What you should NOT do in Luang Prabang, Laos

What you should NOT do in Luang Prabang, Laos

with 33 Comments

 

4am. The daily gong from Mount Phou Si first woke up the stray dogs. And soon, their howling stirred the roosters. 5 minutes later, they all quieted down, but the wooden floor above us began to crackle. The guesthouse’s owner was getting out of bed, like everyone else in Luang Prabang.

 

She didn’t look surprised to see us at the entrance hall shortly before 5am. Clearly, we were not the only travellers who knew about Tak Bat, the daily alms giving ceremony in Luang Prabang.

 

The procession is quite lengthy, she said. Would you like to have a cup of coffee first? Do you usually eat something before the ceremony, we asked. She shook her head: first the monks, then us. Then we should do the same, we replied.

 

She smiled and handed us two bowls of sticky rice. Her mother and daughter showed up, and all three of them went out on the sidewalk with their own bowls of sticky rice. They removed their shoes, and kneeled on an old bamboo mat, with their feet tucked underneath them. We followed them out, and kneeled next to them.

 

 

The first of the saffron-clad monks in the single-filed procession were the oldest ones. Each of them carried a large lidded bowl, which was held by a trap hanging from their shoulder. As they walked by us, they opened the lid and each of us put a handful of sticky rice in their bowl. Some locals added bananas and cookies.

 

The Lao monks all walked barefoot and in meditation. No almsgiver spoke, and neither did the monks. Never had we seen so many people walking in silence at the crack of dawn. Besides the birds’ chirping, the only noise we heard was that of the opening and closing lids of their bowls. And somewhere, a couple of roosters kept crowing.

 

When my bowl of rice was empty, I bowed to the monks, stood up quietly and slowly withdrew to the guesthouse’s forecourt. Hidden behind the entrance gate, I filmed this morning ritual from afar. In the meanwhile, we were going towards the end of the Tak Bat, since the monks filing by were now teenagers or even younger.

 

Standing there and watching the Buddhist monks collecting food from locals, I wondered if they were really going to eat the donated food… Only some food is kept for their diet, we were told after the ceremony. Most of the sticky rice is likely to be used to feed their domestic animals.

 

 

When our breakfast was served in the garden, the owner of the guesthouse sat down with us. She explained that the Tak Bat is a ritual that’s been going on in Luang Prabang for hundreds of years.

 

Legend has it that a little girl used to bring food to her deceased parents, whose tombs were embedded on the other side of the Mekong river. But one day the Mekong flooded, and the stream was too strong for the little girl to cross the river. She sat down and started crying. Soon a monk walked by and saw her weeping. He stopped to asked why she was so sad. When the girl had finishing exposing her problem, the monk offered to cross the river in her place and to make sure the food would be deposited on her parents’ tombs. Thankful, the girl accepted. And from that day on, monks in Luang Prabang collect food from the community, in order to offer the donations to their ancestry.

 

Of course, nowadays, the Lao monks don’t physically bring the collected food to the cemeteries anymore. Once all the offerings have been collected, they return to their temple, and present the alms to Buddha while praying. Buddha will then distribute the donations to all the locals’ ancestors, wherever their tombs might be.

 

When I was a kid – she continued – there used to be many more monks in the daily procession. The number of monks you saw this morning was only half, maybe even less, than 10, 20, or 30 years ago. In a couple of years, the monks will probably stop this ritual.

 

 

But why? She hesitated a bit, before saying: because of the tourists. I looked at Kerstin, who also seemed surprised. Quickly, the Lao lady added: No, I mean… some tourists. The problem is that there are more and more tourists in Luang Prabang. Of course, that’s good business for us, who have a guesthouse, a hotel or a restaurant. But many tourists come here because they want to see the Tak Bat. And they don’t just look, they take many photographs, they use flash, they talk loudly or laugh when the monks walk by. Some even want to take selfies with the monks…

 

But we – especially women – never touch the monks. We never make eye contact with them neither, and we always keep our head lower than theirs, that is why we kneel. It’s a sign of respect. Some tourists don’t understand. Or maybe they don’t care. Sometimes they buy alcohol at the night market, and the next day we find broken bottles on the streets. That is very dangerous for the monks, who walk barefoot.

 

We both felt bad and ashamed. Ashamed for all the tourists and travellers, who are not capable of showing respect. Don’t be sorry, she smiled. You can help us change this: when you return to your country, tell your family and friends what they should NOT do when they come to Luang Prabang.

 

As the owner of our guesthouse slowly walked away, I suddenly had to think about the slogan of the Quicksilver green campaign:

 

Don’t destroy what you came to enjoy.

 

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What you should not do in Luang Prabang, Laos © Travelwithmk.com

Follow Mei:

Traveler - Storyteller

30-something Archaeologist, born and raised in Luxembourg. Besides traveling, Mei loves eating stinky cheese and raw food, as well as listening to Kerstin’s stories while driving on long road trips. She speaks 7 languages, and wishes she had time to pick up Ancient Greek. She’s afraid of heights, but adores panoramic views. Her favorite places are those she chose to live in: Paris, Greece, San Francisco.

33 Responses

  1. taissnow
    | Reply

    Educating people is a good start. Tourists have to learn the customs and rituals of a place before they visit. It is so disrespectful to feel like you are exempt from it because you don’t live there. I like the story of how the little girl got the assistance of a monk and that’s how the whole thing got started. I really hope that this ritual doesn’t disappear. It is a beautiful pert of the culture there and also in Thailand.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this! It is so informative and well written. What an adventure you guys had! I also feel bad that some tourists don’t know how to behave or respect other cultures. So sad if they will have to change their rituals because of that. It is great that you know can do exactly what they asked, and share the story so people who visit Laos will know this.

  3. Thank you for this article, it really makes you think how tourist can destroy a custom. What a shame they will be discontinuing this with the monks. I never have understood why tourist can not follow rules while they are traveling, rules were made to protect art work, customs, etc… Such a shame. Love the article, very informative.

  4. Carmen Baguio
    | Reply

    Such an interesting and informative story! I especially like the legend about how the ritual started with the little girls needed help bringing food to her ancestors.

  5. Christina
    | Reply

    I like the “don’t destroy what you came to enjoy” quote. It is hard to believe that a ritual that has been going on for a long time like this could be stopped but I understand the reasoning if I think we’re to stop. We really do need to spread the word and be more respectful.

  6. Marvi
    | Reply

    What a lovely and powerful post. I hope this reaches many people to make everyone understand how tourism can impact the lives of the locals, especially when it comes to traditions and cultures..(sharing it now to spread the word)… The Tak Bat seems to be a very important tradition in Luang Prabang and it will be a shame to stop it jus because of irresponsible tourism..

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you for sharing this post, Marvi! 😊 Yes, it would be such a pity if a meaningful tradition like this would have to stop because of some unrespectful tourists.

  7. Bee
    | Reply

    what an interesting bit of cultural experience to have. I have heard so much about Laos too, its fast becoming a tourist destination for its beauty. love the little legend of the girl and the monk.

  8. Krupa
    | Reply

    It is so required to educate people on such things of not to do at a particular destination. Very well written and this post is quite descriptive. thanks for sharing.

  9. Anthony
    | Reply

    There are so many thoughtless tourists travelling the world. Thank you for helping educate people on what “not to do” when travelling. So many bloggers just focus on the “do’s” and although entertaining, it does not educate ignorant travellers to respect other cultures.

  10. David
    | Reply

    I just came back from a trip to Myanmar and this post made me think about my time there…and sadly it made me think of the constant broken bottles near the hotel in Yangon. Great post! I really enjoyed it.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      We also saw many places full of broken bottles in SE Asia. Really sad that some tourists are so unrespectful! 😖

  11. Meg Jerrard
    | Reply

    Yes, definitely not the only tourists who have heard about Tak Bat! And it’s really sad to me that some people travel, and don’t have any idea that they’re actions are incredibly disrespectful, they don’t bother to research the culture or customs before they visit and I agree that it’s very embarrassing to be there to witness behavior like that. So sad that half the monks have stopped the tradition because they can’t deal with the tourism. I think your last line is very powerful – Don’t destroy what you came to enjoy. Ironic, isn’t it!!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you Meg. In fact, many of the younger monks in Luang Prabang are local kids or teenagers, who are sent to a temple for some years. But it’s not a must. If the tourists’ bad behavior changed, I’m sure that more local young men would choose to become a monk for a certain amount of time, and attend the tak bat. Together, let’s share the info so that tourists and travelers learn about what they should not do during the daily ceremony! 😉

  12. Sandy N Vyjay
    | Reply

    This is one of the most detailed and poignant descriptions of Tak Bat that I have come across. It is really very sad that many travelers are not respectful of the sanctity and practices of other cultures. Sadly for them these are just another photo opportunity.Hope people become more sensitive and respectful of other cultures.

  13. Rhonda Albom
    | Reply

    What a beautiful ceremony. I’ve never heard of it before, but it was really interesting to read through your experience. I truly hope that visitors will be more respectful and not destroy this tradition with their disrespectfulness and ignorance.

  14. Elaine Masters
    | Reply

    Beautiful post. I’m so glad you shared this and love the last comment, ‘Don’t destroy what you enjoy.’ I hope the monks can find a way to continue the practice and that tourists will get a clue! You’re helping.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you Elaine! I’m sure that if tourists become more respectful, more monks will practice this daily ritual.

  15. WanderingCarol
    | Reply

    Oh, I love that saying, ‘Don’t destroy what you came to enjoy.’ When I was in Luang Prabang, two young American tourists were hassling someone’s pet monkey. It was awful. I was stricken with horror, then a British man with a spiderweb tattooed on his face freaked out on them, and they were terrified. It’s such a powerful memory, there are the travellers that come respectfully and those that think the world is their playground. I hope the monks continue to do their morning ritual in peace.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      How horrible that those tourists were hassling that poor monkey! ;( I hope they’ve learnt their lesson when the British man scared them, and that they will stop hassling animals or people!

  16. Anna @ shenANNAgans
    | Reply

    Selfies with Monks huh! That’s kind of bringing things to the next level of crass, but, I guess it’s the way of the Western world. It is a beautiful procession and I love the ritual and the story behind it. It was so nice that your hostess took the time to explain what not to do.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Yeah.. some people like to take selfies with everyone and everything! Crazy huh?!

  17. SkyeClass
    | Reply

    What a great post! I was just in Luang Prabang in April this year, and unfortunately I didn’t get up early enough to see the monks. But I want to take the slow boat again someday, and I’ll get a chance to see the monks when I do. This is great advice for my next trip there!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Wow! You were not woken up by the daily gong? 😁 We thought it was really so loud that no one in town could have stayed in bed. Lol. Or maybe it’s because the guesthouse we stayed in was quite close to a temple… But you should definitely return to Luang Prabang for both the tak bat and the slow boat.

  18. Shibani
    | Reply

    This story brought tears to me, it is sad to know that as tourists we don’t feel responsible to be a part of the place we go and even end up doing the harm. It was a real nice piece of information which you shared with us, I would be careful when I’m going to visit Laos.

  19. Divyakshi Gupta
    | Reply

    Such a thoughtful post. While so many tourists want to enjoy a place very few want to actually understand the customs and maintain the sanctity of the culture! So well written. Understanding the culture of a place you travel to is extremely important!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      You’re right: so many people travel not to understand or learn about the local customs and cultures, but simply to enjoy and take pictures of everything and everyone as if they were trophies to show their family and friends where they’ve been.

  20. Tom
    | Reply

    This is a beautiful story! We as travellers/tourists often don’t think about the consequences of certain things we do. It’s really a shame that less and less monks do this procession just because some people don’t know how to behave! Don’t destroy what you enjoy is also my life motto 😀 Thank you for this great article

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you Tom. Don’t destroy what you enjoy was used by Quicksilver for their green campaign, but I thought that it can be applied on cultures and customs as much as on the environment and species that are in danger. 😉

  21. Sometimes the best advice for travel is what NOT to do in a place. Given the vast differences in cultures this information is essential. Nothing more embarrassing than making a culturally offensive mistake. It’s nice that your guesthouse owner took the time to explain Tak Bat.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Yes, it can be quite embarrassing to make an offensive mistake without knowing it! So when traveling to places with cultures and customs different from ours, we find it useful to ask our guide or at the hotel to advise us what one should NOT do or say. They’re not always comfortable telling us the truth (afraid to lose customers, or get a bad review) but usually do once we’ve explained that we wish to know more because we respect their culture, and want to learn and understand.

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