Buddhist merit making is a beautiful practice in which good karma is generated through selfless acts. One way this is done is by giving alms. Every morning before sunrise, monks leave their monasteries and walk barefoot down the streets with bowls. Buddhist faithful place food into these bowls and by accepting the gift, monks grant merit that counts towards the givers’ future lives. The Luang Prabang alms ceremony is best place in Laos to witness this daily ritual. At least, it used to be before the tourists turned up en masse.
Instead of watching the procession from a respectful respectful distance across the street, people hover closely and get in the way. Photographers clamor around one another and point zoom lenses in the monks’ faces. Some even use their camera’s flash. Sadly, it felt more like watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade than a revered religious event. It was frustrating to see such cultural insensitivity on display. Were I one of the monks, I would not want to face that onslaught every morning.
Because so many tourists want to participate, the quantity of food given out is overwhelming. Local boys follow beside the monks and collect all the excess food in baskets. I can only hope it is distributed to families in need. And the town certainly benefits from the tourist money and added jobs.
Trust me, I get it. The sight of hundreds of saffron-clad monks walking single file along the sidewalk is mesmerizing. But we must be respectful. Notices of suggested behavior are posted all over town and it would be wonderful if more visitors heeded the advice. If you want to watch, I suggest venturing down quiet side streets, away from the big monasteries and hotels. Let’s help preserve the sanctity of this very special ritual.
Have you witnessed the Luang Prabang alms ceremony? What were your thoughts?