White vans stop abruptly and people spill out in a manner that is reminiscent of the paparazzi. With cameras at the ready and giant hats slung behind their neck, these tourists chatter excitedly in a myriad of languages.
A tour guide speaks into a loudspeaker over a flurry of noise where it is meant to be silent. Instructions are dulled out and tourists are inserted like puzzle pieces onto sidewalks with bowls of sticky rice pressed into their hands. Ladies and Gentlemen, put your hands together…
Heads lowered and metal tins in hand, the monks leave their monasteries. A flurry of camera flashes, the sound of shutters becomes foreground against the ritual-turned-spectacle — a once humble religious practice, now gone awry.
The morning alms round or Tak Bat begins at sunrise, during which around 200 Buddhist monks depart from their various temples to gather their daily meal. The tradition of alms gathering dates back to the 14th century, where locals wake up before daybreak to donate food to the orange-robed Buddhists of Luang Prabang; those who participate hope that by doing so they will earn good Karma.
The food is mostly prepared by the almsgivers themselves. Which are often times, a batch of sticky rice that they then scoop generously into each monk’s bowl as the line files past.
And how heart warming and humbling to see hundreds of monks and young novices clad in a spectrum of robes so similar yet different, streaming down to collect food. Your eyes might still be crusty from the sands of a long night’s sleep but they have been awake since 4 a.m. for hours of prayer and meditation.
The ritual is done in silence; with a mutual understanding where the almsgivers do not speak, nor do the monks as they walk in meditative peace. All this time, Tak Bat has reinforced the symbiotic relationship between the monks and the almsgivers.
Perhaps digressing off of its main purpose, a curious sight of small children kneeling with baskets in the hope that the monks will share some of their alms with their families is not uncommon.
This usually spiritual and peaceful daily ceremony is oftentimes a great insight into the core of what it means to be a local. However, it is also precisely because of this untouched beauty that it has become a major tourist attraction.
The upsurge of tourism in Luang Prabang has endangered the Tak Bat ceremony, only one of the many cultural practices turned circus. Tourists often jostle the monks, breaking their meditation; they use flash or stand too close when taking photographs; and disrupt the ritual with their inappropriate noise, actions and dressing.
In consequence, fewer locals are inclined to take part if only because they refuse to be continue feeding into this false and flimsy charade of what has become of their culture. In fact, some Lao officials are considering stopping the tradition because of this deep offense.
Like so many other South East Asian countries, Laos is vulnerable, due to its lack of wealth and development, to becoming a tourist hub whose heritage has been weathered down to become shallow understandings perhaps even more self-righteous than this article.