As tourists, I feel we have a responsibility not to detract or ruin certain aspects of different cultures, traditions or rituals. Of course, we’re not doing it on purpose. No one ever means to do that, but we need to find a way to balance being all see and experience beautiful traditions without ruining.
One of the great attractions of Luang Prabang is the daily alms procession along Sakkarin and Kamal roads, which I was able to observe from a quiet distance from the balcony of my guesthouse.
Beginning around 5:30-5:45 a.m., a monk beats a drum which you can hear for miles. No need for an alarm clock.
Shortly thereafter, saffron-clad monks pad barefoot through the streets while pious townsfolk (and tourists, of course) place tiny balls of sticky rice in their begging bowls. It is meant to be a quiet, meditative ceremony through which monks demonstrate their vows of poverty and humility while lay Buddhists gain spiritual merit by the act of respectful giving.
Unfortunately, tourism has reared its ugly head and I suspect that Tak Bat is not as respectful as it once was, based on what I observed. In fact, the number of tourists participating in the procession far outnumber locals.
Tour buses drop off hundreds of tourists bright and early in the morning who chatter loudly and ruin the quiet and meditative aspects. And, most disappointing, was seeing tourists shoving their cameras (with flash, of course) and cell phones a few inches from a monk’s face to get a photo. Worse still, some tourists choose to participate in the alms procession and give very cheap and low-grade rice to the monks, which is worse than not giving anything at all.
This being said, I think it is a beautiful part of the culture and I hope it continues for many years to come – without disrespectful interferences.
How Not to Cause Offence
- Stand across the street from the procession (or watch from the balcony of your hotel, if possible).
- Take photos from a distance and do not use flash.
- Maintain silence.
If You Simply Must Participate
- Ensure that your participation is meaningful (i.e.: not wanting to be photographed during the process).
- Order Kao Kai Noi (the best grade of sticky rice) in advance or pick it up in the market in the morning.
- Carry it in a decent rice-basket (not a plastic bag) – these are available inexpensively in the markets).
- Dress respectfully (covered upper arms and chest, skirts for women, long trousers for men).
- Wash your hands and do not use perfumes or creams which may impart their scent into the rice.
- Remove shoes.
- Put a sash or scarf across your left shoulder.
- Women should kneel with feet folded behind (don’t sit and point your toes/feet at people), men may stand.
- Avoid making eye-contact with the monks.