Read any guide book, trip report or other account of a visit to Luang Prabang, Laos and there is a very, very high chance you’ll read about the daily sun rise ritual of the local monks walking through the streets, collecting offerings of food for their daily meal. And, just to be clear, this is yet another such story. But I think my take on the scene is a bit different; certainly what I saw was very different from what I expected. Or at least it was very different than what I had hoped to see.
Shortly before sunrise mats begin to be set up on the sidewalks near the main pagodas of Luang Prabang. Most are set by hotels so their guests can participate in this ritual. And most have food provided by the hotels rather than the street merchants. That’s actually what the monks want; apparently the street vendors have a habit of providing food which makes the monks sick which isn’t so useful when this is their daily nourishment.
And, for the most part, the people I saw setting up on the mats to offer food looked like they were taking it reasonably seriously. It is a spiritual offering, bonding with the monks, not a tourist excursion. Indeed, on the list of requests from the monks which I saw on a wall outside one of the pagodas they actually ask that people not give food if they aren’t going to take it seriously.
And then the monks began their shuffle down the sidewalks, collecting small offerings along the way.
One of the more surprising things to me was seeing the people – mostly kids, but a few adults, too – along the route begging of the monks for food. And, every now and then, they would be successful in getting some rice or other food. That was pretty nifty to see happen.
Overall I found the experience to be mostly a good one. The people who are taking it seriously make it rather moving. At the same time, however, I was quite disappointed in some of the behavior I witnessed from other spectators. It would probably do the monks some good to better publicize the "rules" of the event, things like avoiding flash photography and staying out of the way as the monks are walking along. Then again, I’d like to think that sort of respect comes naturally to most. Alas, it does not.
Most of the people I saw respected the rules, the monks and the sanctity of the event. But there were enough who did not that it made me feel guilty about being there, watching it happen. Maybe it is just because we were there at a peak time so the crowds were more unruly than normal (a friend later related that the day she was there during the wet season she was the only one offering food). Or maybe things have changed enough with the tourists in Luang Prabang that it is no longer a ritual and more of a spectacle. Looking at the faces of the monks many seemed bored or bothered by the event. I know that I’d be rather annoyed if my daily breakfast routine involved hundreds of random strangers getting up in my face and taking flash photos. I cannot say that I blame the monks at all in that regard.
We saw similar scenes in Yangon and Bagan, Burma and the spectacle part of it wasn’t there. Not quite as photogenic, certainly, but also not nearly the same level of "show" involved. Maybe I’m just bitter and disillusioned. And maybe I’m part of the problem. After all, I was there, shooting photos and video (though no flash!) and watching the parade as it happened. I just don’t know. When I got back to the room that morning to have breakfast it just didn’t feel right. Talking it over with @Veritrope the following evening over drinks it was still irking me. And now, three weeks later, I’m still a bit frustrated. Such is life, I suppose.