Ethical tourism in Southeast Asia: Laos between tradition and change

In the first light of day, the streets of Luang Prabang awaken with whispers of reverence. This is a sacred dance of Buddhist monks and devoted followers, a testament to millennia of spiritual pursuit. Yet, around the edges of these ancient customs, the pattern of a discordant moss started to grow, rooted in modernity, power, and globalisation: welcome to the quest for ethical tourism in Southeast Asia.

As the world continues to merge and blend the old with the new, it becomes increasingly important to unravel and understand the complexities behind cultural and religious practices. In Luang Prabang, the long-standing tradition of the alms ceremony intersects with a new age of mass tourism. 

In our first article: The alms ceremony of Luang Prabang, we share our experience living the Alms ceremony from a traveller’s perspective. Here, we delve into the metamorphosis and ethical conundrums surrounding this ancient Buddhist practice, examining the delicate balance between preserving sacred customs and embracing progress and change. 

T, like tradition, like tourism

Then and now

The alms ceremony is deeply rooted in the Theravada Buddhist traditions. Belief holds that the ceremony originated in the 14th century. The concept of merit in Buddhism has played a significant role in shaping the social and cultural fabric of many societies throughout history. The accumulation of merit was seen as a way to gain spiritual benefits, such as rebirth in a higher realm or even enlightenment, as well as a symbol for social status and religious commitment.

With the modernisation of Buddhist societies, the social role of merit-making has changed. It seems that, with time, the axis has shifted, emphasising the individualistic and materialistic aspect of our era. And this has only made things harder for those looking to practise mindful travelling.

Portrait of a young monk in orange robe, waiting for the alms ceremony to start in Luang Prabang, Laos
Portrait of a young Monk waiting in the courtyard of Wat Sensoukharam

Things are growing more complex and, in this globalised world, those equipped with the necessary tools have a calling to confront the ethical and philosophical challenge: to question themselves and others rigorously.

But, which questions?

Historically, the West has made itself the centre of the modern world; blind and determined as a battering ram, it has been unable to see anything other than itself. The West was both the subject and object of every conversation, even when speaking to other countries. To and not with.

Responsible travel is not only better for our world, it’s also more interesting and memorable. Responsible tourism is the future of travel.

Simon Reeve

So, I wonder how much all of this acted as an accelerator, as a pressure cooker for a change passed off as progress, when in reality it was mere capitalism. But let’s be clear, there was, and there is, no escape! Either way modernity would come.

Many religions, which already lent themselves well to commercialisation, have undergone their own transformation that, over the centuries, has followed the scent of money and power, in one form or another.

The quest for ethical tourism in South East Asia

And this goes hand in hand with the massification of tourism. In fact, one of the many challenges associated with modern day religion is the popularity that certain practices gained within the tourism industry. Generally speaking, in South-East Asia you can find anything from guided temple tours with photo shoots to group activities which involve experiencing religious traditions as an outsider. This is the case also for the alms giving ceremony in Luang Prabang.

Which isn’t a bad thing per se, but if done for the wrong reasons (mere profit on one side and taking pictures of yourself on the other) it can cause harm to the community and compromise the integrity of the practice. In this regard, the important thing is to cultivate awareness, intellectual honesty and critical thinking, which are fertilisers for the mind. Then, from the soil of the spirit, those questions will blossom, and it will be impossible to ignore them.

Why? is a better question than Where?

We struggled, first with deciding how to fairly report this testimony, doing justice to this ancient custom, and then with the realisation that tourism had probably already distorted the genuine nature of this and other traditions, making us once again part of the problem.

And this issue is bigger than the specific case, because we have found ourselves on these shores countless times on our journey: why are we here? And how can we maintain an ethical approach to tourism?

We want to understand and experience, to question, observe and listen, and we try to do so as respectfully as possible.  With the lantern of doubt lit in the night, we have evaluated case by case, and when we missed, we humbly tried to straighten things out, making it a learning opportunity instead of something to be quickly forgotten.

Monk recieving food in Luang Prabang during the alms ceremony
Tourist getting their picture taken in row in Unesco site before the Alm ceremony, question on Ethical tourism in Southeast Asia
Young Monk in orange robe waiting for the Alms ceremony of Luang Prabang to start
Ethical tourism in Southeast Asia? Asia, group getting it's picture taken during the alms ceremony Luang Prabang
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Our experience during the alms ceremony in Luang Prabang stirred something deep within us, prompting a series of reflections on the relationship between tradition, culture, tourism, and religion. By questioning our own motivations and attitudes towards these ancient practices, we progressed in our learning journey and gained insights into the complex power dynamics at play in such a context.

To conclude

The most important takeaway for us is a deeper understanding of the true and ultimate meaning of certain Buddhist customs. In the alms-giving ceremony, giving is not rooted in piety, as is often the case in the Christian tradition. Giving is rooted in humility, towards others it’s about cultivating the habit of sharing, towards ourselves it’s a matter of consistency in a daily practice.

Although the superficial aspects of the alms ceremony may have transformed over time due to the influx of tourism, its origins are firmly attached to the core tenets of compassion and generosity, which are as relevant today as they ever were.

Overall, our experience taught us valuable lessons on the importance of practising ethical tourism in Southeast Asia (as well as anywhere else). Introspection, education, humility, and mindful participation in cultural and religious practices are the cornerstone of the conscious traveller. By asking ourselves the right questions and striving to maintain awareness and respect for the traditions we encounter, we can enrich our lives and become more mindful travellers in a constantly changing world.

Detail of the mosaic of Wat Xiengthong temple un UNESCO city Luang Prabang, Laos
Detail of the fresco of Wat Xiengthong in Luang Prabang, one of the temples around which the Alms ceremony takes place.

What we learned from the Alms Ceremony of Luang Prabang 

  1. Cultivate awareness and critical thinking: Always question the impact of our presence and actions on the traditions, cultures, and communities we encounter. We’re not just visiting; we’re interacting with an entire ecosystem
  2. Embrace humility and practice giving: Understand that the true meaning of ceremonies like the alms giving in Luang Prabang lies in exercising humility, sharing with others, and maintaining consistency in daily practices.
  3. Acknowledge and adapt to change: Recognise that our reality may be different from theirs. Keeping an open mind and judging the least possible. Change and diversity are inherent in life, the world is constantly evolving.
  4. Respect the integrity of cultural practices: If you decide to participate in, or like us to observe, religious and cultural ceremonies, be mindful of the reasons you engage in such activities. Respecting the integrity of the practice starts with educating yourself and avoiding any actions that may harm the community or compromise the tradition.

With these key points as our moral compass, we can aim to foster more ethical tourism, beginning with Southeast Asia and extending our mindful practices to the rest of our travel experience.

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