Written by: Jaii Fredregill
Destination: Luang Prabang, Laos
Visited: September 2018
Luang Prabang, Laos is often referred to as a “temple town,” due to its many temples and population of approximately 1,000 Buddhist monks. The city is home to the Buddhist Heritage Project and one of the last few places where almsgiving takes place.
Monks are summoned to meditation by the gentle ringing of bells.
Of those who travel to Luang Prabang, many will rise at dawn to witness this ceremony. Almsgiving is a traditional practice in many religions other than Buddhism, including Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity. Alms are charitable offerings of food, money, goods, etc.
In Buddhism, almsgiving is a practice of the oldest remaining branch of the religion, Theravada Buddhism. Though the ritual no longer takes place in many parts of the world, Luang Prabang and other areas in Laos where Theravada Buddhism is prevalent still observe morning alms which are called “Tak Bak,” or “Sai Bat”.
Monks gather and line the street, always lead by the highest regarded among them.
The Theravada Buddhist do not give alms as charitable contributions. Sai Bat is an act of humility and respect given to nuns or monks made by a lay Buddhists seeking spiritual enlightenment. It is considered the first step toward Nirvana, so going to the market to retrieve food and preparing it are significant parts of this sacred act.
Money is not an acceptable offering, so most offer sticky rice, a staple in the Laos diet that makes up most of the monks daily nourishment. The rice must be soaked overnight then cooked in time for offering at Sia Bat which begins around 5:30 am.
Those offering alms kneel along the roadside waiting quietly for the monks to arrive. It is rude to come late, disrupt the ceremony in any way or to follow the monks' procession once they have passed. Do not touch the monks or try to engage them.
Signs outlining proper etiquette for interacting with monks and visiting temples are posted throughout Luang Prabang to help visitors. Most travelers are respectful, but, if the city has to post these signs, many pass through less gracefully as well.
One of many signs posted in Luang Prabang to promote respectful behavior.
Those who belong to faiths other than Theravada Buddhism are not expected to take part in almsgiving, just as those not baptized in the Christian church do not accept communion. Some tourists participate for the sake of a selfie, and there are even local people who exploit the curiosity of visitors by selling them small woven pots of sticky rice. Many find this intrusive and note it as why the practice of almsgiving has fallen into decline.
Photographing the processions of monks is permitted, but some guidelines should always be observed, including disabling the flash on your camera. Sitting amongst those offering alms to take your photographs is disruptive, disrespectful and unacceptable. We must remember that it is not always about us and our “vacay.”
A large group of tourist take over a street corner and demonstrate several ways Sai Bat is mistaken and mistreated as an attraction.
Keep your distance, positioning yourself away from the ceremony, and remain quiet. Finally, though alms giving takes place on public streets, it is important to show your respect to all involved by dressing appropriately or covering bare legs and shoulders with a sarong as you would when visiting a temple.
When all are quiet and respectful during Sai Bat it is quite humbling to observe and an excellent way to start your day in charming Luang Prabang.