The tak bat, or the Buddhist Lao monks' morning collection of food in Luang Prabang, has become a must-see for travelers to Luang Prabang in Laos. And yet the tak bat's growing popularity among tourists may also be turning this serene ritual into an endangered one.
The practice of offering food to monks is most visible in Theravada Buddhist countries like Laos and Thailand, where the practice sustains large monastic communities.
"The monks leave the monasteries early in the morning," writes About.com Buddhism guide Barbara O'Brien. "They walk single file, oldest first, carrying their alms bowls in front of them. Laypeople wait for them, sometimes kneeling, and place food, flowers or incense sticks in the bowls."
(For the quote in context - and for more information on the tradition of offering food alms to Buddhist monks - read this article: The Buddhist Practice of Offering Food.)
In Luang Prabang, this tradition manifests as a morning ritual where monks silently line the streets while locals (and interested tourists) put gifts of food into the bowls carried by the monks.
Tak Bat - A Venerable Tradition in Luang Prabang
It's one of the most vivid images of Laos - from 5:30 in the morning onward, silent lines of saffron-clad Lao monks walk down the streets of Luang Prabang to collect alms. The locals are there ahead of them, ready with bowls full of the Lao staple sticky rice; every monk gets a scoopful in their bowl.
(More information here: Laos Cooking & Culture.)
With almost eighty temples in Luang Prabang alone, this adds up to hundreds of monks, who take different routes depending on where in town their temple stands. The routes that walk through Th Sakkarin and Th Kamal are among the most viewed by tourists, although the ritual occurs all around Luang Prabang.
Each monk carries a large lidded bowl, which is attached to a strap hanging from the monk's shoulder. As monks file past the line of almsgivers - who are usually sitting or kneeling on the street - these containers are reverently filled with handfuls of sticky rice or bananas.
Silent Ritual Bonds Both Giver and Receiver
The best rice for the tak bat ritual is prepared by the almsgivers themselves. The locals wake up early to prepare a batch of sticky rice, which they then scoop generously into each monk's bowl as the line files past.
The ritual is done in silence; the almsgivers do not speak, nor do the monks. The monks walk in meditation, and the almsgivers reciprocate with respect by not disturbing the monk's meditative peace.
For hundreds of years, the ritual has cemented the symbiotic relationship between the monks and the almsgivers who maintain them - by feeding the monks and helping the laypeople make merit, tak bat supports both the monks (who need the food) and the almsgivers (who need spiritual redemption).
- Image of Tak Bat in Luang Prabang, Laos
Tak Bat in Luang Prabang - Dos and Don't's
The upsurge of tourism in Luang Prabang has endangered the tak bat ceremony, as many tourists approach the ritual not as a religious ceremony to be respected, but as a cultural show to enjoy.
Foreign tourists often jostle the Lao monks, breaking their meditation; they take flash pictures of the line; and they disrupt the ritual with their inappropriate noise, actions and dress.
As a result, fewer locals are inclined to take part, because they refuse to be part of a dog-and-pony show for tourists. Some Lao officials are considering stopping the tradition because of the deep offense caused by tourists' beastly behavior.
It's not that tourists aren't welcome to see or participate - they are free to do so, but only with the correct actions and intentions are in place.
- Don't treat the ritual as a photo-op. Be there to give honestly and humbly. If you can't do that, keep a respectful distance and don't disrupt the participants - and if you can't do even that, don't be there.
- If you're not participating, keep a respectful distance, and stay out of the way of either the monks or almsgivers.
- Dress properly. Keep your shoulders, torso and legs covered. This is doubly important if you plan to participate in the almsgiving. Take off your shoes if you're giving alms.
- Don't use your camera flash. It breaks the monks' concentration, and detracts from the solemnity of the ritual.
- Do not position yourself so your head is higher than the monks' heads.
The following tips apply specifically if you're participating in the tak bat ceremony:
- Don't buy food from street vendors nearby; if you have to participate, make rice yourself (or have your hotel prepare you some rice).
- Do not make eye contact with the monks.
- Do not touch the monks. Withdraw your hands immediately after placing your offering in the bowl.
- Do bow before the monks to show your respect.
For more tips about behaving appropriately in a Buddhist temple or within the context of a Buddhist ceremony, read this article: Visiting Buddhist Temples - Do's and Don'ts.