The Tak Bat Morning Alms
Luang Prabang, Laos
The Tak Bat (morning Alms) ceremony is totally overrated. Yep.
For the Tak Bat Morning Alms, each morning at sunrise, saffron-clad monks file out of their monasteries carrying large lidded bowls attached to a strap around their shoulders. With the oldest in front, they shuffle silently single file down the streets of Luang Prabang where kneeling laypeople (and now some tourists) await them with offerings of sticky rice – each monk receiving a spoonful into their bowl from each local. This ritualistic ceremony sustains many large monastic communities across all Theravada Buddhist countries of southeast Asia, but with over 2100 monks densely residing in town, it’s an extremely prominent observance in Luang Prabang. Tourists mainly view it along Sakkaline Road in the Historic District, but the ceremony is scattered throughout town around each of the 80 various temples.
And increasing tourism is endangering the ceremony and I think it has already destroyed the very essence of why it’s an attraction to begin with. As we got to Sakkaline one morning, we noticed that the locals had set up their mats, along with incense and flowers, along the north side of the road, awaiting their chance to present. We quietly sat down on the curb on the opposite side of the road and waited as the overcast sky grew lighter. Our ‘view’ across the street quickly became obstructed as more and more tourists flocked to the show, most of which stood right in the road about 3-4 feet (breaking rule #4) from the procession. Before the trip, I had read some horrific traveler stories about the ceremony – tourists blocking the monks paths, reaching out to touch them, and sticking cameras (or even worse, an iPad) in their faces. All around us were tourists ignoring some of the few rules of the ceremony (how hard is it to wear pants instead of shorts? (Rule #1)), but we luckily didn’t witness anything extremely disrespectful – Just a wall of people lining the street with their point-and-shoot flashes going off (Rule #3) in the monks face and talking (Rule #2) to each other about how “amazing” this is. It’s an absolute shame the ceremony is approached as a Disneyland attraction put on for other’s enjoyment and no longer with respect and tradition. I guess it’s just the common theme of tourists falsely feeling a sense of self-entitlement – and it’s horrible.
I’m assuming the original draw and increase in popularity for tourists to the Tak Bat ceremony was to experience the spirituality of it and to witness a historical ritual that’s been going on for hundreds of years. But after seeing it myself, I don’t believe that experience exists anymore in its current environment. With all the people there, that spirituality is non-existent – it was a show with a repetitious design. To be more blunt: it was just a lot of monks walking down the street. It was much more endemic, and therefore enjoyable, to see a young monk with his sun umbrella skipping down the middle of a road, watching 3 monks splashing each other with water from a hose while wearing ear-to-ear smiles outside of their dormitory, or walking by a golden-lit temple and seeing 20 monks sitting cross-legged deep in meditation and prayer in front of a large Buddha. It was the candid and unfettered moments that seemed to actually mean something and felt timeless. Not the show that started for travelers at sunrise.
Unfortunately I walked away from the Tak Bat ceremony that morning with more of a sense of boredom and trepidation than any sense of enlightened culture. If someone were to ask me what they should do in Luang Prabang, this ceremony would be low be on my list. And if I were to recommend it to someone, I’d recommend finding another curb away from Sakkaline Rd.