Alms Round in Luang Prabang

Giving alms to monks is an early morning ritual that dates back for generations for both Buddhists in Laos and Thailand. The practice is very similar. Lay people get up before dawn to prepare food for the monks. They then wait patiently outside their house for the monks to come so that they can make merit and then be blessed by the monks in return. That is the theory but it didn’t quite happen like that in Luang Prabang where I am presently on holiday. The city is famous worldwide for the alms round where literally hundreds of saffron robed monks walk the streets as far as the eye can see. However, due to this popularity, the event has because almost a circus show put on for the foreign tourists.

I have witnessed many alms rounds in Thailand. I have also been on several where I went with the monks on their entire round. You may remember one of my past stories where I wrote how I was roped into becoming a “temple boy” to carry the monk’s heavy alms bags. So I knew that I would need to get up early and be at the temple well before 6 a.m. I wasn’t exactly sure where to go. It was still dark and hardly anyone on the roads. I decided to head for Sisavangvong Road which is kind of the main strip in town. I had also noted yesterday that there were several temples along this road. In the distance, coming out of the mist towards me, were small groups of tourists. Then a Lao lady came up to me to ask if I wanted to buy some food for the monks. I was obviously in the right area.

As it was still too dark to take any pictures, I just walked up and down the road a few times observing the growing crowd of onlookers. Mats were being laid out on the side of the road and people started to sit down with their offering. By 6.15 a.m. it was started to get quite crowded. However, the tourists far out-numbered the locals. If there was any at all. There were several groups of Thai tourists as well as a coach load of well-off Laotians who obviously weren’t from around here. Maybe here on holiday from Vientienne. There were also a number of Western tourists who had decided to give alms. Some had come individually from their guesthouses. However, many seem to have come on tours in minivans because I counted at least a dozen parked on the opposite side of the road.

Ten minutes later, I saw the first monks leaving their temple. Unlike in Thailand, these all left at the same time in one long line. They were also leaving a lot later. It did actually cross my mind that it was being orchestrated a bit. They had left their temple as soon as it was light enough for us to take pictures without using a flash. And there were certainly plenty of people doing that. I had a hard time getting any good pictures without getting a tourist in the background. And of course, at the same time trying to be respectful to the monks on the alms round. Another difference is that the monks kept going at a brisk rate. They hardly paused for anyone to offer them food. There was only time enough to give them a pinch of sticky rice before they had moved on. In Thailand the monks would stop for several minutes at each house and wouldn’t leave before giving a blessing.

I suppose in some ways I was a little disappointed. At first I felt bad that we were intruding on the local people who were giving alms to the monks by taking pictures of them. But honestly, there weren’t any. Most people giving alms were from out of town and were also keen to have their friends take their picture. I knew this couldn’t be the full extent. The local people had to be somewhere giving alms. So, I decided to follow the monks, which was no mean feat. They kept a good pace. I guess the combination of a freezing cold sidewalk and walking in bare feet kept them moving. From the main street they turned right and headed towards the Mekong River. Before they reached it they turned right again and headed back up a parallel road towards Wat Xieng Thong.

This was much more like it. The only people along this narrow road giving alms were the true local people. Better still, there were only two or three foreigners. No tour buses here. It was much easier to appreciate the alms round and to observe the lay people giving food to the monks. Though, like before, they only gave a pinch of sticky rice as the monks quickly filed past. Still no blessing from the monks which I found strange but maybe this is the norm in Laos. At the top of the road the monks entered the temple and quickly dispersed. A straggler came up to me to say hello in English. He was a young novice monk about 12 years old. He asked me where I was from and if I was cold. His English wasn’t that extensive but it was still good enough to chat for a short while. I was quite surprised because this kind of thing doesn’t happen in Thailand. Kids are usually too shy or disinterested to approach foreigners.

In the end I did enjoy the morning alms round. It is nice being up and about before dawn and watch the town come to life. I am also glad I found a stretch of road that was more authentic. Though now that I have written about it, how much longer will it stay that way! Anyway, I still have another full day in Luang Prabang and I think tomorrow I will get up early again, though not as early as 5.15 a.m., and come and walk along this road. I will stand at the top of the hill and wait for them to approach me. Now it is time for me to find some breakfast.

9 responses to “Alms Round in Luang Prabang

  1. Richard, someone told me that if you rent a bicycle, and can keep it overnight, you can easily go further south, a couple of kilometres, to the area between the main street and the river, and there will be no tourists there. but then, the question is, is it right to intrude even there, or should tourists just keep to their “allocated strip” in the old city, on the main road.

  2. All alittle bit sad-and does not auger well if Laos becomes firmly situated as a western tourist destination. I tried to track down the Alms round in Chiang Mai when I was last there-all I managed to see was 2 monks knocking on the door of a closed cafe and not getting a reply!

  3. Betti, I think the place I “discovered” is what you are talking about and where I took the bottom three photos. I think the tourist buses and group tours should keep to the main strip as they are intrusive. However, for individual travellers it is nice to observe something more real. If it is the same place then you don’t need a bicycle as you can see the “start” of the alms round and then take a shortcut down a side road to meet them coming back towards you.

    Khun Don, the alms round in Thailand is still live and well. I have walked on several myself to observe both the monks and local people and their interaction. In general they have been very good. I will be blogging about temple life in Thailand later. However, here in Luang Prabang I saw several times where the young monks (most of them are only novices so that they get free schooling) give back straight away something unwanted that was given to them. The old Lao woman scolded him and said he should take everything that was given. Which is true. Another time, I saw a novice monk dump most of his alms bowl into a bowl next to an old woman. Either he was doing her a favour or he was just getting rid of something he didn’t want.

    Talking of novices, there are couple of them here in this internet cafe writing letters to some foreign penpals in hotmail. Most temples I visited some monks came up to talk to me.

  4. Richard, Am absolutely sure the alms round in Thailand is “live and well”- and genuine too -it was just my lack of ability to find it in Chiang Mai after getting up at 5 AM to do so! I did make to enquiries beforehand, but the few people I spoke too knew nothing of the route the monks took.
    Mai Pen Rai 555.
    Next time, maybe!

  5. I would think that for monks to be alive ande well, alm giving has to be alive and well.

  6. no, Richard, I meant further south along the river, south from the former Royal palace and the market. :-)

    in Chiang Mai, you can spot a lone monk on alms round here and there around sunrise (up to 7am.), but I had also been expecting more of a sight, given the high number of monks in the old city.

  7. btw, very happy to see your pictures :-) bring back all the fantastic memories.

  8. Betti, when I went to catch my plane back early this morning, I asked the tuk tuk driver just to drive around the town a bit first. I wanted to see what it was like in other sectors. From my observations, I can tell you that outside the tourist areas the monks are out and about at least by 5.30 a.m. – I speculated before that the monks in the main tourist street went on their alms round only after it was light enough to take pictures. I guess this is really true. I did see several places where there were a dozen or so monks walking along the street. Local people were waiting for them at scattered locations.

  9. Great blog Richard! You mentioned about thinking of living there for a split second. What roadblocks do you know of for expats to find if moving into Laos?