When we are tourists, do we, by the very nature of being there, make what we are witnessing a less authentic experience?
Are we gradually ruining popular places around the world?
These are questions I wrestle with alot as I travel.
As more people have the money to travel, and the population grows, there is a real risk that tourist hotspots will completely lose their essence, in fact some already have.
And no-where is this problem more apparent than at the alms giving ceremonies in Luang Prabang.
What is the Alms Giving Ceremony?
Alms giving is a common practice in Theravada Buddhism. It’s a way to support the monks, who study and practice the Buddha’s teachings, by offering them food. For as long as Buddhism has been present here, this daily ritual has taken place, with monks leaving the 35 temples of Luang Prabang at dawn to come and collect rice from local people, which then becomes their main food for the day.
The ritual morning alms giving to the monks, or dak bat, is a custom which helps to sustain the monastic community. It’s not seen an act of charity, more a spiritual obligation that connects the laypeople to the men of the cloth, the former providing physical sustenance and the latter spiritual guidance. It is also one of the many ways that a Theravada Buddhist can make merit. In Buddhism, good deeds contribute to good karma, which helps to contribute to future good circumstances.
Traditionally, all Lao men were expected to spend some time as a monk in their lifetime, usually before they married and it is also used be poorer families as a way to educate their children, so you can see why giving to the monks is so important to so many people here.
Controversy Surrounding The Alms Giving Ceremony
As I noted in my opening, the alms giving ceremony has grown in controversy over the last couple of decades.
After UNESCO heritage site status was awarded, and Laos‘s rise in popularity as a tourist destination, local touts and tour guide shave quickly cottoned on and turned the alms ceremony into a way to make money.
By busing in huge groups of people from Luang Prabang and beyond to take part in the ceremony.
Unfortunately, many people then choose to not behave with dignity and respect where they’re here.
It couldn’t be easier really! Even if you haven’t learned basic manners, there are signs everywhere telling you exactly what is and isn’t acceptable.
And I mean everywhere.
We must have seen nearly 50 of these signs in various forms around town.
It’s a shame that notices like this are even needed, but to then go on and ignore them is a complete disgrace.
It’s not like they’re particularly tough rules to follow:
Don’t make contact, don’t get too close, keep quiet, show respect.
I mean other than writing
DON’T BE A DICK
in six-foot high letters, it’s hard to know what more is needed.
You may think it’s overkill, but once you’ve had a read through my article below you’ll realise it’s become a real problem. And you have to bear in mind we were there in the quiet season, on a random day in the middle of the week. I can’t begin to imagine what it would be like when it’s actually busy!
If you want to read more of the controversy surrounding the alms giving, then you don’t have to look far for a decent article, the web is flooded with them.
Here are a few, spread across a number of years, that I feel really spell out the challenges faced here:
- Bad Tourists and the Great Alms Controversy in Luang Prabang
- A Chat with Monks about Alms Giving in Luang Prabang
- Morning alms in Luang Prabang: religious tradition turned into tourist spectacle
- Do no alm? The Luang Prabang alms giving ceremony scandal
Our Experience of the Alms Giving Ceremony
We were up at 5am, and headed out to the main street through Luang Prabang, to see this ancient spectacle with our own eyes.
We had debated intensely whether to attend, but decided that if we sat quietly on the other side of the street then we weren’t causing any harm. This was far from an ‘others do it, so why shouldn’t we’ attitude, we were determined, regardless of the behaviour of anyone else, that we would be as invisible as possible. Getting involved in the ceremony didn’t even enter our minds.
From the second we arrived, the circus started.
We were offered rice by local hawkers, which we politely refused. This right here is a small example of the conflict tourism causes. Without the tourists wanting to get involved, these people wouldn’t be selling their rice. Traditionally, rice is bought from the market or steamed by families before giving, not bought from these dried up stalls on the street. Alot of the monks end up throwing away rice as it is just inedible. No Tourism equals no market for crap-rice selling, but equally, less money in the back pocket of locals.
The entirety of the pavement outside the main temple was set up for tourism. Hundreds of plastic chairs were standing vacant, up against the walls. These are not for local people – they just bring their own – they are there for the tour buses that show up wanting to get involved.
Only one of the chairs was currently occupied, by a western guy who was waiting patiently as the monks headed towards him.
In all fairness to this guy, he was incredibly respectful. He had brought his own rice, and, whilst he took a few photos from a distance, as soon as the monks approached he was completely focused on the ceremony.
He was joined by a local lady who, as you can see, had no need for a chair. She took up a position on her knees when giving out the small handfuls of sticky rice to the monks.
It was a striking and peaceful scene. The saffron-clad monks silhouetted against the whitewashed walls of Wat Sirimoungkoun Sayaram. You can see why it had become so popular with tourists. With alms giving in this way not widely practiced outside of Laos, there is no-where more beautiful to witness it than the old streets of UNESCO heritage protected Luang Prabang.
The peace didn’t last long however….
Clattering up one of the alleys behind us, a large group of Chinese tourists burst into the street. They were whipped up into a frenzy by their guide, hawkers descended to provide them with rice, and they took their places on the once-empty seats.
Any sense of calm and respect seemed to be lost, they were gabbling, shuffling, selfieing and sniggering. The peace was gone.
Just take one look at the body language of our hero to the left of this photo, and it should tell you everything needed about the scene that unfolded.
I don’t know if he was Buddhist, but he was showing a damn site more respect for this ceremony than this tour group.
The street quickly filled.
It’s hard to believe that anyone would ever act like these people were.
I just can’t understand it.
I travel with a mentality of seeing and learning. Yes I want to be there, yes I want to be involved, but it should always be on the local terms not mine.
I might not agree with everything I see, I might not understand it, but I’ll always show respect. There’s a reason things have evolved this way over hundreds of years, why should I come and take some kind of moralistic high-ground and think I know better?
And why should tourists decide they can come along and fuck it all up, just for a photo and a quick thrill.
I’m a pretty understanding individual, but this makes my blood boil. Tourism won’t destroy the world, but disrespectful tourists will.
I’m far from perfect, I make mistakes, but I always try to blend in with the environment I’m in, not stand out.
How a bus load of people are even ALLOWED to do this I don’t know.
And the shame shouldn’t just be on them, it should also be on the companies and guides that let it happen. This ceremony can be preserved, it can maintain some authenticity, but when you bus in a load of people, and let them treat it like meeting Mickey at Disneyland you are just as to blame as they are.
It’s alright having the rules everywhere, but the locals need to enforce them.
Stop selling the shit rice, stop busing in the tourists, speak out when people are disrespectful, and the tourists will quickly fall in line.
As we walked off, I got another view of the challenges the monks face.
Micro-versions of the paparazzi had arrived, with cameras snapping up photos as if desperate to fill the centerfold of a glossy magazine.
With modern camera equipment there is simply no need to get so close.
I haven’t got a great camera, so you can probably tell by the blurry photos on this post that they were taken from a distance. I have cropped and zoomed most of them after the event to bring them closer, but the quality still isn’t too bad. If I had a decent lens, then they would have been fantastic. No need at all to get close.
These monks are here going about their daily business, as they have for hundreds of years! They do not want or need to feel like film stars in the public eye! No one needs this kind of close attention, especially not at this early hour of the day
As we made our way back to the guesthouse, through the narrow backstreets of Luang Prabang, we were treated to a much different experience.
Around a blind bend, a much smaller group of monks appeared, their bright robes instantly conspicuous on a rather gloomy morning.
They were a couple of hundred yards ahead, so we jumped off the small road, and sat quietly up against a wall to watch them pass.
As we did so a local lady opened the door of a small house opposite, and came out with a small green plastic chair. She was clutching a bamboo basket of rice and set up on the road with the basket on her lap.
She dropped a ball into each of the monk’s bags.
There was no way they’d be binning any of this stuff, it was clearly freshly cooked, and you could see them smiling and laughing after they passed her.
Some of these monks were tiny, and by now were struggling with the weight of the rice in their sacks, but this lady was clearly here every day, as they were visibly pleased to see her. This must have been the treat they were looking for after the crusty donations out on the main street.
It is small shows of giving and gratitude that this ceremony is meant to embody.
I felt like we had witnessed a small dose of authenticity, a lady who had sat there for many years, and seen the faces of thousands of monks.
As soon as they passed, she picked up her things and went back inside.
Just life as it had been for decades.
We headed back to our room.
Honestly I felt a bit empty.
This should have been one of the most memorable experiences of our time in Laos.
Instead it was like watching a great movie, while the person in front of you rustles popcorn, whistles and films the entire thing on an iPad.
If you’re going to come to something like this, then surely it should be enough just to watch.
If you want to take some photos, then fine, but do it from a distance. You don’t need to be in them, YOU’RE NOT THE STAR FUCKING ATTRACTION HERE.
And if this is a completely confusing and meaningless ceremony to you, then great, me too. Observe and learn. No need to get involved, leave that to the people who actually will get something from it.
You don’t need to go to a gig, and pick up a guitar to play along. You just watch and enjoy.
So in answer to my initial questions.
Yes, we do change things just by being there.
But it doesn’t always make it worse. Learning to appreciate other cultures and traditions is an amazing thing, and sometimes the only way to do that is to immerse yourself in it.
Yes, we are gradually making popular attractions worse.
Whether we like it or not, whilst our money helps the local economy, we litter, cause erosion, pollute the environment and much more. Even the most environmentally conscious traveller has some kind of impact.
But these are not reasons to stop travelling, these are reasons to be aware of what you’re doing as you make your way around.
Treat the world with respect and it should last a long time.
And to those that don’t, stop being a dick.