Bad Tourists and the Great Alms Controversy in Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang Monks

Before leaving for Laos I read an article about Luang Prabang by Lara Dunston on her site GranTourismo. In the blog post she detailed an experience heretofore unknown to me, but which apparently is fraught with controversy. Although I had never before heard of it, I soon learned first hand why the practice of observing the daily giving of alms to Buddhist monks in Luang Prabang is indeed a thorny patch for tourists to navigate.

Every morning at sunrise people line the streets of Luang Prabang in order to offer alms of cooked rice to scores of Buddhist monks in their rich saffron colored robes. This is an important part of the cultural heritage of Luang Prabang and has been going on since Buddhism was first introduced to Laos. That was all well and fine until tourism started to get more popular in the city. As travelers, we always want to experience new cultures and what better way than through this daily ritual – right?

Well, sort of.

Luang Prabang alms
Bad Tourists

The problem is that not every tourist is well behaved. In fact, many times they can be downright awful. In a perfect world, tourists would stand at a respectful distance from the monks and allow them to go about their daily lives without interference or annoyance. Some people manage to evoke enough self-awareness to achieve this not-so-difficult feat of responsible travel, but far too many do not.

The problem is twofold. First at fault are the hotels and tour companies who offer ‘alms packages.’ For a nominal sum you can pay someone to equip you with an alms bowl filled with sticky rice and a spot on the alms-giving circuit. If you’re Buddhist and this is meaningful to you, that’s fine. That’s kind of the point. But if you’re not, well, then I have some real problems with that. While I was there many tourists had purchased such packages and not only did they make a game of it, they were at times extremely rude to the monks participating in this daily ritual.

Luang Prabang alms

 

Luang Prabang alms
See the guy taking photos AS he’s giving alms? Not good

The second problem with the process is all of the camera toting, National Geographic wannabes who circle the monks like moths to a flame. I was embarrassed for them, I really was. They were rude, obnoxious and totally disrespectful of the monks as human beings. Lest you think this tradition has become just another tourist attraction, it has not. All around town monks received alms from ordinary folks, residents who have long performed this duty. It is only along a certain stretch of the main tourist district where things are progressively getting out of control.

I knew all of this before participating, and struggled with even attending the alms giving. I didn’t want to contribute to the not-so-slow degradation of a centuries old tradition, but I also wanted to see it for myself. And so I got up at dawn, met the hotel van and took up a position opposite the alms route where I could see everything, but not be in the way. Around me though were tour vans, full of tourists who noisily flooded out of the vehicles and took the streets by storm. The poor monks didn’t know what hit them.

By the time I left I was angry and embarrassed for the behavior of a few that ruined the event for many. I will say not everyone was horrible and much to my chagrin, I was pleased to see many of my own countrymen doing the right thing and not harassing the monks. Am I glad I went? Yes, ultimately I am. Those horrible people would have been there regardless and I know that I behaved myself so I don’t have anything to worry about. I’m also glad I went because I can’t imagine this daily practice will continue much longer.

It’s shame, but the commercialization of what is a sacred and reserved event will ultimately ruin it. As more and more tourists visit Luang Prabang, the size of the tour machine surrounding the alms giving will grow exponentially. But, if you do manage to visit and want to see the giving of alms, be sure to keep a few things in mind.

 Luang Prabang alms

  • Only make offerings if it is meaningful to you. This is not a theme park.
  • Buy your rice in the market, preferably early in the morning rather than with the stallholders on the path of the procession
  • Remove your shoes to give your offerings; women must stay on their knees and ideally wear a scarf over the shoulders.
  • If you’re not making an offering, stay at a distance, in a respectful manner. Don’t hamper the procession and the donations of the faithful.
  • Make sure you are decently dressed, with your shoulders, body and legs well covered, especially if you are giving any offerings.
  • Don’t get too close take photos and never use flash.

With a little respect and self-awareness, you can easily participate in this amazing event without contributing to its destruction. But like so many of these special events around the world, I fear that its time on this planet is short.

Even if you haven’t been to Luang Prabang, what do you think of this practice and how the tourists react?

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By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.Also follow Matt on Twitter, Facebook and

24 Responses

  1. Runaway Brit

    I have not been to Laos so I have not seen the giving of alms at Luang Prabang but I agree with you on all of your points. It’s very easy for those of us who come from countries where religion is no longer ingrained in our daily life and culture to look on the rituals of religion in a foreign country as being there purely for our entertainment/amusement, or as a photo opportunity. However, followers of these religions adhere to the rituals strictly as a daily way of life and it is disrespectful of us to interfere with that, regardless of our own faith and opinion.

    It makes me so angry to see the way people behave around anything that has a sniff of a religious connotation as if their own lack of belief makes it okay to show such disrespect. Like you say, dressing ‘immodestly’, and by that I mean a woman handing out rice to a monk whilst he can see her bra through her tiny tank-top, is not okay. Pushing the monks to take a better picture is not okay.

    I personally also have an issue with when tourists photograph people at prayer inside a religious building–how would you feel if somebody invaded your most private, personal space to flash a camera in your face?

    Reply
  2. Dani | Globetrottergirls

    I witnessed the same scenes when we were in Luang Prabang and I could not believe that there were so many people holding their cameras right into the faces of the monks. There are guides on what to do and what not to do all over the internet, and at least the tour guides of the groups that are arriving there every morning should tell them about the etiquette. I heard rumors that the ceremony might not be continued any longer because the tourists have become too disruptive – it would be sad to see them give up this daily routine because tourism destroyed it.

    Reply
    • Ruairí

      The monks did threaten to stop the alms ceremony along that particular route because it was getting so bad. The government informed that, if they did so, they would replace them with actors dressed as monks so the tourists would still get their ‘show’. So the monks gave in and continued.

      Reply
  3. Lauren, Ephemerratic

    I feel like the continued misbehavior of tourists in this situation is due to the broken windows theory. As soon as one buffoon moves in close with a huge camera, other tourists feel cheated out of the shot and decide to follow the terrible example.

    I wonder if the local tourism boards couldn’t do something to help make this embarrassing, disrespectful situation stop. Having someone even standing by with a sign could be effective, especially if they tried photo bombing with the sign so it ruined the aggressors shots!

    I’m clearly not a believer that people’s behavior will ever change willingly!

    Reply
  4. Lauren

    Matt, I was there a few weeks ago and experienced exactly the same. At one point I saw a guy jumping in front of a monk and putting his camera right in his face, stopping the entire procession. He then started taking photos of his girlfriend who was taking part in the ceremony and making goofy poses. I saw another guy actually push a monk out of the way so he could get up onto the pavement. It was horrific and I left after a few minutes because I just didn’t want to be a part of it. Ugh!

    Reply
  5. Andi of My Beautiful Adventures

    I just can’t even imagine tourists doing that!!!!! I would have been beyond livid

    Reply
  6. Dean

    These type of tourists annoy me. I missed the alms ceremony when I was in Luang Prabang as I couldn’t get out of my guesthouse that early in the morning (door was locked..?). I was annoyed at the time but I’m kind of glad that I missed it now as it sounds like these tourists would have ruined the experience. It’s so important that you respect the culture when you travel to a new country…some people just don’t seem to understand that.

    Reply
  7. Erin

    When I went a couple of years ago it seemed like a really mellow affair, with tourists keeping quiet and staying a good distance away. Perhaps I wasn’t on the most tourist-infested part of the strip, though, as I didn’t see any vans or large groups. Regardless, I would hope that world travelers would have enough courtesy and common sense to know what is appropriate and what isn’t. Obviously not :(.

    Reply
  8. Isabel

    Reading this got me riled up and I wanted to pop in to say that this happens in many places of worship all over the world too. I was recently in Melbourne visiting the beautiful St. Patrick’s cathedral. I did take photos (non-flash) as the signs indicated it was ok to do so unless there was a service/mass in progress and was enjoying the serenity and the silence of the place (as were a few worshippers) when a group of tourists came in chattering away as if they were at the market and jostling for places in front of the altar to take photos. At one point, a couple of them were even yelling to one another across the church! Some people forget that some places are not just tourist attractions, they are always places of worship to others.

    Reply
  9. lakshmi

    I saw a few monks on the streets in Cambodia and my tuk tuk driver told me that they were asking for alms..we did offer a bit and so did he , but thankfully it wasnt a “tourist spectacle “

    Reply
  10. Amanda

    I find the alms-giving practice interesting, but just reading this post made me sick. I hate to think of people acting so rudely… what is wrong with people?!?

    Reply
  11. Aryn

    I find this absolutely shocking as well. I’m an athiest, but I consider it to be of the utmost importance to be respectful to those in religious settings. It’s fine to take photos when they are allowed and at a respectful distance, and as someone above said, often without flash, but I know people who take photos when there are clear signposts stating not to take photos and they thought it was okay because they weren’t using the flash (in this case it was the fresco’s in Goreme, Turkey). However, I was recently at the cave monasteries in Kiev, Ukraine where there are signs everywhere saying that women need to have their heads covered and photos are not to be taken, but despite that people were taking photos and women were walking around with their heads uncovered.

    I even travelled with one girl for a day who blatantly ignored a sign on the door of an orthodox cathedral saying no shorts allowed and head coverings must be worn and walked right in because she wanted to see the interior rather than wait another day to go visit (it was a 5 minute walk from our hostel). It’s this kind of behaviour that I find absolutely disgusting and can understand why places like Morocco do not allow non-muslims to visit religious sites and mosques. It ruins things for not only us tourists who are respectful, but for the locals and religious as well.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      totally agree, it’s very frustrating. Hopefully this will help educate at least a few folks though.

      Reply
  12. Chuck Gribble

    I spent a week in Luang Prabang late last year. I am used to recoiling at the behavior of my so-called “fellow countrymen” (Europeans mostly in that city, some Americans). Sadly, I don’t think there’s a cure for the problem. Too many countries, too many societies put such a high value on tourism that the tourist reigns supreme irrespective of attitude, behavior, or conduct.

    Reply
  13. Barbara

    I watched several alms-giving processions in Luang Prabang in late 2007 and I didn’t see any sign of this kind of carry-on. There were tour groups who had “reserved” spots along the route, which I thought was a bit pushy. But I can’t believe things have degenerated so badly. I don’t know whether to rush back to Luang Prabang to see things before they get any worse, or whether to avoid the place. I have such wonderful memories of my weeks in Luang Prabang. I can’t believe tourists are ruining this beautiful peaceful daily ritual.

    Reply
  14. jan

    We were there in April 2010. Standing back with a not very good camera on zoom, our images were not that good, but we did not want to intrude on the ceremony. Others were standing right up close to take their photos, but not too many. It was early April and as hot as hell (in the 40’s) and the rains had not yet come. There were not that many tourists around, it was all pretty low key. I noticed that it was not just westerners, but Asians also who were right up close with their cameras. I certainly hope that tourism does not put an end to this tradition. I think the authorities are going to have to educate, and push the etiquette rules, possibly through the hostels and guesthouses. It seems like common sense to not intrude though. Sigh.

    Reply
  15. Kellie

    I had a similar thought provoking experience in Luang Prabang. Interested in learning more about the daily lives of the locals and understanding the alms giving procession is a key part of their beliefs and culture, I set my alarm for an early rise and set off to experience if for myself. I sat on the other side of the road, not only observing the monks themselves, but the locals around them, setting up their market stalls for the day, interacting with each other and had some great conversations with them.

    The experience was ruined by the arrival of some tourists who had set their alarms ‘just in time’ to see the monks arrive and pushed through the locals to get ‘pole position’ for that great photo opportunity. I even heard one woman raise her voice in frustration as she said “For F**KS SAKE, they are walking too fast, I can’t get a decent photo”

    I was horrified. And embarrassed that she was from the same country as myself.

    It is unfortunate that local guesthouses are promoting this as a tourist attraction. Not only do they need to change their mindset, but travellers need to remember they are visitors in the country and to respect local traditions as a cultural experience, not a tourist attraction.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      I agree and I too witnessed such horrors. Like all things it’ll get worse before better, but I do hope it gets better before we destroy forever a wonderful tradition.

      Reply
  16. Au Yong

    I skipped the procession and was quite surprised with how touristy LPB been turned into…Things are pleasant in southern Laos.

    Reply
  17. GiselleandCody

    We are in Luang Prabang right now and we are skipping the Alms Ceremony altogether.
    I don’t want to have to witness some ignorant tourist trying to get that perfect shot by getting in the monks faces.
    It upsets me reading your blog and I wish people would be more conscious about what they are doing :(

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      I agree, one can only hope it’ll get better.

      Reply
  18. Chelsea

    Just remember Buddhist teachings. I think a monk would tell you not to get upset at the situation, it is not the poorly behaved tourists who have the problem, it is you who has the problem with the poorly behaved tourists :-) if you ever get a chance to have a monk chat you should ask them about it and see what they say. I would be curious to find out their response. Good travels.

    Reply
  19. Hannah@GettingStamped

    We just were in Laos and your article is spot on, it is become an embarrassment.

    Reply
  20. Annie

    I was there in February, 2014. I was surprised that there were also little ones (around 5 to 6 years old) begging on the streets. Fortunately, the monks were kind enough to share their offerings with them. These kids did not have the privilege to sleep late and go to school. It tells us that Laos has not recovered from the constant bombings done by the Americans some years ago.

    Reply

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