The Tak Bat Rules:
- Observe the ritual in silence and contribute an offering only if it is meaningful for you and you can do so respectfully.
- Buy sticky rice at the local market earlier that morning rather than from street vendors along the monks route.
- If you do not wish to make an offering, please keep an appropriate distance and behave respectfully. Do not get in the way of the monks’ procession or the believers offerings.
- Do not stand too close to the monks when taking photographs; camera flashes are very disturbing for both monks and the lay people.
- Dress appropriate: Shoulders, chests and legs should be covered.
- Do not make physical contact with the monks.
- Large buses are forbidden within the Luang Prabang World Heritage Site and are extremely disturbing. Do not follow the procession on a bus – you will stand above the monks which in Laos is disrespectful.
(Please note all of my photos are taken from across the street. You will see, it is very easy to get a great photo without getting in the face of the monks.)
The next morning I woke with the roosters crowing. I could hear chanting from the wat across from my guesthouse. It was soft and beautiful. I went out to watch the procession. The call to Tak Bat stated with the temple drums beginning a rhythmic signal to the start of the procession. The monks filed out of the monasteries in their saffron robes and formed a line.
I smiled as I saw young boys (as young as 10 years old) intermixed with the older monks. The young novices seemed anxious to go and were looking around at all of the people. The townspeople and some tourists were waiting. The lay women kneel on mats with a rice basket in hand. The men could stand.
It was relatively quiet and the procession of monks filed past and received the sticky rice balls, bananas and money in their alms. The food the monks receive is their sustenance for the day. The townspeople gain merit which they believe will bring them happiness, a peaceful life and strength to overcome any obstacles or misfortune that they may encounter. I was moved by the piety of the givers and receivers. It is beautiful.
- At my hotel Villa Senesouk on Sakkarine Road
- Corner of Sakkarine and Sisa Vangvatthana Road
- Kounxao Road near Ban Xien Thong
At the corner of Sakkarine and Sisavang Vatthana, I noticed there were 10-20 small children and a few women with baskets begging for food from the monks. As the monks rounded the corner, they gave some of their food and money to the children and women. I was in awe of the selfless act that meant so much to the poor. They left with food for the day also. I was amazed that few tourists were on this block. It was a beautiful and meaningful sight and exemplified the Buddhist beliefs.
A little boy just received money from the monks. He was still holding it in his hands.
On Kounxao there were less tourists. This seemed to be more respectful. I witnessed several older townspeople providing the alms instead of tourists. The young novices wandered behind the older novices. I would return the next few days to observe the differences. The pictures from this street were my favorite.
I was happy I talked about my concerns with the young man at my hotel. His suggestions gave me insight into this ceremony and the culture. The first day, I was disgusted and irritated with the tourists that were being disrespectful. I realize that for me it is important to travel respectfully but that is not something that is important to everyone. I had to accept that some people are looking of the pictures that they can paste on Facebook and tell their friends "look what I did on my vacation." My concern from talking and reading about the ceremony is that it is part of the cultural heritage of Luang Prabang. I do not want to see it disappear. I wanted to say something to the tour operators about their appalling behavior. I bit my tongue and decided to further educate myself. I was going to visit the wats and learn about Buddhism.
As I wandered from one wat to the next I enjoyed the temples, statues of Buddha and observing the monks in their world. The Luang Prabang wats are home to 200-300 monks. The majority are novices monks between the ages of 10 and 20. I was surprised that there were few tourists at the wats. The most I saw was 8 in one wat at a time. I noticed the monks watched me just as much as I was enjoying watching them go about their chores and daily life. At the last wat I visited, Wat Paphaimisaiyaram, 2 novice monks came up to me and asked "where are you from?' I told them the USA. He smiled and told me he liked the American accent the best. They asked if I would practice English with them. I was thrilled! My chance to learn about the novices and their culture. We went in and sat down in the temple. Since I had done my homework, I knew that I was not allowed to touch the monks, my feet should be facing away from Buddha and I needed to have my chest, arms and knees covered. We talked about our lives, families, Laos and the USA. Two additional novice monks and two dogs joined us in the temple. They explained that their families sent them to be monks in Luang Prabang because they could not afford to send them to school. In Laos, it is customary that a boy will spend at least 1 day to a week as a novice monk. Many of these boys found that being a novice monk allowed them to get an education and learn English. The 4 boys I talked with had been there 3 months to 2 years. The older boys planned to to leave the wats and go to the University after they graduated. At the age of 20, they can decide if they want to be a monk. Then, the elders and community will meet and decide if they will continue. They asked if I had pictures of my family and home in America. I shared my photos. They laughed and asked more questions. I asked about the alms ceremony and their feelings about the tourist behavior. They explained that it helps the townspeople with tourism which is best for the city. I asked if they are offended when the tourists stand close by taking pictures. They smiled and said it is distracting and they wished they would stand further back. One of the older boys, Bandit (means "new monk" in Laos) asked if I would like to return for the evening meditation and speak more English. I was thrilled to be invited!
Afterwards, we sat and talked and they practiced their English with me. They offered me an iced coffee and they explained they do not get food at night. Wow! My stomach was growling and I realized I needed to say my goodbyes. As I left, they asked me to come back another day. I promised I would. What an amazing day! I felt much better at the end of the day then I had after the tak bat ceremony and it was due to my experience with the monks. I left with a huge smile and ready to enjoy some spicy Lao food.
I would like to make one request to you if you are traveling to Luang Prabang. As travelers, we need to remember we are visitors in the country and to respect local traditions as a cultural experience. Take photos from a respectful distance. Search out the quiet locations and your photos will be beautiful from across the street. Please, don’t destroy the centuries-old tradition of tak bat. If you want a professional photo, buy a post card.