If you are going to Luang Prabang, or know someone who is, please read these links and share the information. Model good practices, even if people around you are not, and talk to other travellers to get them to change their behaviours.
I was ashamed to be a tourist today.
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 thirty temples, and every sunrise they walk barefoot, in meditative silence, through the streets of this beautiful town to collect alms from local people.
Hundreds of tourists also line the streets. They run after the monks, cameras in hand and flashes blazing. They take close up pictures of monks and alms-givers, clearly disrupting this religious ritual. Others stand back — somewhat — but talk in loud voices, chatting about whether their photos are turning out, the excursion they went on yesterday, where they ate dinner. In some parts of town, the camera flashes are like strobe lights. 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.
I want to ask them “would you behave like this during a church service?!” Or, for the many tourists who are from Buddhist countries themselves, “would you behave like this with the monks from your neighbourhood temple?”
Other tourists are participating in the ceremony, dropping into the monks’ alms bowls packages of rice that they bought from ladies wandering the street. They make sure their camera-toting friend has a good shot of them while they deposit the food, but because they’re not paying attention, both the photographers and the alms-givers sometimes jostle the monks.
Young boys follow the monks with baskets, and the monks discretely drop the tourists’ packages into them. This food has made monks sick in the past — some of it is leftovers from the seller’s family’s meals yesterday.
Mini-vans roar by, headlights making monks squint as they walk through the misty dark streets, when they are meant to be walking in meditation.
Some monks want to discontinue this beautiful practice because the tourist behaviour is so disruptive. Most Lao males spend some time as a novice monk, so many of the men living in Luang Prabang now, including those you meet at restaurants and at your hotel, will have collected alms in Luang Prabang’s streets. If pressed, they will reluctantly and politely tell you how stressful some of the tourists’ behaviour is for the monks.
Luang Prabang has 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 information.
But it is not enough.