Updated map to include where to avoid.
Luang Prabang is a special place where centuries-old tradition lives on openly. Saffron-robed monks are easily spotted in temples along the streets and beyond, going about their daily lives. It’s beautiful and historic like Hoi An, Chiang Mai, and Ubud (Bali) – with a fraction of the crowd and accompanying tourist traps. It’s still a high-profile tourist town (HPTT), so it’s not as unspoiled as a truly off-the-beaten-path place, but as far as HPTTs go, LP is one of the best in Southeast Asia.
One of the coolest things in LP is the Alms-Giving Ceremony, a daily ritual where locals dot the streets before sunrise to offer food (such as sticky rice) to monks for their blessings. Now, let me clarify – this is cool in the sense that you see something special, something sacred, and it touches your heart. This isn’t cool as in “I’m so excited to take more Instagrammable photos and I don’t even care about the ceremony.” Unfortunately the latter is exactly how some tourists approach the ceremony (please don’t be one of them!). As result, there’s now a touristy version of the procession where tourists participate (and dominate, I hear) in the alms giving. Bad behaviors are reportedly (and unsurprisingly) not uncommon.
Now, everyone, think about it for a second. You’ve come all the way to Laos for something special. Does the idea of photographing the sacred procession of alms giving – with a bunch of (or even mostly) foreigners doing the act – seem appealing? Not to me. If only for this reason alone, you should:
- Avoid the touristy version of this ceremony.
- See the real thing, and do it with respect.
So, where can you find the real ceremony? After 4 mornings and different routes, here is my map of where to go and where to avoid.
I can say with certainty what I witnessed on the recommended route (green on map) was the real, faith-based procession, not some tourist show. It might be watered down a bit due to the tourists they have to deal with on the not-recommended route (the red X’s on the map), but it’s still the real thing. The recommended (green) routes had zero Caucasian participating in the food offering, while the not-recommended route is best avoided – the disrespectful tourist behavior will make your blood boil. The real processions were quiet and unassuming, but beautiful and spiritual. Here are some pictures from the first procession by Wat Mai on Sisavangvong Road.
And from morning #2, on Khem Khong (where I was the only observer) and Kitsalat Road:
For proper etiquette as an observer, see this article. I personally would NOT recommend participating as an offerer unless you have a strong spiritual reason to do so. For most of us, having the chance to observe this special event is more than enriching.
In a Nutshell
Alms giving is a beautiful event to witness. The understated interaction between the barefoot young monks and the faithful believers is powerful and spiritual to behold, especially at the end of the procession when the monks chant their blessings to the prayers of the participants before retreating back to their temple. Please respect the ceremony – keep your distance and minimize distraction, so that the tradition may live on in its true form.