Date Traveled August 2012
Luang Prabang is a city of Wats or Buddhist monasteries. There are many Wats there and the monks who live in them are a common sight around the city. Every morning in Luang Prabang many of the monks and residents take part in the Tak Bat, or morning alms giving ceremony.
Alms giving is a common practice in Buddhism, particularly Theravada Buddhism that is practiced in many countries including Laos. It is considered to be a great "merit" for a common person to give alms to monks. Likewise, monks go around collecting alms to be able to continue their ascetic lifestyles and more importantly to be able to give an opportunity for people to gain merit by offering them alms. I am half Sri Lankan and was born there and would visit family there quite frequently growing up. I remember how people would throng temples, particularly on religious holidays, to pray and give alms to lines of monks. They would either be seated and given food directly or sometimes move in a line while people fill up their bowls. Occasionally on certain days like anniversaries of relatives who had passed away, monks would be invited to visit homes and would be given alms there as well.
The Mekong river in Luang Prabang at dawn
In older times, the practice of monks walking the streets to collect their alms was common in most countries following Theravada Buddhism. This has for various reasons become uncommon or impractical in modern times and is rarely practiced anymore. Luang Prabang is one of the few places in the world where the alms giving ceremony is still followed, everyday. This and the fact that most visitors to Luang Prabang have probably never seen or experienced this cultural tradition before has understandably made it a popular tourist attraction. And like everything else, there are bad tourists who are quite rude to the monks jostling to get pictures up close. This is seriously not good behavior and I will reiterate the polite requests I received as well, watch the ceremony quietly and from a respectable distance without getting too close to the monks unless you intend to partake in the alms giving yourself, in which case also do so respectfully.
The alms ceremony starts at 6:00 in the morning everyday and monks stream out from the monasteries in different groups, walking in a line with the more senior monks in front. We were up by 5:30 and about by 5:45 looking for the monks and were not sure where to go other than that it was supposed to be on the inner street right behind our hotel, the BelleRive. Just look for where the local residents have little stools setup with their sticky rice offerings and you know they will be coming that way. The residents also don't line up to offer alms until it is almost exactly time, so the only people waiting really early would be eager tourists and vendors offering to sell you sticky rice for the monks. There is really no need to be up earlier than necessary looking for a good spot, there is plenty of room and the monks walk in many parts of the town, so you will not miss anything. I do believe that the largest concentration of the monks are probably at the area by the night market but you will be able to see little processions from most parts of the historic district.
Monks receiving alms outside the Wat Nong
We did not intend to participate so stood across the street from a Wat, the Wat Nong and watched the monks pass by collecting their alms right in front of the monastery. I tried to be as discreet as possible taking pictures but I think I failed miserably on that front. In the end I figured the easiest way was to have my video turned on and hold it by my waist to capture the moment. I certainly hope I was respectful enough, short of not using the camera at all.