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?
46 thoughts on “Bad Tourists and the Great Alms Controversy in Luang Prabang, Laos”
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?
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.
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.
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!
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!
I just can’t even imagine tourists doing that!!!!! I would have been beyond livid
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.
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 :(.
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.
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 “
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?!?
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.
totally agree, it’s very frustrating. Hopefully this will help educate at least a few folks though.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I skipped the procession and was quite surprised with how touristy LPB been turned into…Things are pleasant in southern Laos.
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 :(
I agree, one can only hope it’ll get better.
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.
I agree. But judgement is deeply rooted in our behaviour, and most of us have incurred in this “bad people do that but I don’t because I’m good” attitude, thousands of times. However, spreading the word about how to behave respectfully is really useful, in my opinion ?
We just were in Laos and your article is spot on, it is become an embarrassment.
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.
The US also bombed Germany, Japan and what is now South Korea. They all prosper now. The bombing of Laos was devastating, no doubt – but the poverty you see in Laos today is to be blamed on today’s communism rather than more of half a century ago. You sound like a victim of America’s modern educational system.
I’m writing this from Luang Prabang – I viewed the Alms giving ceremony this morning. We took a seat on someones front steps, carefully out of the way, kept our cameras down (took 2-3 photos) but mostly just wanted to watch this important and interesting tradition (we wouldn’t take part as we are not Buddhist and so could not fully appreciate the significance of it) – we had read the ‘rules’, but wowsers – we were disgusted by 80% of the other tourists there – There was a group that had purchased from the street vendors and who had a friend running around taking photos of them giving, there was constant flash photography, there was tourists up in their faces, and we even saw a guy oblivious to the fact that he was just wandering through the middle of the oncoming procession while trying to take a photo of the monks walking away – he was so in the way that the oncoming monks had to walk around him. There was absolutely no respect for this important tradition. I am embarrassed to be a tourist and see the monks treated this way. I wanted to observe something culturally significant (I love to travel and learn about the culture behind the country!), but instead I just felt ashamed that as tourists, we have turned something like this, into something awful. I hope they do stop it, or ban the tourists!
I was in Luang Prabang just a few days ago and witnessed what you (and everybody else) described. It was like Disneyworld in Laos. But then what can you say of people travelling thousands of miles to end up eating in a pizza restaurant?! Just plain pathetic!
Must I say, I was surprised to read that you “met the hotel van” to go to the procession area. Everything is at walking distance in Luang Prabang and part of this disastrous situation stems also from the fact that the opposite side of the road is lined up with vans full of lazy people. I mean, really, can’t people wake up a little early and walk their way to the place? My two cents…
We debated whether we should go to see the alms giving in Luang Prabang. As much as we wanted to see the monks and the locals taking part in the ceremony, we also didn’t wanted to be part of the tourist spectacle that we heard the entire ritual had become.
We decided to go and keep our distance, having thoroughly read up on the correct way to behave. We arrived before 6am and found ourselves a spot on the opposite side of the road. About 15 mins later, the craziness started.
As the monks arrived, tourists ran into their path, snapping their sought after photos, flashes going off in the faces of the monks and the locals. We saw people running alongside the procession, trying to get yet more photos. Then there were the tourists “participating” in the ritual – while filming with the ever popular selfie sticks.
What is meant to be a meaningful and beautiful ritual, has become a show. It is as if the tourists here feel that this is a procession / parade put on specifically for them. The lack of respect was disgusting.
The thing that annoyed me the most was that this is not ignorance in most cases. The guidelines on how to behave (and how not to behave) are all over town, in guidebooks, online and at temples. The desperation to capture the event on camera seemed to outweigh any notion of respect that these people had and these guidelines just went out of the window.
I’ve found myself being angered by disrespectful tourists all over Asia (and other parts of the world), but this was by far the worse.
Now that we have had breakfast and returned to our guesthouse, I wish we hadn’t gone. We didn’t get to see a beautiful peaceful ritual – what we saw was tourists showing a huge amount of disrespect for the culture of the country they are visiting. Although,we maintained our distance, covered our arms and legs and tried to be as discrete as possible, I still feel that our presence added to the air of disrespect that now surrounds the giving of alms in Luang Prabang.
I am really enjoying the information on your site. I recently read about the Alms giving ceremony in a La Residence publication and was excited to participate until I read your article. I am interested in Buddhism and I love experiencing new cultures, so the Alms giving seemed like an amazing opportunity. I am disappointed and horrified that this special tradition is being disrupted by disrespectful tourists.
and I am disappointed that this special ceremony is being description of the experience really resonated with my spiritual side.
Go watch it, just be courteous as I’m sure you would have been anyway.
…actually you don’t have to have much phantasy to expect this to happen. Without having read of the nuisance I already vividly imaged it on my way to L.P. – More often than not it seems to be much more difficult to refrain from doing (or consuming) things, so why not face this challenge every once in a while. (Or else go to a mosque in let’s say Islamabad and take your picture at prayer time there. Or, for the less adventurous and to begin with, take a picture of your local priest during mass.)
I have just returned from a four country tour of SE Asia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam with OAT, consisting of a group of 14 Americans plus our Trip Leader and a Local Guide. Before we attended the Alms Giving in Luang Prabang, we given clear and emphatic instructions on how to view this ceremony with each of us sitting quietly and respectfully. We were told that if we wanted to take photos, exactly how and what to do, waiting until there was a big break in the procession. No one in our group spoke to the Monks or got in their faces. We all treated it solemnly as the occasion demanded. Only afterwards, did I see other tourists rushing around to take good shots, but even then, I must say that it wasn’t as crazy as some of the other posts indicated, thank goodness.
Good! Glad you had a responsible guide who gave you great advice. well done!
I am so glad I came across this article. I am traveling to Thailand in January, and I really wanted some tips on whether or not it’s even appropriate for me to observe the alms giving. I really hate it when tourists treat the local culture and traditions like a theme park. Show some respect!
I was there in January and left the ceremony furious because of the way people the ceremony life a photo opportunity and show pony act. People were actually putting their cameras right in the faces of the monks and blinding them with the flash. I wish wasn’t open to tourists because even though many have the best intentions and do it right, they are always overshadowed by those direspectful few (or on the day we were there, the majority) who are just plan disrespectful.
In July, 2015 I was in Luang Prabang. My wife and I went to see the alms giving in the morning and there were few locals sitting on the roadside and offered the alms to the monks. We went to see the devotional alms giving by the people to the Buddhist monks as their religious duty. Being from Sri Lanka, I am familiar with is practice and it is an important daily routine to all buddhist families in the Sri Lanka buddhist villages. My wife bought a tray of sweets and small packets of crispy items as offering to the monks. Once you appreciate in this practice there is no harm in ding this.
It is just teenage boys scrounging food to save the religious leaders from paying, at the end of the day. All the orange robes look pretty, but, come on
I went in 2010 and got up before the monks left their wats, watched them congregate and March off all from a respectful distance. Everybody back then respected the tradition and the only noise was from the odd cockerel. I am going again in two weeks time and am praying that my wife will observe the same tranquility as I experienced before. I will let you know…….
Hi interesting read I literally just watched the Alms giving in Luang Prabang. I am a photographer and I am not religious so I am glad you say don’t give unless it’s meaningful. I just read your post feeling like I behaved appropriately I kept to the opposite side of the street did not use flash and did not get within a metre of a monk or look directly at them. I too became angry though at the hotel package deal however the guide did prep them well and ensured they kept quite throughout and kept the correct ettiqutte. After they had finished their Alms giving though one guy gave some more with a video camera shoved in the monks face while giving so rude. After the monks left I took photos of the ladies giving having a morning chat but only with their permission and a smile and if they where praying I prayed with them not to god but a thought of thanks. Then I took my photos. I am so glad I have learnt this approach because I get genuine smiles and shared moments with people rather than disrespectful non smiling people while I shove my camera in their face.
The tour guides need to take more responsibility and have leaflets of ettiqutte in the hostels would be so easy. The only sign I saw was outside a temple.
I am going to write something for my guesthouse owner to leave in the hostel.
Thanks for the guide luckily I guessed all this but would have been good to have before hand !
When I first read this, a part of thought you were being holier-than-thou. Then I went to the ceremony just this morning and was utterly depressed. Bus loads of older German tourists came in, and participated in the ceremony in a most depressing manner. About 50 of them along with 50 other (more respectful) korean tourists were lined up passing out rice. The European tourists in particular were extremely loud as the monks were walking by. I can’t tell you how many of them kept using flash RIGHT IN THE MONKS FACES. It was terrible. They were taking photos of themselves and their friends the whole time. Laughing and screaming. All the while other tourists speaking German and french were standing on the street chasing down groups of monks. Luckily they stayed just for 30 minutes and left before the next wave of monks. It was shocking. I saw only a few respectful tourists standing at a distance in silence to observe the monks. The whole thing is a spectacle. Those tourists had no understanding of the sanctity of this religious act – they were just partaking for the photo op and chance to tell a cool story on social media. It literally is the same thing as a non catholic taking selfies while reviving communion. Or non-Muslims visiting a mosque and going through the motions of Islamic prayer just for the photos. I know people may think I’m unfairly singling out Europeans, but those are the groups of tourists I saw who were most disrespectful. Americans who have the bad reputation were actually by far the most considerate tourists there that I saw. The 20 or so Dutch tourists I saw were very good too. But bus loads of package tourists really are ruining this.
I was in LP a couple of years ago. I didn’t observe any particularly poor behavior although I felt the pressure of the tourism. Our guide, who had been a monk through his high school years, did prepare us well. My mom and I stayed on our knees, made no direct eye contact, were appropriately covered with a shawl, served home-made rice, no photos until I had completed the alms-giving and crossed to the other side of the street. I am a person of faith and found the experience very moving. In fact, I went a second day on my own just to watch; I rode a bicycle into town well before sunrise to watch the people setting up for this daily ritual, the monks leaving the temples and pouring onto the streets. It was beautiful. I kept my distance, no flash photos, stayed clear of the more crowded areas. I think the difficulty is when crowds of tourists gather in any one place — the balance shifts to their presence and perceived needs. Perhaps if LP could figure out a way to disperse the tourists or put limits on group size, the sanctity of the ritual could be preserved.
I am completing book about ancient sites in Southeast Asia and came across your image of monks and tourists at Luang Prabang. This is an academic publication with little prospect of profits. I wonder if I could get a one-time use permission from you to use the image? I teach archaeology and historic preservation at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Your image fills an important gap in my coverage and would add greatly to the publication. I would give full credit to the photographer- I’m assuming Matt Long.
I am in Luang Prabang right now, but going to the alms procession is not on my list of things to do. One reason is that Buddhist monks make this procession all over Thailand and Laos. Perhaps it would be better to chat to people elsewhere in the region and give alms to monks in other places. There seems to be no shortage of food for the monks in Luang Prabang and perhaps the offer would be appreciated more elsewhere. Having said that, I am enjoying Luang Prabang so far.
We spent some days in Luang Prabang end of November 2016. I also went into the town to se the monks, but I was shocked. I was standing on the opposite side of the street and I could ‘nt hardly see the monks because of the people who took close up fotos and used flash. I am wondering what the Lao tour guides are telling those people, they should tell their clients how to behave. There wasn’t even a minimum of respect. I left the scenery quickly and very angry……
We went in February, and we’d heard that this solemn ceremony had turned into a bit of a circus with people lining up to take photos. We weren’t going to go. But as the days went on, we thought we should see it before we left. We were just going to keep our distance and not take photos. Then we saw all the stalls with the rice and the snacks. What a racket! I thought. But we ended up befriending a gentleman visiting from Japan, with his tour guide, and they convinced us to do it. We took off our shoes and he showed us how to put the shawl on. The tour guide took photos from a safe distance. We felt like we were respectful of the monks and the ceremony, and I was very humbled and moved by the whole experience. Still conflicted about my participation in it though, and contributing to the commercialization of it all.
I loved Luang Prabang and its simple beauty and peacefulness. Riding our bikes through town, with the sound of the monks banging the drums, and then later their singing/chanting, was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced.
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