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Luang Prabang is Laos’s premier tourist destination. A World Heritage City heralded for its beautiful blend of colonial architecture, traditional Buddhist wats, tropical atmosphere and riverside location, it has all the requisite elements of the perfect town – and the many visitors it welcomes every year agree. Yet despite its popularity, Luang Prabang has somehow managed to retain its quiet, peaceful ambience, meaning that you can still stroll down its high street in the middle of the day and see barely a soul. So far, so uncontroversial – but there is one aspect of life in Luang Prabang that is not as idyllic as many would like: the morning alms.
What is the morning alms ceremony?
Every morning at the break of dawn, Luang Prabang’s many orange-clad monks leave their wats in silence and file through the streets of the old town, collection offerings from the people who kneel by the roadside. Nobody can say how long the tradition has been carried out, but it’s clear that the alms ceremony is a timeless part of the cultural landscape of Luang Prabang.
What’s the problem?
Tourism has always been inspired by the noble desire to see and understand other cultures, but you wouldn’t know it from the way some of us behave. In our desire – or should I say desperation – to press our noses up against the window into other people’s lives, we have a tendency to forget that the whole thing isn’t a show put on for our entertainment – and that we might just possibly be making a nuisance of ourselves. This is the problem with the morning alms.
In increasing numbers, tourists in Luang Prabang are hurling themselves in front of the saffron procession, pushing their cameras in the faces of the monks, and generally doing anything they possibly can to get that perfect shot of this centuries-old ceremony – apparently completely unaware that their behaviour detracts in any way from the tradition.
It’s not everyone, mind. It’s just people like this guy:
This man single-handedly ruined my enjoyment of the morning alms when I visited in April – in fact, looking at this picture still makes steam come out of my ears. In an ideal world I’d have snatched his selfie stick and attempted a DIY endoscopy – but being English and more afraid of making a scene than anything else in life, I contented myself with seething in silence while I ground my teeth to stubs.
Why the local authorities have not yet enforced a “no photos” policy at the morning alms I am at a loss to understand, but I can only hope that they do it soon. As soon as it happens – and as far as I’m concerned, it must – perhaps the insatiable need to document every second of life’s experiences will be temporarily stemmed, and Luang Prabang’s tourists will go back to being thoughtful, empathetic human beings.
Should I give the ceremony a miss?
When all’s said and done, it’s up to you. If you keep to a respectful distance and stay away from the procession, I see no ethical reason to stay away from the morning alms. Will you enjoy it? That depends.
Whatever you think of your fellow travellers, the ceremony is still a beautiful sight – and if you are not bothered by the behaviour of others, you’ll enjoy witnessing an age-old tradition being carried out in one of Southeast Asia’s most beautiful cities. If you think you will be irritated by others – as I was – your enjoyment could be limited.
Personally, I enjoyed the cool dawn atmosphere of the city and was impressed by the serene composure of the monks – but I was left frustrated by the thoughtlessness of tourists and the lack of any measures control them. On the whole, however, I am glad that I had the chance to see the ceremony and went away newly determined to be a better tourist wherever I go. That’s got to be a good thing, right?
The morning alms: how to do it right
If you decide to visit the morning alms, follow these steps to ensure that you don’t get in any bad books:
- Keep to the opposite side of the road, no matter how close you see others getting
- If you want to take photos, don’t use flash
- Don’t make an offering unless you are a Buddhist and it means something to you
- Don’t be a wuss like me: if you see someone behaving badly, wait until after the ceremony and politely point out why their behaviour is offensive (then, if they object, poke them in the eye. Hard.)
If you would like to visit Luang Prabang as part of a trip to Laos and Southeast Asia, we can help. Get in touch with one of our travel consultants to begin planning a trip today.