Laos: Giving of the Alms

Almsgiving is a religious practiced on the streets of Luang Prabang where monks accept rice, sugarcane, bananas, and any other food that the people in town have to offer them. At 6:00 every morning residents of the town come to the sidewalks and set up carpets to kneel on while they offer handfuls of rice and other food to the monks who pass by. I had never heard of almsgiving before my visit to Laos, and I admittedly don’t know very much (or anything at all, really) about Buddhism. I am eager to learn though, and now that I’m here and have the opportunity to witness one of these ceremonies, I am more than willing to wake up absurdly early for it.

It’s 5:30 when I’m up and putting on a long sleeved shirt and pair of long auburn comfy pants. It’s hard to wake up, but I went to bed early last night, thank Buddha. Ilona can’t wake up, and I hate trying to make people wake up when they’re sleepy, so I let her stay. I feel bad, because I feel like this is going to be a really cool experience.
The other girls come down and get me when they’re ready to go and we go outside to watch the Almsgiving. As soon as we step foot out the front door three Laotian women with baskets of food are crowding us trying to ask us to buy something from them to offer the monks. We had read online that tourists aren’t really supposed to do this for two reasons; one being that it is a religious ceremony and you shouldn’t really take part in it unless you really believe it and understand it, and the second reason being that it promotes selling things to tourists just for the benefit of profit, and the Almsgiving is not about that. We politely tell the women that we do not want to buy their food, and continue walking to the main street which is only a block from our guesthouse. We wait for about half an hour before the monks arrive. It is interesting to watch the towns people come and prepare for this event.
We sit on the sidewalk behind the row of people kneeling on carpets and preparing to give away their food, and quietly watch as the monks begin to slowly walk down the sidewalk. They each walk silently one behind another, holding open the lid of a small metal basket which is draped over each of their shoulders, similar to a messenger bag. The townspeople take handfuls of rice from their baskets and drop it into the monks’ baskets for them. The monks do not smile, they do not bow, they do not do anything but keep walking. Sometimes, they will drop a handful of food (only packaged items or sugarcane, I never saw them drop rice) into the laps of children or poor people, who instead of kneeling and offering food, sit and kneel with their hands pressed together. A mother and her child sit in front of us, and have only a very small basket of rice to offer the monks. I watch many monks drop food from their baskets in front of the child before continuing down the street. The exchange between the townspeople and the monks is so beautiful. It’s lovely to see people supporting and feeding each other. There’s such a shortage of this kindness in the world.
Part of me is sad that I can’t take part in it, but it’s nice to sit back and observe everything.

The only negative thing about this morning, is that I notice that there are wayyyy more tourists than I had anticipated. And like so many other things, especially when it comes to traveling, I walked into this with vision clouded by my own expectations, which are always magical and lined with more silver and gold than reality offers. That’s my fault, but I still can’t help but feel annoyed by the amount of tourists… which is hypocritical, I know. I came to the almsgiving without a camera, just excited to go absorb the experience and hopefully learn something new about monks and Laotian culture. I was shocked by the amount of tourists who all carry big Nikon cameras, snapping photos of monks (which you are not supposed to do in the first place) left right and centre while they go about their daily routines. No one even bothered to turn off the flash, and just continued swarming the monks like a bunch of paparazzi. Many tourists are wearing tank tops (disrespectful in Laotian culture, and this information is literally written on posters all over town and at the border office when entering the country) so that’s ridiculous. I am not in any way religious, but I know that if you are going to attend a religious ceremony you have to abide by their values and traditions, and I think it’s sad that so many people disregard this and do whatever they want here.
One English couple (who were older, maybe about 60) purchased some food from a local woman, sat down on the carpet after removing their shoes, but then placed their shoes on the carpet beside them anyway. They held out handfuls of rice for the monks, (and snapped some photos of their good deeds…ugh) and before all of the monks had walked through the couple had run out of rice. Instead of sitting there patiently and waiting for everyone to pass through, they started putting on their shoes (while still sitting on the mat) and just got up and walked to the other side of the street for a better photo op. It was disheartening to say the least.
The other Canadian girl we’re traveling with makes note that so many tourists complain about young backpackers, but so many of the disrespectful tourists we see this morning are much older.

I am told by one of the guys in our group that Luang Prabang is one of, if not the only, town in the world that still holds this ceremony, but I haven’t heard any other information to support this so far. I do know however, that the entire town is a UNESCO world heritage site, which I think is pretty cool.
The whole experience this morning is really really interesting and I’m happy that I got up to see it, I just wish I wasn’t a tourist and that other tourists didn’t know about it. In a perfect world, right?

After the ceremony we find tourist office where we can book a van that will take us to Vang Vieng later this morning, so we book that, eat some breakfast and start packing up our stuff. Our bus comes to collect us at 9:30, and by bus I mean mini-van with some fold away chairs so it can seat extra people. There are 10 of us in one van, and 11 seats so you’d think it would be roomy, but it isn’t. Luckily it’s only a 6 hour drive to Vang Vieng, and the seats are padded and pretty comfy. The best part about the drive is the fact that the only way to get there is through the mountains. We drive on extremely windy, thin, roads (or sometimes just stretches of gravel that I wouldn’t call a road) all around and up the mountains through little villages situated right on the edges of cliffs and covered in jungle on either side. Little babies and children are running around with little or no clothing on, completely unattended by any adults and playing games they’ve made up with sticks or picking flowers. I can’t help but feel worried (because I am my mother’s daughter) and feel like they are too close to the road, and the cliff, and the jungle… but they’re still alive so it must be fine.

It’s such a gorgeous drive with lots to look at, that I can’t complain about how long it takes at all. We go up so high that my ears are popping, and we are encased in a cloud so it’s quite foggy, but you can still make out the mountains in the distance. Absolutely beautiful. Some of the turns the driver makes are a little questionable, in terms of speed or available space on the road, but we never flip and tumble down the mountain, so it’s cool. The van only cost 105,000 kip ($14). I used to pay $14 to get from my apartment to work in a cab back in the city, and that didn’t even take 6 minutes let alone 6 hours.

We stop for lunch at a restaurant randomly located somewhere near the top of the mountain. It’s also a guest house or “geust” house as it is spelt on the sign out front. Adorable. The view is incredible and the food is decent and cheap. Only 2 more hours in the car from here, thankfully. Car rides always feel longer than they are for some reason.

We arrive in Vang Vieng which is way smaller and more adorable than I thought it would be. It’s located in a valley so we’re surrounded by gorgeous mountains as well as cute little guest houses and restaurants along one main road. We find a hostel that can take the 6 of us girls and the 6 boys and settle in.
We all meet up for dinner at a bar close by, which plays “Friends” on repeat. Awesome.
Afterwards we go out to an Irish bar, encouraged by the Irish fellows in our group, which is packed with tourists. We’re tired so we only stay for a little while, and go back to bed to sleep early that night. Like in Luang Prabang, all the bars shut down by 11:30 at the latest anyway, so it’s easy to have an early night.

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