Monday, March 18, 2013

Monks Morning Rounds

Monks on the morning tak-bat collect alms in front of Wat Nong Sikhounmuang in Luang Prabang, Laos.

Luang Prabang is one the hip cities to visit in Southeast Asia right now. Like Siem Reap, it's thought to be off the beaten path, a place where travelers in the know go to escape tourists. Except both places are pretty much awash in tourists.

Luang Prabang is a charming, well preserved colonial city in the mountains north about seven hours from Vientiane over a very bad road. There are about 50 Buddhist temples and monasteries in the city and hundreds of monks (more per capita than there are in either Bangkok or Vientiane). Every morning at dawn the monks go out en masse on their alms rounds. Hundreds, on rare occasions over a thousand, of monks walk in a silent single file through the historic section of Luang Prabang while devout Laotians give them an offering of Lao sticky rice.

It's an amazing site to see. As a photographer, it's an event I never tire of. The monks in the saffron robes, the soft early morning light that changes from blue (the tak bat starts in near dark) to orange (dawn) to daylight (at the end). There's nothing like it.*

A tourist stands over monks while he photographs the tak-bat. 

But in the last few years, new participants have crashed the tak-bat. The tourists have thrust themselves into the tak-bat. There are posters in all of the temples and many of the hotels around town with instructions on proper behavior for the morning ritual. Basically it boils down to be respectful of monks and the tradition. Buddhism is a very tolerant religion and non-Buddhists are allowed to participate (i.e. give alms to the monks) if they find it personally meaningful and they have the proper food for the monks.

In the past, monks have been sickened by tourists who buy improperly prepared food before the tak-bat, so the community has asked that tourists not buy rice from the street vendors who line up along the route. Tourists are asked to either prepare their own rice (which is not really practical for most travelers, plus cooking rice is not as easy as you think) or buy from a trusted source and to dress appropriately. Many guest houses and some smaller hotels will cook rice for tourists for the tak-bat, but you have to make arrangements in advance for this.

Tourists now kneel next to Lao on the tak-bat and make offerings to the monks. Most dressed appropriately and, honestly, I think most are well intentioned. But it does diminish the experience some.

It's put people in a tough spot. Laung Prabang is dependant on the tourist trade. There are hundreds of hotels, guesthouses, restaurants and souvenir shops in Luang Prabang. Regular Lao flow into the city from the surrounding mountains everyday hoping to strike it rich in the tourist trade.

Tourists come to Luang Prabang specifically to witness the tak-bat and the Lao know this. The challenge is to find the middle way, one that preserves the tak-bat without turning it into a touristified version of what it once was.

There are more photos from the tak-bat and Laos in my archive or available from ZUMA Press.
* The site of monks out in the morning in Bangkok or most other Buddhist countries is not unusual. What makes the monks' morning rounds in Luang Prabang unique is the numbers. Hundreds of monks in a single file line. 

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.