The Buddhist Giving of the Alms ceremony is a beautiful and meaningful site in Luang Prabang, Laos. Giving of the Alms is very significant for the predominantly Buddhist people of Laos and Luang Prabang, however I was saddened to read that the entire ceremony may be in danger due to the behaviour of some tourists. I can personally empathise with those involved after watching some of the behaviour on display back in 2012.
Of course, most people did the right thing, however there was certainly a lot of disrespectful behaviour from some tourists. I imagine that many of these people had no idea that they were acting poorly, and so if you are thinking of attending the Giving of the Alms, please play your part in respecting this cultural and religious tradition, and follow some basic guidelines. By doing so, you will have a much better experience also.
1. Please only participate if it is meaningful to you.
A number of tour providers offer ‘packages’ to go along and participate in the Giving of the Alms ceremony. If this is meaningful to your faith, please, by all means participate. However, it is inappropriate for those who are not Buddhist to join in – this is a religious ceremony, not a tourist-friendly activity. Would you join in Friday prayers at a Mosque? No, so please don’t join in here either.
2. Do not point your feet at monks, or raise your head above theirs.
In Buddhist culture the head is the highest part of your body, and the feet is the lowest. By putting your head above the monks (e.g. watching down from a hotel balcony), you are insinuating you are ‘above’ them in standing. Likewise, pointing your feet is rude and can be seen as an insult.
3. Watch the ceremony in silence
Please do not speak, and especially do not yell, during the ceremony. The best volume is total silence!
4. Be very respectful when photographing
When taking photos, please consider how you would feel in the monk’s position and act accordingly. Taking photographs from afar is okay, however please avoid flash photography and especially, getting up close to the monks and their faces and taking photographs. Zoom lenses were invented for a reason, people!
5. Dress appropriately
Please remember this is a conservative country and cover at least to your elbows and knees. Plus, it’s freezing, you will be glad you brought a jacket!
6. Do not interrupt the ceremony – and especially do not touch the monks
Do not interrupt the ceremony or break the line of monks, that is extremely inappropriate even if people are too polite to say so! Wait until the ceremony is over before returning to your hotel – or, if it is absolutely necessary – at least wait until there is a big gap between groups of monks. Also, it should go without saying, but do not touch the monks or their robes – especially if you are a woman.