Each morning, as the sun rises over the city, Buddhist monks of all ages, dressed in orange robes walk through the streets collecting offerings of food from hundreds of devotees and well-wishers. The alms ceremony in Luang Prabang, Laos, is a daily ritual that has been performed for centuries. It reflects the Buddhist philosophy of giving and receiving, and is a symbol of the community’s commitment to compassion, generosity, and spiritual practice.
Luang Prabang: a Unesco site wonder
Upon arriving in Luang Prabang, we were greeted by a place of such serene beauty that we immediately felt calmer, soothed by the lullaby of this city. From the lush jungle all around to the rivers that flow through it, home to myriads of birds and other animals on their banks, Luang Prabang is a pure oasis of tranquillity.
The city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, consisting mostly of solid dark wooden houses. Larger streets alternate with narrow alleys: a multitude of flowers, trees and plants sprout around bars, restaurants and guesthouses. Here, the dark waters of the Nam Khan flow and merge into the clear ones of the Mekong. Between these two rivers, Luang Prabang welcomes numerous Buddhist monasteries, scattered around the city.
What is the alms ceremony of Luang Prabang?
It’s a sacred ritual, centred around giving and receiving; it takes place in and around every temple in Luang Prabang. Monks walk along the outer perimeters of their temple at dawn, carrying a big bowl and accepting offerings of food and other necessities from laypeople.
The religious tradition in Luang Prabang is particularly flourishing. A surprising number of tourists from neighbouring countries come to honour these ancient spiritual customs.
Alms giving is also one of the merits in Buddhism. Some other merits include practising meditation, putting gold on the back of the Buddha, living a virtuous life, and studying the teachings of the sacred text. Tak Bat is a specific form of alms giving that is practised in many Buddhist countries, including Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar. The centuries-old tradition has several meanings for the town people, the most important one being to honour daily the importance of giving.
It is a symbol of generosity and compassion towards monks who have renounced material possessions and dedicated their lives to the practice of the Dharma (the moral and ethical principles that guide the universe and our behaviour). The positive energy that is generated by performing good deeds and virtuous actions will reflect in this life and the next one.
Alms giving ceremony: our experience
Sunrise in Luang Prabang
We rise before the sun and the birds to go see the alms ceremony.
We are not the only ones, as this old rite wakes the city up quite early.
The night is beautiful, silent, peaceful and perpetually wet in this tropical corner of earth. It has rained, so the air feels heavy. I think about the fact that those who have not yet gone to bed and those who just got up, see and experience two diametrically opposed cities.
As we approach Wat Sensoukharam, the light has broken through, swallowing up the night. Some of the alleys we walk through are still sound asleep, so it feels like we are walking on an empty set, or, for some reason, on a world made of glass.
When we get there, vendors try to sell us food to give to the monks. Along the outer walls of Temple, there is a very long row of stools, arranged equidistant above a long faded carpet.
A group of young women is laughing while taking selfies to kill time. Several white vans arrive on either side of the temple, and fleets of Asian tourists enthusiastically roll out wearing matching saris. Something tells me that these are ‘experience packages’ sold by tour operators to devotees from neighbouring cities or countries.
Next to each seat are tiny baskets full of food and several people have already taken their seats. Many of the attendees, both men and women, wear traditional attire for the occasion.
The unique blend of laughter, chatter, and vehicles pulling up add a festive yet reverential note to the temple grounds. There is that ticklish atmosphere of something about to happen.
Breakfast with the monks
The monks seem to be waiting for a signal to begin the ceremony.
Once everyone is seated, they start to come out in a line, a snake begins to move slowly amidst a rustle of orange robes.
Each monk, from ordained to novice, carries a metal bowl that is filled by each person with a scoop of food, some fruit or even some candy bars (I don’t think this is part of the tradition!)
Hypnotised by this endless repetition of the same scene with minor variations, I close my eyes to see with my ears. People walking slowly, the sound of the fallen rain dripping from the trees, someone spitting from his own bathroom, a dog barking, a rooster singing, some laughters, the sound of a Bluetooth switching on, the lid of a pot, people chatting.
The same but different
I imagine there is someone who comes here every morning. Maybe they get up at 4:35, go to the market to buy sticky rice, and sit on the same stool they sat every day for 33 years.
There may be a monk who has been doing this for just as long. I wonder with what spirit each of them goes about their seemingly identical, yet probably unique day, every day.
I wonder how they might have seen this ceremony change, the tourists arriving, UNESCO arriving, the disposable cameras, the first digital ones, then the filming, the crowds, the drones… Or maybe, these things were the blurry background, the changing weather around them, the impermanence, and they didn’t bother with it one bit.
For us, who have never been here, who have never seen the alms giving ceremony, the change is palpable. It doesn’t seem so hard to imagine this place with less tourists, less cameras, less ego… It is not hard to imagine it as an idealised clip from a 90s TV documentary, with slow moving monks on the soundtrack of the humming “Om” sound. But it’s maybe the lesson we can take back from Buddhism: the world evolves and things are always in flux. Change is an inherent and fundamental aspect of existence.
Embracing the Flow of Change
As the sun sets over our Luang Prabang experience, we find ourselves reflecting on its evolution.
The timeless beauty of the alms giving ceremony, as well as the inevitable change that has reshaped it over the years, are two faces of the same coin. The blending of ancient traditions with modern society gives birth to a kaleidoscope of contrasts, each with its own significance and impact. We are currently finishing an article on the impact of tourism on the Alms Ceremony.
If you want to dig deeper into the alms ceremony and the impact of tourism, check out part two for this article: Ethical tourism in Southeast Asia: Laos between tradition and change.
As we leave, we hear the echoes of the monks’ footsteps mingling with the urban hum, reminding us that this sacred ceremony serves as a living symbol of Buddhism’s eternal wisdom: we should embrace the ever-changing flow of life, as it constitutes the very essence of our existence.