Heritage At Risk: Tak Bat Ceremony in Luang Prabang, Laos

Heritage At Risk: Tak Bat Ceremony in Luang Prabang, Laos

By Johanna Read, TravelEater.net

I was ashamed to be a tourist today.

Camera flashes are blinding the monks in the dim dawn light. A man runs down the street, flip flops smacking loudly, to get his camera ahead of the procession. Despite the chilly weather, some tourists are wearing short skirts and shorts, and underneath one hoodie I see a low-cut crop top, cleavage and navel ring bared to the world. A local woman asks me, loudly, “buy rice for the monks?” Another minivan roars by, its motor at least masking the chatter of the group near me discussing which excursion they’re taking after breakfast. A young woman, clearly participating in the ceremony for the first time, accidentally touches a monk’s robes when putting food into his alms bowl. He winces at the transgression.

Five metres is the requested distance to stand back from Tak Bat particpants. Photo by Johanna Read TravelEater.net

Five metres is the requested distance to stand back from Tak Bat particpants. Photo by Johanna Read TravelEater.net

This is everything the Tak Bat should not be.

I am in Luang Prabang, the ancient royal capital of Laos and a UNESCO world heritage site. This city has hundreds of monks in over 30 temples. Every sunrise they walk barefoot, in single file and in meditative silence through the streets of this beautiful town to collect food offerings from local people.

The Tak Bat, also called Sai Bat, is a living Buddhist tradition. It is a key way for monks to maintain their vows and for Buddhist laypeople to practice their faith and gain merit for the afterlife.

It has also become a tourist attraction.

Luang Prabang became a popular stop on the Southeast Asian tourist trail because of the Tak Bat. The guidebook, blog and brochure descriptions of columns of saffron-robed monks walking photogenically through mist-filled streets next to gold-leaf covered pagodas is too enticing to miss.

Luang Prabang’s laid-back vibe, charming citizens, extraordinary cuisine, beautiful countryside and inviting night market have helped keep it a highlight for in-the-know travellers who make it here, either by boat down the Mekong or by air.  

But the tradition that made the town so famous is being ruined, and is at risk of disappearing.

Some alms givers and monks want to discontinue the Tak Bat because tourists’ behaviour is so intrusive. Not only is it disruptive, but it is making monks sick. Anxious to supplement their limited incomes, local women sell tourists food packets to give to the monks. However, often the food is leftovers from the seller’s family meals, and has sometimes gone bad. This, and the ignorant behaviour of tourists both westerners and Buddhists from neighbouring countries is reaching a tipping point.

Almost all males in Laos spend some time as a novice monk. Most Lao men that tourists encounter in Luang Prabang hotel concierges, restaurant waiters, tour operators will have collected alms in Luang Prabang’s streets. If pressed, they will reluctantly and politely tell you how stressful some tourists’ behaviour is for the monks.

Town officials have made efforts to improve the situation there are signs posted at the temples that tourists photograph during the day; tourism students patrol the streets during the ceremony and try to curtail the worst behaviours; many (but not all) hotels give their guests guidance and information.

Keep your distance and use a zoom lens (no flash!) to take photos during Tak Bat. Photo by Johanna Read, TravelEater.net

Keep your distance and use a zoom lens (no flash!) to take photos during Tak Bat. Photo by Johanna Read, TravelEater.net

But the daily ceremony is becoming a more and more disruptive spectacle.

Why does this happen?

Lack of knowledge and the anonymity of being in a crowd of strangers are the main culprits. Also at play is the extremely polite and modest Lao culture that considers it unacceptably rude to ask someone directly to change their behaviour. And the competing interests of tourism economics always contribute.

In their need to support their families, some take advantage of tourists’ interests in a cultural experience and their lack of knowledge about it. In addition to selling food, some local entrepreneurs “help” tourists participate in the alms-giving. They show you what to do and direct you to a mat to kneel upon. But when the monks have passed by they demand $20 US for their help.

Some of the worst behaviour in Luang Prabang is by group tours and the drivers of their minivans, which are inexplicably allowed into the area during the Tak Bat. Seemingly, the groups are given little instruction on what not to do and there are no consequences for inappropriate behaviour.

You can help by simply not buying from people who use the religious practice as a source of income. If no tourist purchased their tours, assistance or rice packets, they will soon turn to other work. Instead, donate money to organizations like Big Brother Mouse to help improve literacy or Community Learning International to help reduce the consequences of poverty.

In a group of people behaving badly, it can be difficult to follow the rules when no one else is. But, as my mother used to say, “would you jump off a cliff just because everyone else is doing it?”

Monks returning to their temple after the tak bat. Photo by Johanna Read TravelEater.net

Monks returning to their temple after the tak bat. Photo by Johanna Read TravelEater.net

All the knowledge you need to observe Luang Prabang’s Tak Bat:

Dress respectfully: cover your shoulders and knees, and everything in between (modest dress is appreciated at all times in Buddhist countries). Remove your hat and your earphones.

  • Keep away from the area where most tourists watch the alms-giving on Sakkaline Road. The monks pass through most of the streets in the historic district, and there are many more peaceful spots.

  • Observe in silence. Not just a low voice silence. Shake your head no if a local person asks you to buy food or participate.

  • Keep your head lower than the monks’ it is disrespectful to watch from a minivan or bus, and even from the balcony of your hotel.

  • Do not interfere in any way:

    • Stand back from the alms givers and monks five metres is the requested distance. No one, especially women, should touch a monk or his robes (not just during the alms-giving, but also, for example, when helping a monk practice his English or on crowded streets, where you should yield the right of way).

    • Do not break the line of monks; it is considered extremely profane. If you need to cross the street, wait until there is a large gap between groups of monks.

    • You can photograph the event, but do it from a distance and triple check to make sure your flash does not turn on automatically.

  • The grand majority of us should not participate in the Tak Bat (somewhat like how non-Catholics should not receive communion).

    • Practicing Buddhists who would find it meaningful may participate.

    • Ask your hotel they will provide you with information, lend you a mat and sash, and prepare rice for you to give or tell you where to buy it from the market where locals do. Be sure to explain that you want to participate for religious, not touristic, reasons and ask a lot of questions so that you fully understand the practice.

The simplest way to remember how to observe the Tak Bat is simply to think about what would be acceptable in your local church or temple. Bikini tops, loud talking, taking photographs of participants with a distracting flash, and jostling other worshippers (let alone the minister, priest, or rabbi) if this happened in your hometown, you would be shocked. The same holds true for the Tak Bat, even though this religious practice takes place in the street.

Remember that monks collect alms as a form of mediation. Anything you do that interferes with this meditation is disruptive. Camera flashes, getting close to or touching the monks, and noise are obvious no-nos, but you should even avoid looking a monk in the eye.

And what about those other people who aren’t showing respect? Yes, that’s harder. As Gandhi said, “'be the change that you wish to see in the world.” If enough people model good behaviour, things will change.

Parasols for sale at the night market. Photo by Johanna Read TravelEater.net.

Parasols for sale at the night market. Photo by Johanna Read TravelEater.net.

But until then:

During the Tak Bat, try to catch a transgressor’s eye and raise a finger to your lips in the universal “sssshhhhh” gesture; mouth “no flash” and point at their camera. During, before and after your trip, talk to other travellers about the challenges and easy ways to change behaviours. Share this article so more tourists will be aware.

As travellers, we have a responsibility to not make the places we visit worse because of our presence and behaviour. We also have the power and opportunity to make them better too. When you’re visiting the beautiful town of Luang Prabang, stand back and observe the Tak Bat tradition in silence. If we all can do this, the tradition will continue for future generations.

Published: 12/8/2015

Johanna Read is a Canadian freelance writer and photographer specializing in travel, food and responsible tourism. A former Government of Canada executive, Johanna retired early to pursue her passion: travel. Writing for a variety of print and digital publications, she encourages sustainable travel and promotes unique destinations. A 2016 goal is repeating her six-continents-in-one-year travel feat.