Please don’t feed the Monks

No that’s not a typo, I am not talking about monkeys, although you really shouldn’t feed them either, I am talking about the orange-clad Buddhist Monks of Laos.

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Every morning the people of Luang Prabang wake up before dawn to prepare food and take it to the streets for the morning alms ceremony in Lao called Tak Bat. They lay a simple blanket on the sidewalk and kneel, waiting for the Monks of the nearly 80 different temples to leave on their morning rounds. The monks collect food from the town’s people and that is the food that sustains them for the day. The people do this as their sacrifice, but also to support the monks and their religion. This is done every day as it has for centuries… Only in recent years there have been some new faces passing rice to the monks.Luang Prabang Laos - Monks - Alms Giving-33

The new ‘cool’ thing to do is to take part in the centuries-old transitions of the Theravada monks in Luang Prabang, Laos. You can actually pay a tour company to pass out food and get your pictures taken with the monks!

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Apparently it has gotten bad enough that the monks considered stopping the tradition, basically because tourists were ruining it, and turning it into a circus. However, the government put a stop to that idea, realizing where the tourist dollars are coming from, and told the monks that if you don’t continue we will replace you with fake monks to keep up appearances.Luang Prabang Laos - Monks - Alms Giving-17

So am I a hypocrite? Am I part of the problem? Maybe.

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I went to the town. I watched the procession of the monks collecting Alms. So maybe I am part of the problem, but I did it in what I felt was a respectful observation. I watched from the other end of a 300mm zoom lens, from no closer than across the street from a group of monks. Even then I still felt intrusive. It’s a beautiful ceremony, and I left feeling like I am just helping to kill it.

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Luang Prabang has risen to a top spot in South East Asia, but I can’t help but to feel it was for the wrong reasons. The town in general, felt (to me) very patronizing and fake, like it was built around something it shouldn’t have been, so much so that it almost killed it.

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18 thoughts on “Please don’t feed the Monks”

  1. We didn’t go and see this because of the government intervention (and we are a bit lazy). Additionally we had seen it in other countries in a more “real” environment. We did like Luang Prabang though and really enjoyed talking to everyone there particularly at the Big Brother Mouse project

  2. I seriously don’t understand the whole buzz around this. YOu can observe the alms anywhere really. Go to Myanmar to Inle Lake, get up in the morning and watch the monks walking around with the bowls in a mist, without hordes of tourists around. Go to Chiang Mai, get up in the morning and do the same. Why Laos? why Luang Prabang? I just don’t get it….

  3. It’s sad and it’s a shame that some tourists don’t have a notion of respect.
    When visiting a temple we saw a woman literally grab a monk, place him next to her and make him put his hands in prayer so that her husband could that pictures of them two… how awful is that?
    Let’s just hope most of us just want to share foreign cultures in a respectful way.

  4. We visited Luang Prabang in 2012 and witnessed the Tak Bat taking photographs from quite far and staying silent all the time
    But we saw so many tourists taking photos just few meters far from the monks and talking loud.
    We were disgusted by the lack of respect and the selfishness of those tourists just willing to have a postcard from LP and tell friends home that they had been there…apparently they didn’t understand at all what the ceremony means for local people.
    Respect and knowledge are a must when you visit a foreign country.

  5. We spent a week in LP and didn’t participate or even watch the ceremony. For similar reasons I suppose. I liken it in a way to tourists coming to a christian country and going up for holy communion? Would you agree?

  6. We too saw the monks of Luang Prabang but felt we did it respectfully (as much as you can as a foreigner) from a distance and zoomed in with our camera. We were lucky on our stretch of street to not see any pushy tourists but we totally agree that if tourists are not respectful then it will ruin this age-old tradition.
    Thanks for an interesting post!

  7. About 12 years ago, right out of college, I worked in Vientiane for a year for a major intergovernmental organization. I had ample time to study the tourists. It made me sad how many of the tourists would smile at Lao people but not other tourists (or expats!); tourists also seemed vaguely competitive about finding the most remote possible village. It was ridiculous. People have the most superficial notions of “authenticity.” My house was on a monk route, as I thought of it, but I know my neighbors would not have been happy if I’d been out there at dawn. Why? I was not a Buddhist… Buddhism in Laos was a little too misogynist for me anyway.

  8. wow i would never thought about something like this. I’m preparing my trip to Laos and Cambodia and it’s always good to know so that I myself don’t fall into this strange vicious thing. great share, thank you, hug from Marrakesh!

    • Your going to love Cambodia, we hope to get back there in the next few months. We are now living in Thailand where we will be for the next 5 months. Let us know if you make it here!

  9. It’s a problem- we all want to travel and corner the “rare’ and “untouristy” and be the first to discover a new beautiful place.And then we write about it and others flock to the place and change the whole feel and balance.And then we complain.There are fewer and fewer places to go that haven’t been discovered. So I don’t know what the answer is.We are definitely part of the problem.We can only encourage people to try to be unobtrusive as you were,but the fact is that our mere presence in another culture is going to alter it…. that’s the nature of travel,whether mass tourism or indivicuals.

  10. So glad to see someone write this post.

    I think that you’ve summerised it perfectly with the word ‘circus’ because that’s exactly how it looked when we saw people going absolutely camera-crazy in Luang Prabang in Laos.

    Some people really need to be more responsible and realise the implications of their actions and the potential long-term damaging effects of their over the top tourism antics.

  11. It’s not only a problem of Laotian monks, but the same thing happens in Cambodia and some parts of Thailand as well. Some tourists are way too pushy and have no limits when it comes to Buddhist traditions.

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