Monday, March 25, 2013

Tak Bat (Giving of Alms) in Luang Prabang, Laos

Leaving Vietnam, my next destination was Laos. My visa was expiring and I needed to be out of Vietnam in 2 days. I asked the tourist information at my hotel about my options. He told me I could do the bus or fly. Since the travel agent had an inexpensive flight and I jumped at the idea of a 1 hour flight for $125 versus 26 hours on a bus.  I arrived in the beautiful city of Luang Prabang at 10PM. I had read about the area and my friends (Christy and Steve McCrosky) had told me to get up early and watch Tak Bat, the giving of alms to the monks. This ritual has been a part of the area’s religious heritage ever since Buddhism was introduced to Laos in the 14th century -- far longer than modern tourism has existed. I was excited! As many of you know, I am an early morning person so I had no problem with waking up at 5:30 AM. I also love anything cultural. I was so excited for a new learning opportunity. I read up on the custom and looked forward to witnessing the ceremony.  My goal in traveling is to be understanding and respectful to the local cultures. Since this is a religious ceremony and has great meaning to the people of Luang Prabang I wanted to follow their cultural and religious expectations. I found a list of rules on the web.

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.
They are quite simple and easy to follow. Right? I had also read on-line and in Lonely Planet that you should take pictures from across the street or very discretely and not to use a flash. I was educated and ready for sunrise with the monks.

(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.

I had one issue with what I observed. Some of the tourists acted like this was a circus. I was disgusted by their behavior.  It isn't just the tourists but the tour companies that are running Alms Giving packages. The vans of tourist pulled up and the people walked right up to the monks and put a camera in their faces. Others were participating in the ceremony and posing as their friends took photos. I was appalled by the behavior. It was not respectful of the ceremony. Don't be the rude tourist and put your camera in the face of the monks. I started to wonder if it was like this everywhere or just at the one location near my hotel.  Imagine a large tourist bus pulling up to your place of worship and people filing in to the front and taking pictures of you during your wedding, communion or your child's baptism.  I am not trying to preach but was shocked by the rude behavior and lack of consideration to the beliefs of the monks and townspeople. I am no different than these tourists. I wanted to experience the culture. I just preferred to be respectful and stay across the street. I started asking some questions to a man at my hotel. He suggested I get up and witness the ceremony at a couple different locations.
  1. At my hotel Villa Senesouk on Sakkarine Road
  2. Corner of Sakkarine and Sisa Vangvatthana Road
  3. Kounxao Road near Ban Xien Thong
He thought I may make some interesting observations and wanted to me to report back to him. I accepted his assignment. On the second morning, I decided to follow the monks just to understand where they go and identify which locations I would sit and quietly observe the ceremony. I did follow all rules, I did not stalk the monks in a bus! I was on foot. I made a few observations and became a little excited for the subsequent ceremonies.

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!
I returned at 5:45PM for the evening meditation. Bandit invited me into the temple and the ceremony began. I sat on the hard floor enjoying the chanting with pure joy in my heart. The chanting was amazing. I think my heart rate slowed and was in sync with the chanting. Crazy, huh? As the meditation began, they closed the windows and we sat in candlelight. The glow from the Buddha's was beautiful. It was a moment I will always cherish. I was living this moment and reflecting on the amazing journey I was on. Obviously, I am not good at meditation! I could not shut my mind off. It reminded me of the scene in Eat, Pray love where Julia Roberts was trying to flies but very difficult.  I was happy. Their dogs, Blackie and Lucky, were sitting next to me sleeping.
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.


  1. Hey Michelle...Question on your gear. Your photos are incredible. What camera are you using? Also what computer are you using to do this story with? Do you have a phone? Lastly, what brand of backpack did you go with and are you happy with it? Is there anything you would have not brought? Thanks for your time... Love the story on Laos, it's on my bucket list already. Take care, Marsha

  2. Hi Marsha! I am happy to hear that Laos is on your bucketlist. I have traveled all over the world and I love it here. It is a poor country and has had many difficulties in the past. I will write about that in my next update. But the people are wonderful and the countryside is amazing.
    I thought long and hard about what to bring on my trip. I finally decided to bring my Nikon D5000 dSLR with two lenses, a wide angle and a 55-200. I also brought my own laptop, a Lenovo Yoga. I chose it because it is lightweight and flips over to a tablet for reading. I have been downloading all my photos to dropbox but it is a slow process on the road. I just want to make certain all my photos are backed up. They are very precious to me! :)

    I am carrying 2 backpacks. My clothes and personal belongings are in an Ospry backpack. I tried on several and found this was the model that fit me well. I wanted a 45-50L but they only had a 65L. It is bigger than I need and not full. REI does fittings and has a rewards program. It is beneficial to sign-up and buy your gear through REI as you get money back! I also bought a daypack for my camera and laptop. I chose the Lowepro Photohatchback 16L AW. I liked that the camera is placed against your back so it is difficult for pickpockets to steal it. My computer slides in for a nice tight fit. I have room for books, water, sunscreen and other necessities also. So far, I am very happy with all my gear. I will send pictures if you would like.
    Is there anything I wouldn't bring? Yes. I would bring less clothes and instead of hiking shoes I would have done a good pair of athletic hiking sandals. I did the hiking shoes for South America but may go buy a pair of athletic hiking sandals. I have found I could probably survive with 4-5 outfits instead of 7. I will leave something here somewhere. I also bought dri-wick is great because you can wash and wear quickly but some of the RIE stuff is a little hotter in the SE Asia heat. I would go for comfort. Otherwise I am happy. Make sure you pack a sarong or scarf for SE Asia. Culturally, it is not acceptable to have tank tops or shorts above the knee. If you pack these clothes make certain you cover up unless you are at a resort. Several places (museums, temples and tuk-tuks) have signs requiring appropriate dress. Let me know if you need any additional information. I can't wait to hear where and when you are traveling.

  3. Michelle - thank you for this posting. I am in the midst of planning a trip to SE Asia Fall 2013. I was interested to find one of the "better" locations to view the monks. Your info will help greatly! I completely agree with your views of the tourists just working to get the great photo. That is what a zoom is for - isn't it?? We will definitely seek out the quieter locations you mentioned.
    It would be nice to sit in on an evening meditation as well. Can anybody just go in to join them?
    Amy (from Ontario, Canada)

    1. Hi Amy-
      Sorry it has taken me some time to respond. I was traveling in China and my blog was blocked by the government. I hope you have a wonderful trip to Laos and enjoy Luang Prabang as much as I did. The novice monks are wonderful and very eager to practice their English. I would be happy to contact a few of the monks I met and get them in contact with you. I highly recommend sitting in on a meditation if you have the time. They told me I was welcome any time. Please contact me on Facebook (Continental Hopscotch) and I will respond. Have a safe and happy trip!