Giving alms to the monks in Luang Prabang, Laos

One of the ways to ëmake merit' in Buddhism is to give alms to the monks. Their food for the day comes from this ritual, held very early in the morning. From what I understand, they are only allowed to eat food given to them on the morning of each day, received either from this ceremony or from family. It is a very regimented ritual, with closely observed etiquette and routines.

A wat in Luang Prabang

There are something like 33 wats that one small town. By small, I mean SMALL. No longer than a mile in length and about 4 streets wide in the center. Luang Prabang is considered a holy city in Laos. It's a UNESCO World Heritage site and is incredibly beautiful.

You have to get up very early to participate. (And I am so not a morning person, so I hope that counts in the whole Buddhist world of merit. I sacrificed for this, I really did!) I was a bit nervous about it as I didn't want to do anything insulting or wrong, ettiquette wise, but it seemed fairly simple. The hotel provided us sticky rice and so we went down at dawn to the main street with our baskets of sticky rice and waited for the monks.

We were quickly accosted by the "alms vendors", these women who sell the food to give the monks to falang like us. There was no way we could say no. At first I thought they were just being nice local ladies, showing us where to sit, etc., but then they gave us extra food on top of what we already had…and I knew they snared us. There is NOTHING free for a tourist. If you have ever been in a country with touts and street people, you know the feeling…they have you before you know what's what. Anyhow, they gave us extra bananas and some wierd candy to give the monks as well, since we already had rice. And gave us a mat to sit on. (I found out later that the monks don't appreciate this food the touts gave us, as it is considered taking the easy way out, but how the hell would I know that? And we did bring our own rice! Really! It's just we got accosted by those horrid women and they took over!)

This is me waiting to feed the monks

It was 6 am, so yes, I have no makeup on. Note the scarf wrapped around me, my shoes to the side and the way I am sitting, with my feet under me. A woman must always keep her head lower than the monks and your feet (always bare) should never ever be pointed at anyone. It's considered a grave insult. Also your shoulders and knees should be covered. You'll rarely see a Buddhist woman in a tank top.

About 20 feet away to my left was a line of about 200 monks waiting for the ceremony to begin. About 50 yards away the other direction were more groups of men and women lining the street, waiting to give their offerings. I, lucky thing, was first and had no one from whom to learn by example.

Here's me and the line of monks

It was kind of hard work to feed them because they were going FAST and the monks are not allowed to talk to us or look at us as we hand out the alms. They walked briskly by and we would grab little gobs of our very HOT sticky rice and put it in their food bowls as they zipped by. Sometimes you would miss one. I wondered about the hygienity of it all. I mean, every morning they walk all around town and are given food by about 200+ people. I hope everyone washes their hands.

What was strange was before all this, at the front of the line to my left, were some monks waiting to get going, young boys of about 16, and they talked and laughed with us, but the minute the food thing started, it was all serious faces and no talky. Almost dirty looks even. The old monks were not nice at all…..but I am wondering if they saw the stuff provided by the touts and dismissed us as taking the easy way out. We promise we didn't. We meant it.

Local women giving alms

Men giving alms to the monks

They made it look easy and natural. Tourists were massed up and taking pictures like crazy. I feel a bit sorry for them, they wanted local culture and instead got a bunch of white women interfering in their quaint local ceremony. I guess I will be in some photo albums worldwide. Wish I had worn makeup.

Notice that the men get to stand. Why does religion always always penalize women? That really bugs me. That monk in the picture, he was the head guy and he was a bit of a grump.

I really hope that by joining in the ceremony, I wasn't regarded as just a tourist interfering in the local tradition. I fear I was looked at that way, but I really wanted it to mean something and was VERY concerned, even nervous, before hand for fear of fucking up somewhere. I really wanted to feel apart of this beautiful ritual. I just wish I knew a little more about it beforehand, and I doubly wish I had totally told those pushy women who forced extra food and a mat on me to go fly a kite. Apparently, from my research on it afterwards, letting them "help me" (and then make me give them money for their "help") is a common tourist faux pas. And the monks don't appreciate it. Damn.

The vast majority of the monks were very sweet young boys who just wanted to practice speaking English and would stop me wherever I went while I was in town to do so. The idea of kowtowing to a 13 year old boy was just too silly to even contemplate, so I hung out and talked with them as they wished, not bowing or anything but keeping my distance all the same. For them, learning English can be a way out of poverty, they can become tour guides or work in the infant yet flourishing tourist trade in Laos. The vast majority will not be monks for life, but it is a good way to get an education and, for the unlucky few, food.

After the alms giving we went back to the hotel, had our breakfast, and crashed for a couple hours. Later in the day I saw a few of the monks I had seen that morning and they waved at me and said hello. I hope they liked the riceÃ-..

April 29, 2006

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Discussion »

  • #1Laos

    I always give alms if I have time

  • #2Dee

    Thanks, this was great advise. I am geting up to give food to the monks tomorrow morning. So excited thanks for the tips!

    Dee

  • #3Michel

    I was in luang prabang for 10 days in jan 2010, loved it and found it very spiritual. For most of does young boys,its the only way they can get an education, english and computer classes are extra, about 15$ for 3 month sessions. I am the sponsor for a 17 yrs old from a hill tribe in one of the wats. Is english is very good and of course they are interested in the internet. The computers are often donated by a foreign agency, always 2 per computer. I have a limited income but commited to sending 200$ twice a year. Easy by western union, got books at the book exchange and got dictionary and magazines. i found it to be the best way for falang to do merit and you will have a friend for life.

  • #4karla

    Michel,
    That was my story, above, and I am kind of psyched about your advice on making merit via giving money for computers. I will research that. I haven’t looked at this story in ages, it sure brings back memories!

  • #5jathin

    wow..great life goes on ..mutual support makes it easy and meaningful..thanks for th info.

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