Alms-giving in Luang Prabang, Laos – how not to behave at a religious ceremony

They slip silently down the temple steps, sleepily adjusting their robes. Alms bowls at the ready, the monks of Luang Prabang begin to make their daily dawn collection along the streets of this UNESCO world heritage town. On the road directly outside a temple at the foot of Phu Si, local women kneel and hand over sticky rice and assorted sweet treats as the monks file past. Standing across the road at a safe distance, we are on the only non-locals around.

But as we round the huge hill which dominates the town and walk down the main strip, the numbers of tourists, and monks, begin to swell. Soon, one side of the road is an endless queue of men in orange robes, collecting food. Street kids follow behind to help carry the donations or simply hoping to pick up a desperately-needed meal. 

Those giving alms are, by and large, local people.And although the odd group of tourists join in, most stand on the other side of the road and follow the alms etiquette which appears in every Laos guide book and even appears on signs outside temples (pictured).

Most, but sadly, not all. And it’s here where I start to wonder whether crawling out of bed and into yesterday’s clothes at 5am was a wise choice. There’s an air of voyeurism, which, as a non-believer, I find hard to shake. This isn’t helped by two older ladies who insist on standing directly in front of the monks, pushing their cameras in their faces and cutting across the line in order to get better shots and natter to others who seem to think this is simply a tourist attraction, rather than a religious rite which requires respect.

The monks are too polite to say anything, but we stand flabbergasted as this pair, and others, laugh and joke as if this whole thing is being done for their benefit. Indeed, we’d even met one of the two main culprits two days previously, after rising too late for the alms ceremony. She’d asked us if we knew it had finished, and when we said it seemed so, she shrugged. “Oh well,” she said. “It’s just a show put on for tourists.” In fact, alms giving is a ceremony which happens in every town in Laos and in many towns and cities throughout South East Asia, whether tourists are around or not.

If she’d read the signs or guidebooks, she’d have known that the monks would have found her behaviour embarrassing. It’s hard to believe her approach was intentional, but there was clearly a failure to research local customs and the etiquette that surrounds them. Sadly, this all too common behaviour is degrading this stunning spectacle.

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