One of the highlights in the UNESCO Heritage City of Luang Prabang is to witness or participate in one of the most sacred Lao traditions, the Buddhist Alms Giving Ceremony also known as Tak Dat.
Together with my 3 friends, we tumbled out of bed at 5 am and quickly walked to Sisavangvong Road where the famous night market is located to witness this ceremony. Other tourists seemed to be heading towards the same directions and by the time we arrived, the place was already crowded.
WHAT IS TAK DAT?
According to the local ritual of tak dat, devotees will get up very early in the morning to cook the sticky rice and prepare other offerings such as biscuits, fruits, etc. They will then dress conservatively and wear a cloth to cover their shoulders and chests. As they know the routes of the monks’ procession, they will go to the designated location and arrange their offerings on a mat. The devotees will then await the start of the ceremony on their knees. The purpose of the alms giving is for the Buddhist monks to make merit and also to collect food for their one meal of the day.
At the crack of dawn, hundreds of bare-footed monks in their saffron coloured robes will depart from the 30 some temples around Luang Prabang.
All the photos in this post was taken along Sisavangvong road whereby the monks came from the nearby Temple Wat Mai. The procession is based on the age hierarchy of the monks. The oldest one will lead the procession and each of them will have a shoulder bag which holds a metal vessel to keep the alms which they received from the devotees.The monks will silently and solemnly walk down the row of kneeling devotees and stopping in front of each of them to receive the alms.
Due to the generosity of the devotees, the monks can be laden with lots of offering which their metal vessels and hands cannot cope. Big baskets are placed at strategic locations for the monks to place some of the alms. These baskets will later be collected and send to the temples. I noticed that some tourists devotees even gave cash to the monks.
THE NOT-SO-NICE PART OF TAK DAT
There are certain rules to observe when one attends the alms giving ceremony. Before we came, we read up on this ritual as we know that it is not a tourist attraction but the privilege of being able to observe another local cultural ritual. What I saw on that morning was shocking and the followings are some of my observations.
If you sincerely wants to give alms to the monk, you have to prepare the offering yourself. This means that you will have to cook the sticky rice and other delicacies. If for some reason you can’t, then you should buy it from the local market. BUT YOU SHOULD NOT BUY FROM THE VENDORS WHO HAD TAKEN THIS OPPORTUNITY TO MAKE MONEY OUT OF THIS REVERED RITUAL!! These vendors placed their stalls opposite the rows of devotees. For those tourists who wants to have a photo of them participating in the alms giving, they will be the ones buying from these vendors.
When I saw this row of devotees, I realised that they are not locals but part of a tour group which includes participation in the tak dat as the highlight itinerary. I am not doubting their sincerity but their eagerness of taking photographs of them giving alms to the monks is not a pretty sight. Apparently, the tourists should not disturb the monks when the procession has started. The tour leader of this group was weaving in-between the monks to get a good shots of his tour members.
This one is the icing on a terrible tasting cake. Some tourists (I believe they are foreign tour organisers) who are not taking part in the ceremony, had the gall to place a table and some chairs to have their morning coffee along the same path where the monks will be walking down to collect the alms. What on earth is going on in that mush they called brains!! There was no respect, total disregard and utter nonchalance of a local revered tradition. I will not not be surprised if the Loas government prohibit tour groups from joining tak dat in the future.
It is considered very offensive to disrupt the ceremony once it has commenced. Observers should stand at a respectful distance to observe the ritual. This is definitely not the case on the day I was there. People were talking loudly, standing very close to the monks to have their photographs taken and some literally put their cameras in the faces of the monk… with flash on!!! Flash is not allowed as the light will break the monks’ concentration.
The whole vibe of the alm giving ceremony was not one of solemnity, serenity and reverence. Alas… it was more of a carnival than anything else. I understand that the Lao authorities are not very happy with the behaviour of the tourists and I for one would be more than happy if they restrict this beautiful sacrificial affair to those who do it with all their heart and soul.