Up in alms
Luang Prabang, Laos
2 April 2015
The roosters start to crow as early as 3 a.m., pulling us up from the precipice of a river-lapped sleep. Here, on the outskirts of the heritage area, the air seems gentler, less bullied with the shouts of touts and young backpackers swaggering their ability to hold in buckets of cheap beer.
Fast forward to 5 a.m. There are already murmurings of faith in the predawn air, as households stir into life with the scent of sticky rice being steamed in woven bamboo baskets.
This marks the start of the daily preparation of food for collection by Buddhist monks. Known as tak bat, it is a serene ritual of devotion, a silence of padded footsteps down roads paved and broken. From over 80 temples in Luang Prabang, monks emerge single file in their distinctive saffron-orange robes. Young and old, their heads shaven, they walk resolutely, faces a mask of contemplation.
Meanwhile, the neighborhoods’ early risers are already in place, offering bowls filled with the ubiquitous sticky rice and more; wrapped sweets, a smattering of confectionery. All of this goes into a large lidded bowl hanging from their shoulders. After a row of monks finish receiving their offerings, they gather at a distance and chant a blessing over the residents, who receive it gratefully, palms together and heads bowed.
Latecomers hastily scramble to set up shop on the other side of the street, because they know by heart the monks’ itinerant passage, constant as the sun that is now wending its inexorable way up the sky. Of course, dogs and even kitty cats tend to avail themselves of the offerings, picking up scraps with little or no suffering involved.
However, the monks don’t exactly receive a balanced diet. Their bowl, if laid out, mostly consists of clumps of rice and the occasional sweet. Hardly any fruits, vegetables or even meat. It’s a spartan life, and yet, this is something that they all come to voluntarily.
But what might be far more damaging, particularly along stretches of the heritage area, are the bus loads of tourists that tumble out, toting loud cameras and voices. They break the sheen of the sacrosanct and scourge the sunrise, even trying to get a spot on the alms-giving trail.
One also has to blame the hotels and tour companies too for arranging these alms-giving packages, and not being stricter about rules. Experience isn’t always about getting that absolutely necessary in your face shot, but rather, about a studied observance of a way of life.
We stand a respectful distance as we take our photographs, content to watch from afar. Fortunately, we are in a more residential area of the city, and don’t have to suffer from an influx of tourists.
As the sun scales the top of the trees, and the heat begins to bake the streets, we trail behind the monks on our way back to our room as they slip behind the doors of their temple, almed and ready to start another day.