One of the things that makes Luang Prabang a UNESCO site is the traditions that are still upheld today. Such as the locals getting up early to make sticky rice for the Buddhist monks. Our tour group participated, getting fresh made sticky rice in the morning market, near one that sold jungle rats on sticks and anything and everything that could be consumed, before the sun rose and heading to a spot to sit, quietly, respectfully and with heads bowed until the monks arrived from their temples.
This tradition is a bit controversial, not for the traditional bits but the tourism that has risen up around it. It’s a sacred tradition, important to the people of Laos and Luang Prabang and needs to be treated with respect. In our early morning arrival it really didn’t seem too bad. We didn’t book anything with a hotel or as a tour and instead walked to the place our CEO knew of and waited patiently, not fully sure when the monks would arrive. While we waited our guide quietly told us about the importance of this morning ritual. But as the morning grew tour groups arrived with large package alm sets; of money, packaged snacks and rice all tossed together which seemed unsanitary.
We sat below the monks, shoulders covered and scooped out rice with clean hands to give and place in their metal containers they carried. The monk who’d been at the temple longest was in front with the monk who’d been training the shortest amount of time in the back. This doesn’t necessarily mean oldest to youngest since you can become a monk, join and leave when you wish. We struggled as a group trying to figure out how much rice to give and to try to make sure we gave to every monk who passed, which meant by the time the second group of monks came past many of us were out of anything to give.
While for a bit it felt like frenzied quiet trick or treating our CEO hung back out of the way, quiet and respectful to the monks who passed while people stood around on the other side of the street to watch. We were told before hand that with the monks we must do a couple things: avoid making eye contact, to not touch them and to make sure we were to sitting so that we were lower then them and that our heads were not level or above them, to dress appropriately, take off our shoes and to not take pictures while we were doing this, especially not with flash. The very basics of what we were doing were given the monks their food for the day and to be respectful without interrupting that in any way. Outside of that there’s this importance of giving in the morning ritual and sharing. Though the families in Luang Prabang may not have much, they are still willing to share it with others, to get up early and make homemade food for the monks to share and eat.
So it makes sense that turning it into a tourist attraction can be a bit of a thorn. It’s a beautiful cultural thing to witness and a humbling thing to be a part of.