Today, I was watching a chef called Gary Mehigan on his Far Flung show (Sunday mornings on the FYI channel, if you are interested). As this affable, passionate chef talked us through a sticky rice recipe, I found my ire being sparked (an occupational hazard of aging, I find). You see, this sticky rice recipe was for Gary to offer to monks in the famous Luang Prabang alms giving ceremony.
The alms giving ceremony is not unique to Luang Prabang. All over Asia, faithful Buddhists rise before dawn to prepare dishes (often sticky rice). They sit on a mat on the ground, and hand offerings to local monks as they walk the streets. These offerings form the food that the monks will eat for the day, and is also shared by the monks with the poor. The daily act is a simple but generous and meaningful one between the locals and their monks.
For a spectator, even one with only rudimentary understanding of the ceremony, it is beautiful to watch. Lines of monks, clad in saffron robes, glide quietly through the misty dawn. For the monks, it is a meditative time of the day, conducted in peace and silence.
Luang Prabang is particularly well known due to the proportionately high number of temples (also known as Wats) in the town; the ceremony is no different but the long lines of orange robes against the pretty white buildings make for a particularly striking photo.
Having caught a teasing glimpse of the alms offering taking place early one morning outside our guesthouse, we were keen to see more and rose (bleary eyed) at 5am one day and headed up to the Main Street to watch what we assumed would be the principle Luang Prabang alms giving ceremony.
Back to Chef Gary for a moment, who is now lovingly cooking his nutritious, handmade dish of mung beans and sticky rice and discussing how he will be handing it to the monks. I am shouting at the TV. The reality is, you see, rather different.
We walked through the deserted streets of Luang Prabang and picked a spot near a Wat which we thought looked like a good vantage point. We sat on the kerb opposite, mindful of not disturbing the ceremony and waited, wishing we’d brought money with us to patronise the already open coffee shop. Roadside sellers approached us and tried to sell us sticky rice dishes so we could participate, but we refused. As we are not Buddhist, it felt like we’d cheapen the ceremony by participating without really understanding the context or meaning. Not to mention that the rice sold at the roadside is purportedly poor quality; monks have apparently gotten very sick after eating it. What does that do to your karma?!
We waited for an hour (cue slightly mutinous mutterings in my ear about being dragged out of bed) until figures began to appear out of the dawn. They weren’t monks, but other tourists also bearing zoom lenses on their cameras who joined us on the far side of the road. We waited on, in silence.
A short while later, as dawn broke, the tour buses arrived. Minivan after minivan appeared, releasing their chattering mob of clients to the street before heading off to try and find a parking spot. It was chaos. Imagine a morning school run, but done only with minibuses, multiply it by a factor of about 1000 and you’re getting close. Many of the tourists went and took up stools laid out on the pavement for them. The roadside sellers hurried over to furnish them with their rice offerings. Selfie sticks were out in force; camera flashes were constantly going off like a firework display. There were few locals joining them.
Presently, a giant golf buggy came and parked right in front of where we’d been sitting for the last hour; the tourists sat inside the buggy so they had an elevated spot for their photos. My heart sank as we got up to move. I had a really bad feeling about this.
We were about ready to walk away when I saw a flash of orange out of the corner of my eye. The monks were walking up the street in a line, beginning their alms route. The giggling tourists handed over their rice offerings as the monks walked by.
The scene gradually evolved into chaos. Tourists from all countries, who were presumably living out some kind of lifelong fantasy where they are the principle photographer on a groundbreaking National Geographic* magazine assignment, ignored the official requests to observe from a distance. They dived in front of the monks, ducked around them and weaved in between them. Giant DSLR cameras were thrust right in the monks faces, and bright flashes went off every few seconds. Tourists climbed onto the walls of the temple complex for a better vantage point. It’s not often I’m lost for words, but we watched in silence, dumbstruck and horrified. Where the hell did these disrespectful, thundering cretins think they were? Disneyland?
Just for a bit more context, these monks weren’t all adults. Apparently monks can ordain from the age of 12, but these kids looked much younger – some about 10 years old. Can you imagine a busload of foreign tourists pitching up at a Christingle ceremony in a UK church, or to communion, or mass, and shoving a giant flash camera in the face of a child? Why, I hear you ask, am I then shouting at some poor innocent TV chef? Because Gary, bless him, without meaning to, has perpetuated the problem with the alms ceremony as a spectacle. It was not put on for tourists. It was not put on for TV.
I don’t know if Gary is Buddhist or not, but if his using the alms ceremony to promote a (delicious I’m sure) rice recipe inspires even one person to head to Laos and “have a go” at feeding monks, like they were at some kind of spiritual petting zoo, they won’t be handcrafting some healthy dish in a kitchen. They will probably, unknowingly, be buying the crappy, sickness-inducing roadside rice that poisons the monks.
I’m not sure what the future holds for the alms giving of Luang Prabang. I suspect there will be a divide between the “tourist”
circus ceremony and a quieter, separate alms route for locals, if this doesn’t already exist. It surely cannot continue as it is. Apparently, the monks threatened to stop unless tourist behaviour was curbed, but the local authorities said they would replace the monks with actors (would anyone notice..?) and the monks felt forced to continue. Perhaps some kind of “alms police” to keep order is the answer, although it is sad that it has come to that.
Is there hope? I did notice a slight divide in the behaviour of tourists. The main perpetrators of the bad behaviour tended to be slightly older, or belong to tour groups. By contrast, younger travellers seemed to have researched and considered how to behave and kept a respectful distance, even if it did mean they didn’t get “the shot” of monks they’d hoped for. I think this is where travel blogs and websites come into their own; the Lonely Planet South East Asia guidebook, by contrast and perhaps deliberately, makes no mention of the alms giving ceremony. Perhaps education will start to filter through a wider range of travellers and behaviour will start to improve. The question is whether the alms ceremony can hang on long enough for that to happen.
If you want to experience the alms giving ceremony of Luang Prabang
- If you wish to participate, please carefully consider your motivations for doing so. Be honest with yourself. Do you secretly want to work for National Geographic* magazine? Also, please don’t buy the roadside rice; your guest house may already make alms offerings and be able to prepare you a safe, healthy dish for the monks. Shoulders should be covered when making offerings, and monks cannot make physical contact with women.
- If you want to only observe, then high five, you responsible traveller you! Please do so silently, and from a distance to avoid disturbing the ceremony. If using a camera, use a zoom lens, and turn off your flash. A National Geographic photographer knows when to fire the flash.
- Avoid the Main Street. Honestly, it’s genuinely upsetting. Ask your guesthouse if there is a route where the locals make offerings and where you can observe quietly (it’s worth emphasising you don’t want to participate to avoid any confusion). This may be quite a bit earlier than the Main Street route, which takes place at about 6:45am.
*I mean no disrespect to the talented, thoughtful work of National Geographic photographers!