Tak Bat, the ancient alms giving ceremony is one of the highlights of visiting Luang Prabang. Monks walk down the streets from 05:30 every morning and receive alms of rice and other food from those wishing to gain some kind of spiritual redemption.
Monks in orange garbs walking silently in single file, whilst lines of crouching or kneeling people place little bundles of sticky rice into the bowls hanging from the monks shoulders…..is how it’s described in the tourist guides. In reality though it feels more like a staged tourist event and I still have mixed feelings about it.
Initially we were both shocked at the spectacle of throngs of tourists being bussed in before first light to sit on the roadside, their partners jostling for prime position directly opposite ready to catch the moment of inner enlightenment or redemption with a camera. As you look down the long dark Sakkaline Road stretching away to the Mekong you can sense the excitement in the air and within seconds you can see the lightning barrage of flashes going off as people fire their cameras within a few feet of the monks.
Then as dawn breaks into another bright, warm morning everybody departs: the tourist buses fill back up to take their guests back to the out of town luxury hotels, and the american kids go find a coffee or head for the nearest tourist travel shop/ internet bar to arrange tickets for their next must see.
The tourist board helpfully suggests ways to respect the ceremony like not standing directly in front of the advancing monks, or not shooting with flash, not buying food off street vendors and generally just not getting in the way. All these great ideas seem to have got lost somewhere.
The next morning we kind of enjoyed it more, there’s some interesting pictures to be taken and there are genuinely respectful people around, but they are definitely a minority. I see how it works for Luang Prabang: yes, it’s a centuries old ceremony and demands respect, but also think of the money coming in to a whole swathe of people involved. Hotels, drivers, cafes, the women selling rice on the street, the kids taking the excess rice the monks don’t want- we can’t and we shouldn’t expect it to remain untouched.
And I bumped into my stalker from the other night- nice guy. He had just bought a M9 and couldn’t understand why I was able to shoot at night in the market or at the Tak Bat at dawn. Turn the ISO up all the way whether it’s film or digital!