day and inhabitants give their offerings on a little stool in front of their shop or house. Sometimes, monks chant before continuing their way. Being a discreet and respectful observer can be rewarding, taking in this tradition, and maybe snapping a good photo from a distance, rather than encouraging a masquerade.
Claire & Marcella
- For ethical and artistic reasons, we took some photographs of the whole scene from far with a tele-lens and a long shutter speed and of course without any flashes in order to capture what we think is a horrendous intrusion of a sacred tradition.
- If you do go, please don’t buy street food to offer it to the monks as you are encouraging a business around them that they just suffer from.
- Check out this interactive map to experience other great activities in Luang Prabang, and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!