Tak Bat, the morning alms-giving practice, is a living Buddhist tradition and a key way for monks to maintain their vows and for Buddhist lay people to practice their faith and gain merit for the afterlife.
It is at risk of being discontinued in Luang Prabang, Laos — a UNESCO world heritage site made famous for this very ceremony.
As described HERE, tourists are disrupting the practice with flash photography, noise, and other actions more becoming of a circus than a religious ceremony.
How can you, at a minimum, not make the situation worse, and, even better, help other travellers to treat this practice with respect?
Below is a simple explanation of how to respectfully witness the alms-giving tradition, and, if (and only if) you are Buddhist and it is meaningful to you, how to participate in it.
Think about what would be acceptable in your local church or temple. Jostling the minister, priest or rabbi and worshippers; photographing them at close range, particularly with a flash; and making noise — if this happened, you would be shocked. The same holds true for the Tak Bat, even though this religious practice takes place in the street.
What should you do?
1. Observe in silence. Not just a low voice. Silence.
2. Photographing the event is fine, but do it from a distance and triple check to make sure your flash is turned off.
3. Dress respectfully: cover your shoulders and knees, and everything in between. Remove your hat (and your headphones).
4. Keep your head lower than the monks’ — it is disrespectful to watch from a minivan or bus, and even from the balcony of your hotel.
5. Do not break the line of monks; it is considered extremely disrespectful. If you need to cross the street, wait until there is a large gap between groups of monks.
6. Do not interfere in any way.
7. If you see others not following these guidelines, talk to them (yes, quietly!).
The grand majority of us should not participate in the Tak Bat (this would be like a non-Catholic taking Communion). However, if you are a practicing Buddhist and it would be meaningful to you, you may participate. There are ways to do this respectfully as well.
How to participate:
1. Ask your hotel to prepare the rice for you to give, or buy it from the market where locals do: do not buy from the street vendors along the monks’ route (Some vendors are selling their own leftovers, and monks have gotten sick. Yes, the sellers need the money, but there are more sustainable ways to help these families and the community).
2. Your hotel should also be able to provide you with a mat to sit on and a sash to wear.
3. Dress respectfully, with shoulders and legs covered, and wearing the sash provided by your hotel.
4. Give alms silently (they will also be received in silence).
5. Do not touch the monks or their robes; women should take extra care.
6. Recently some entrepreneurial older Lao women are “helping” tourists participate in the alms-giving, by showing you what to do and directing you to a mat to kneel upon (when the monks have passed by they then ask for $20 US for their help). Shake your head no and move away, and if they are very persistent quietly say “bo, kup chai ” meaning “no, thank you”.
Remember that monks collect alms as a form of mediation; anything you do to interfere with this meditation is disruptive. Camera flashes, getting close to or touching the monks, making noises should be obvious no-nos, but you should even avoid looking a monk in the eye.
Simply stand back and observe this beautiful tradition in silence. If we all can do this, the tradition will continue for future generations.
I would like to complement these Luang Prabang hotels for giving their guests information to help bring more respect to the tak bat, and helping Buddhist guests participate in the ritual:
Hôtel de la Paix
Apsara Rive Droite
For more info on how to be a respectful tourist in a Buddhist country, please click HERE.