Movie Star Status for Monks in Laos

Which is better, eating your colonial breakfast or giving alms to monks?

Alm giving ceremony in Laos

One of the things I looked forward to, but felt dubious about at the same time, was seeing the early morning almsround of Laos’s monks. The traditional collection of food – called tak bat in Luang Prabang – is there every morning staged for tourist to enjoy. Although, if you might excuse me a moment, it’s not for tourist to enjoy, rather a way to respect and to learn about Buddhist practices.

Monks colouring the scene

While I’m dipping my croissant in jam, I look across the street.The monks in their bright orange robes make a pretty and striking picture. Some tourists get up real close, too close, almost directing the monks ‘please hold that pose’. However, this is not a red carpet event and I’m almost ashamed for being a tourist myself.

Tourists painting a perfect picture

It seems most tourists are not interested in the real picture. It’s all about making that golden shot and showing it off to others at home. What else would drive people to act this way? I might sound bitter, but that’s not what I’m aiming for. I’ve watched the almsround, took five pictures from across the street and enjoyed my breakfast.

Breakfast time at 6 ‘o clock

By now, you might agree, why it’s better to eat your colonial breakfast than handing out alms. If not, I’ll give you a better explanation. This way;

  • You are a responsible tourist and go against the destruction of culture. ‘I want to do that to’, was my first response. After learning what giving alms means, I decided not to take part. It’s the monks way of life, so a tradition for me to silently watch, but not to join.
  • You are lower than the monks, being above them is disrespectful. Women should make sure not to touch the monks. This has to do with energy and possible creation of desire. Don’t forget to dress appropriately, knees, elbows and chest should all be covered up.
  • You won’t give commercial sellers a chance to make anything on (bad) food. Monks are unhappy to take this anyway. If you need to give, buy rice or fruit yourself, so you know what you are offering.
  • You aren’t threatening the existence of this ancient ritual. Monks wanted to stop doing almsrounds, after being made ill from bad food and being hassled by tourists. It was the government that decided they need to continue for tourists or else they will be replaced.
  • You show empathy. We all know it’s no fun getting up early – if you are in Laos you’ll hear that monks are woken up at 4 by drums – and then being treated like movie stars. Can you imagine shutters snapping and flash guns every morning, just because you are a Buddhist and believe?

Buddha and generosity are strongly connected. Be generous by respecting these traditions; meanwhile don’t forget to enjoy the French cuisine. Bon appétit!

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