7 Ways To Be A Good Tourist at Alms Giving in Luang Prabang

Emma - 05 March 2017

Our recent visit to Luang Prabang was slightly marred by the way tourists behave during the alms giving ritual each morning. I found my heart sink to see an ancient tradition be eroded into a pantomime, and regretted participating in the destruction of what was once a reflective, tranquil part of a young monk's day. While I appreciate that everyone travels differently, here's the top 7 ways you can be a good tourist in Luang Prabang when attending alms giving.

1. Don't buy food from hawkers on the street

When Lao people give food to monks during the procession, they give good quality, freshly cooked sticky rice. The monks need high quality food that has been prepared with care.

Vendors on the street sell baskets of food such as crisps, biscuits, and other rubbish. We saw many of the monks carrying enormous plastic bags of the stuff, some clearly struggling with the weight. Not only did the food for sale look expensive (10,000kip for one packet of biscuits), it's also not a healthy diet. Fruit, vegetables and sticky rice are the best options.

However, worse still is the bad quality sticky rice that is sold, which is unhygienic and low grade. It gets mixed in with the good quality rice they receive later. If you wouldn’t want to eat it, I can promise you that the monks don't.

On the smaller streets you'll see Lao people giving alms, and on the floor beside them is a basket. We watched as the monks paused to take the junk food out of their alms bowl and toss it in there. The Lao then quietly take away the junk food.

A Lao woman waiting for the monks to arrive As this Lao woman waits for the monk's procession to arrive, she sits silently and patiently, with a basket of fresh sticky rice, shoes off, and a scarf over her shoulder.

2. Don’t dress inappropriately

If you’re not happy wearing it into a temple, you should not be wearing it here. No shorts and no strappy tops!

3.Don’t use flash on your camera

Think for a minute how horrible it must be to be a monk in the procession, especially a young novice, being repeatedly blinded by camera flashes. Learn to use your camera better so a flash isn’t necessary. It ruins the event for everyone around you and you can see the discomfort on your victims’ faces.

4. Don’t get in the way of the procession

This is one of my pet peeves! People who think they’re the world’s best photographer and deciding that they’re important enough to get in the way of the ritual in the name of getting the perfect shot. Stand respectfully to the side and out of the way.

5. Don’t make lots of noise

Observe around you and you will realise that the alms giving is a silent and solemn process for all the genuine participants. This makes the tourist scrum all the more distinct with its excited chattering and flurries of camera clicks

6. Be aware of what the alms giving is about

It is an age-old morning ritual. Monks have taken a vow of poverty, and in taking their food from the people they are displaying their humility. In turn, those donating are making merit through their charity, giving food to the monks is their way of supporting the monasteries just as the monasteries support them. It’s a community ritual, a symbiotic system which we are upsetting by our invasion. We decided it wasn't appropriate for us to give alms at all, as we would be interrupting the true community spirit of the ritual.

7. Consider not going at all!

We knew from reading other travel blogs that alms giving in Luang Prabang had become something of a tourist circus. But we were blown away by the extent. The Sisavangvong Road (the main tourist road, running by Mt Phou Si) was totally lined on both sides by minibuses. The road further down had been closed, and was crowded by people taking pictures and sitting on their little alms giving seats. When we finally found a much quieter place to watch from, on Kounxoua, we felt like we could watch the procession of monks. But nevertheless, the number of tourists on the road far outnumbered Lao people giving alms. It felt that however hard we tried to be respectful and inconspicuous, we were just adding to the problem.

To be honest I think that 90% of the problem is tour groups, and they’re unlikely to be the ones reading this blog.

Monks receiving alms in Luang Prabang