One of the most famous things to do in Luang Prabang is to watch the daily almsgiving ceremony at dawn, in which lines of monks walk down the street to receive offerings of food from locals sitting on low stools or kneeling on the pavement. Tourists are asked not to give alms unless it is meaningful to them – if they have a good understanding of the ceremony and particularly if they are practising Buddhists. If you come to observe you are expected to dress appropriately and maintain a respectful distance from the monks. Most people stand on the other side of the road.
Sadly these humble expectations have proved too much to ask of some tourists, who have been known to crowd around the monks as though they’re watching feeding time at a zoo.
“The problem is the tour buses,” one local man told me. “Big crowds coming to see it all together, all wanting pictures.” Running low on English, he mimicked a lot of elbowing. It was especially bad in the high season, he said.
“What do you think then?” I asked him. “Should I go?”
“Oh yes,” he said, nodding enthusiastically. “It’s beautiful.”
I thought about it for a while then decided I definitely wasn’t going to go. I didn’t want to be part of the circus. Then by chance I woke up extremely early the following day and without really thinking about it I found myself heading down to the main street, in damp trousers as I’d washed them, my only culturally appropriate legwear, the night before. Curiosity had triumphed.
It wasn’t a circus. Not many people were there, and the onlookers behaved well, standing back on the other side of the road as the monks filed slowly and silently past, accepting food from reverential almsgivers.
I only saw one total idiot. He was a middle aged English man who stood very close and was filming the whole thing on his ipad. I was very tempted to snatch the device from his hands and snap it over my knee. In my view he was not only being ignorant and disrespectful, but racist. A middle class, middle aged white man such as he would never dream of shoving a camera in someone’s face while they were taking communion in church, but clearly he thought this Buddhist ceremony wasn’t worthy of the same consideration.
I also saw a couple I recognised from the slow boat actually giving alms, but they appeared to be doing so in a respectful way. Obviously it’s impossible to know someone’s motives from across the street, but they clearly weren’t taking the piss.
I still have mixed feelings about it. I took some photos from a distance of the monks walking down the road but not of them receiving alms, then wondered if this was a meaningless distinction. I’m not going to post them here. I think tours should certainly be banned from visiting and twats such as the ipad man should be instantly deported. But I’m glad I went in the end, and most of the people I saw there were silent, not intruding, and clearly as moved as I was by the sight of streams of young orange-robed novices and dignified, graceful older monks lowering simple iron bowls to accept handfuls of rice, and by the chanted prayers that followed.