One of the many reasons why people visit Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is the high concentration of Buddhist monasteries and monks. In this small town of 50,000, there are over 30 Buddhist monasteries and temples. They range in size and age, but they are plentiful.
Monks around town
It is difficult to move about town without seeing monks in colorful robes. Most were students on their way somewhere or hanging out with friends. According to research by Dr. Wantanee Suntikul, most go into the monasteries to receive an education.
Their colorful robes range from yellow, to orange, to red. Many have slight variations and this site seems to do the best job at parsing out the reasons for the differences (Click Here). Regardless, the color was amazing. Most of the time the monks (novice and seasoned) wore sandals. However, during the alms giving ceremony they went without shoes.
It wasn’t really a mountain, but a tall hill. Located in the center of Luang Prabang, many people climb to the monastery on top. Tourists will buy birds and release them for good luck or drink booze at the top stupa (which is a little disrespectful). I climbed up in the morning on my own and took a look around. The views of the small town were great. And of course by the small stupa, piles of broken beer bottles littered the ground.
The hill side had many small temples each adorned with Buddha and arhat statues. The very top of the mountain offered a view of the Mekong, Luang Prabang, and the surrounding hills.
Giving Alms (Sai Bat or Tak Bat)
Every morning, shortly after the monks wake at 4:30am, they go out single file from their respective monasteries to collect alms from local people. The tradition is a way for common people, who may not be able to make it to the temple, to pay homage. It has been a tradition routed in a community relationship between the monasteries and the community that supports them. The monks then use this food as part of their food supplement for the day.
It has also become a tourist attraction. Vendors will sell rice to people who want to participate. Hotels put out mats and provide rice for tourists. Other tourists arrive by vans will that deposit them at the right spot at the right time so they don’t have to wait. They jockey for position to try to get the money shot of the monks receiving alms. Some tourists watch from a distance using their zoom, while others sit quietly.
The guidelines on how to behave are posted everywhere.
- Keep a reasonable distance. This means crossing the road and using a telephoto lens so you won’t intrude on the ceremony. Do not photograph a monk from up close.
- Do not use a camera flash – shoot on a high ISO instead.
- If you feel you must use a tripod, do so from a distance. Do not set up in the path of the procession.
- Observe/photograph in silence.
- Arrive early in order to avoid disrupting the ceremony.
- Dress conservatively. Cover your shoulders, chest and legs.
- Do not get in the way of the monks or those giving alms.
- Do not follow or chase the procession.
- If you wish to change positions when photographing, wait for an appropriate gap in the procession before moving so as not to disrupt the proceedings.
- Be satisfied with a couple of well-thought out shots rather than have your camera shutter constantly disrupting the silence.
There are guidelines for participating as well:
- Only participate in alms giving if it is meaningful to you.
- Participate with a local so you know the correct etiquette.
- Arrive early to avoid disrupting the ceremony once it has begun.
- Buy a fresh thip (basket) of rice from a reputable seller on the morning you wish to participate (your accommodation should be able to arrange this for you). Avoid buying rice from street vendors as it can be of dubious quality.
- Dress in modest clothing with shoulders, chest and legs covered and remove your shoes and socks. Women wear a pha being sash over their left shoulder and chest and men wear a blue checked scarf.
- Kneel with your feet tucked in behind you. Female attendees should keep their heads lower than the monks’ heads.
- Participate in the ceremony in silence so as not to interrupt the monks’ meditation.
The participation and observation in this ceremony by tourists has become controversial. As with all things there was tension between tradition and a desire to earn money. The tourists were becoming so bad the head monks threatened to stop the ceremony. The city threatened to put actors on the streets (as this site contends).
After reading this study The impact of tourism on the Monks of Luang Prabang and thinking about it quite a bit, I decided I would participate. Lonnie was an ardent Buddhist and we knew it would be important to her. We woke at 4am to prepare rice and we had previous purchased about 50 bananas to distribute. Alyssa prepared the rice, but said that she did not want to participate.
We found a spot and I got ready. The women there said that because the rice we made was not sticky rice, we couldn’t put it the monk’s bucket without placing it in a bag. We had one bag so we placed our rice in there.
The young men walked by with buckets opened. I bowed to each, placed a banana in their bucket. I caught glimpses of other items placed in their bucket. Money, candies, Ramen packs, and other food items. I knew they would be eating this rice and I felt bad about placing an unpeeled banana in the bucket, but other people put items far less hygienic in than me. A few monks seemed to smirk, some smiled, most were expressionless.
The last monk was an abbot, and was clearly surprised by the hefty bag of cooked rice in a plastic bag. He smiled and laughed.
Why participate? I wanted to give something back to this community. I wanted to show gratitude and support. Even though I was not a Buddhist, I believed in many of the tenants of Buddhism.