What primarily lured me to Luang Prabang? It was the beautifully preserved historic town center, the numerous temples, and my desire to experience the ancient practice of Tak Bat or morning alms giving in this unspoiled setting.
Established in the north of Laos on a peninsula where the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers converge, lies the town of Luang Prabang. Surrounded by lush green mountains, this is a place where time seems to stand still. It is a sleepy town but it is also magical, spellbinding, and deeply spiritual. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.
In Luang Prabang, morning alms giving, known as Tak Bat, dates back to the early 14th century when Theraveda Buddhism was adopted in this locality. It is practiced wherever Theraveda Buddhism is concentrated, primarily in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. However, Luang Prabang has earned the reputation for being the most idyllic setting.
This ceremony remains an integral part of the relationship between the townspeople and the monks. It provides the monks with food for the entire day. But also, the townspeople give alms to achieve spiritual redemption, to cleanse the soul, to make merit for their families. The provision of the monks’ sustenance is not charity, but rather, a reflection of the supplicant’s religious dedication.
The locals primarily make offerings of Lao sticky rice, khao niew, to the monks. This sticky rice is laden with nutrition and its longer digestive process curtails hunger, which is important when fasting 18 hours daily. Its preparation by the local alms-givers begins the day before with the rinsing of the rice, then it is soaked overnight. The alms-givers awaken early to cook the rice; then they line the streets, kneeling or sitting on low chairs, with their offerings of food.
Monks typically begin their day at 4 AM. After sessions of chanting and meditation, they set out for their daily Tak Bat rounds before sunrise.
Clad in saffron robes with bare feet, hundreds of monks emerge from their respective temples, to collect morning alms. The monks pad softly down the sidewalks of Luang Prabang in straight lines, carrying their heavy alms bowl over one shoulder, in a walking meditation. This is a truly captivating ceremony.
The local people remain silent and make certain to remain below the level of the monk to show their respect. Their shoulders and knees covered and their feet bare, they often have scarves around their waists and one shoulder, in traditional style. They pinch a golfball sized portion of freshly prepared warm sticky rice, roll it between their fingers to form a ball, then drop one into each monk’s bowl, always mindful not to touch the monks. Occasionally, there may be offerings of fruit.
Upon returning to their respective temples from Tak Bat, the food is shared for breakfast, setting aside a portion for lunch, which is their only other meal of the day.
Then meditations, prayers and studies continue.
Sadly, I am learning that this deeply spiritual ceremony is being threatened by tourists who are disrespectful. Photos are allowed; however, flash is not, as it can break the meditation of the monks. This is a silent ceremony; everyone, including travelers, should observe this rule. Distance should be allowed to respect the monks; one should never obstruct or break their lines. My photos may not be sharp; they are respectfully taken from the sidewalk on the other side of the street. When traveling, I try to consider the local expectations; if shoulders and knees should be covered, mine and my family members will be covered.
Do remember that this is not merely giving the monks food; this is a religious ceremony which spiritually benefits both sides.
We travelers are spectators, observers, and students, learning from the vast world in which we all live together. I vote for respecting our fellow men and women, along with their customs, wherever life may take us.
Be mindful and respectful; life will unfold its richest moments. Thank you for sharing one of mine.