What is an alms giving ceremony?
Alms giving takes place daily for monks. Each early morning as the sun rises, monks leave their temples and begin to walk down the street to collect their daily offerings of food from locals (and some tourists). This is perceived as giving people the opportunity to make merit. Money is not usually accepted and you’ll often see locals offering food such as rice. The alms giving ceremony differs in different countries, but one of the most famous ceremonies for tourists to observe is within Luang Prabang, Laos. The reasoning for this is because Luang Prabang has dozens of temples in close proximity, meaning they have over 200 monks that participate in the alms giving ceremony every morning.
This tradition dates back to the 14th century, and still today locals wake up early to prepare food for the monks and wait along the roadside to give their offerings. You will notice locals kneeling with their offerings and also at times waiting in the poorer areas, waiting with a basket in hopes that the monks will share some of their alms for their families.
Why should you go see an alms giving ceremony?
Recently I was in Luang Prabang, Laos and attended an alms giving ceremony as I was told this was a must-do while in the city. We woke up at 5:00am to head down to the main street and observe the ceremony. It really is a thing of beauty to witness a religious ceremony that happens every morning before most of the town is even awake. Not often do you see this many monks lined up and walking the streets together, at times lightly chanting prayers. If you are looking for a real traditional local experience, I highly recommend it.
Should you participate?
This is one of the most highly debated questions. In my opinion, you shouldn’t because this is a religious ceremony, and if you don’t celebrate Buddhism, there is no reason to participate. But if you choose to participate, I recommend that you don’t attend in a large tour group, but find a local that you can go with. This way you can learn the proper and most respectful way to participate. You’ll notice a few large Chinese tour groups while attending the ceremony and they really ruined the peacefulness of this beautiful ceremony. As they were being disruptive, loud, and following the monks at an inappropriate distance snapping photos (with flash). If you are going to participate, please do your research and make sure you aren’t being disrespectful as this isn’t meant to be a tourist attraction, it’s part of the locals every day life.
What are some things I should keep in mind?
We sat a bit away from the sidewalk/road where the monks were walking and the locals were sitting and observed in silence. We took photos we were a respectful distance away and did not use a flash. Also, don’t forget to dress appropriately, dress as if you were entering a temple with your legs and shoulders/chest covered. We did not feel comfortable participating, and read many things about this ceremony being turned into a circus with tourists so we wanted to be as respectful as possible.
One other thing I read was to not buy any rice or food from the ladies on the street selling it. Most of the monks will just end up getting rid of this food anyways, and often these ladies will just end up reusing the food that doesn’t get used. They are there to make money off a religious ceremony, so just avoid this all together, no matter how innocent they may seem.
You will also see these guidelines written outside of every temple because of issues they’ve had with tourists. Please be respectful and follow them if you choose to attend:
- Observe the ritual in silence and contribute an offering only if it is meaningful for you and can do so respectfully.
- Please buy sticky rice at the local market earlier that morning rather than from street vendors along the monks route.
- If you do not wish to make an offering, please keep an appropriate distance and behave respectfully. Do not get in the way of the monks’ procession or the believers offerings.
- Do not stand too close to the monks when taking photographs; camera flashes are very disturbing for both monks and the lay people.
- Dress appropriate: Shoulders, chests and legs should be covered.
- Do not make physical contact with the monks.
- Large buses are forbidden within the Luang Prabang World Heritage Site and are extremely disturbing. Do not follow the procession on a bus – you will stand above the monks which in Laos is disrespectful.
My opinion is that you must do this while in Luang Prabang, but if you aren’t going to be respectful or are doing it because “everyone else is doing it” in your tour group. Just avoid it all together. I mean, how would you feel if someone walked into a religious ceremony or building that you may have and worship, and treated it like a zoo?