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.
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.
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.
- 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?