“Good morning teacher” I hear a voice whispering softly from behind my back as I walk through Wat Xieng Thong temple. It is 6.10 am and the sun hasn’t risen yet. I turn around to see where the early greeting comes from. Pong, a novice and former student of mine smiles at me and asks me how I am doing. More and more novices and monks are starting to assemble in front of the pagoda, their robes filling the temple grounds with bright orange spots in the dark. Every day aroun 6 am all monks and novices in Luang Prabang go for Tak Bat – the collecting of alms and a very special cultural and religious act. Barefoot they walk on the streets to receive the food offerings from the laypeople who in turn receive merit for their part. No matter what weather, the monks and novices walk in single file down the roads of the town, silently and humbly receiving sticky rice and other food such as cookies. Every house has a fire going in their yard, with big charred pots and bamboo baskets sitting on top of a coal fire to steam the sticky rice for Tak Bat. THe locals usually get up around 5 am and particularly older women give alms every single day. I am not exactly a morning person so only after the 5th attempt I managed to actually get OUT of bed this morning instead of switching off the alarm and saying to myself “oooh, tomorrow is another day…”.
Instead of giving alms myself today I decided to go for a morning walk and quietly watch the procession.
With Chinese New Year happening around these weeks and hence facing a Chinese “invasion” of loud Chinese tourists in huge tour groups of 20+ people I knew that the supposed-to-be-quiet act of Tak Bat would be not-so-quiet but I figured out that if I zig-zag through my favorite streets which are a bit off the beaten track I would be fine.
I was so wrong.
My first stop was by the steps leading down to the mighty Mekong. At this time of the year the morning fog covers the forests around the riverbanks and touches the water. I never cease to be touched by this mystical atmosphere. The street along the Mekong is quiet and empty. This is one of the things I like so much about LP: most of the time you can walk int he middle of the road without getting run over y cars or motorbikes. I wander through one of the many narrow lanes leading up to one of the 3 main streets on the peninsula and continue my walk, heading towards a temple in front of which i usually give alms. I can already see lightning from far away. Lightning that is caused by the flashlights of 1,000+$ Nikon, Canon, Sony and what-not cameras. Huge tourist groups block the streets, most of them carrying camera equipment which would make every professional photographer jealous. Click Click, flash flash. The sad thing is that the people who take those photos neither really know how to use such precious equipment (or will most likely never look at the sevenhundredandthirtythousand pics they just took) nor do they – and this is far worse – behave in a respectful and appropriate manner. (Although I believe that usually I have no anger issues I am always very tempted to snatch those people’s camera, first take a photo of them WITH flash with the lens in their face and asking them how they liked that, then throwing the camera on the ground and jumping on it a hundred times).
Tak Bat is a religious act and everyone who would like to witness this peaceful and atmospheric procession should act accordingly. Running around half naked, blocking the way of the monks for a shot, using disturbing flashlights and sticking the camera lenses right in their faces is clearly not appropriate. Or would any Christian go up to a priest in the middle of a mass and flash-photograph him from a 1 meter distance and say that this is ok? I still can’t stop wondering how so many people can have so little empathy, respect and manners and it upsets me deeply that so many tourists treat the monks and novices as if they were animals in a zoo. Unfortunately the government doesn’t take any measures (such as limiting the spectators to standing on the other side of the street) and so this calm and otherwise atmospheric act becomes a disturbed one.
I quickly flee from the hordes and head towards a quiet part of the street where I sit down on a little bench. While I am playing with a little puppy dog who instantly falls in love with my feet and more so with my flip-flops, a group of monks and novices quietly walk along that road. Some groups are small with only 8 of them, some temples are bigger and therefore the lines can be as long as 30 monks and novices.
After having lived here for 1,5 years I know quite a few of them, some are my English students and some recognize me from walking past their temples every day. Again and again I get a shy or big smile, some whispered “good mornings” or a little giggle (especially from some of the smallest novices whom make me smile every time they practice the few English sentences they know when I I meet them at the temples).
Watching the laypeople and especially the old ladies in their sinhs (Lao traditional skirt), with their scarves around their left shoulders, the rice basket in front of them, and them monks and novices receiving the food from them, is a very special thing. I wish people could absorb and enjoy this sight rather than just taking thousands of photos and actually not ‘getting’ anything of the meaning and the atmosphere.
After about an hour the monks and novices return to their temples and the town calms down again, all tour groups are being shoved back to their hotels for breakfast and Luang Prabang once again radiates an atmosphere of special calmness and peacefulness. I walk to my favorite French opposite the Buddhist primary school bakery to have breakfast and watch some novices sweeping the the temple yards. More and more small novices arrive at Wat Sop primary school. Some of them play around with their phones, some of them have a little chat just before class starts.
It is 8 am and the sun is starting to come out of the clouds.
P.S.: I don’t have any close-up photos of the monks while they collect alms (as I am sure you know why:)) but I think that even the photos that I took from the distance give a good-enough picture of this special event.
P.P.S.: I believe that no matter where we travel around in the world, we should adapt to and respect the rules and customs that are prevalent in this country if we want to be respected and welcomed by the locals. Here is an outline of correct conduct at Tak Bat (produced by the Department of Information, Culture and Tourism Luang Prabang)
- Observe the ritual in silence and contribute an offering only if it is meaningful for you and can do so respectfully
- Please buy sticky rice at the local market earlier that morning rather than from street vendors along the monks route
- If you do not wish to make an offering, please keep an appropriate distance and behave respectfully. Do not get in the way of the monks’ procession or the believers offerings
- Do not stand too close to the monks when taking photographs; camera flashes are very disturbing for both monks and the lay people
- Dress appropriately: shoulder, chests and legs should be covered
- Do not make physical contact with the monks
- Large buses are forbidden within the Luang Prabang World Heritage Site and are extremely disturbing. Do not follow the procession on a bus – you will stand above the monks which in Laos is disrespectful