Luang Prabang And The Monk Paparazzi

(note: The photos and videos we took really showed the craziness of it all, but since we lost everything we can’t show you. These photos are not our own, but still give you an idea of what it was like, although the crowds of tourists seem to have more than doubled since they were taken!)

After the bumpiest 8 hour bus ride of my life from Luang Nam Tha – we finally arrived in Luang Prabang, Laos.

The dusty ride had been awful, yet one of the most amazing ones I’ve experienced.

We drove through the most scenic nature of Laos, passing countless of ethnic villages and tribes along the way, stopping on and off in a few.

High up in the mountain range in the middle of nowhere – girls dressed in traditional clothing and hats with bells and jewellery hanging like a shade over their faces were playing ball in the road; women were showering from a bamboo pipe collecting water from the forest, and 5 year old kids were taught how to chop the grass for their roofs with machete knives – it was a pretty crazy sight.

We had spent a few days in northern Laos – Luang Nam Tha to be exact – biking through these ethnic villages and had gotten a good glimpse of what Laos was about.

We were, however, looking forward to visit the tourist hub of Luang Prabang.

We had heard of the ‘incredible’ morning alms, and were keen to see what all the fuss was about.

We had decided not to take part in the ceremony but to see it from a distance. The morning alms is not meant to be a tourist attraction, and since we’re not Buddhists we felt it was strange to take part.

It turns out, nobody else felt that way.

From where we stood there was a 50 meter long carpet laid out for people from where they would hand over some sticky rice to the passing monks.

The whole 50 meters was packed with one big tourist group, all provided with a basket of rice by their guide, taking photos of each other half an hour before the monks even arrived.

This was just the beginning. If this is where things ended, fine. But once it got light, and the 200 monks appeared, people went crazy.

The many precautions one had been told about the morning alms such as no camera flashes, no walking in front of the monks, women sit down etc – was all forgotten.

The monks were not treated like rock stars, but more like a passing tourist attraction, something very inhuman.

There was a huge crowd surrounding the monks, running after them, trying to get that close up of their faces.

Next to the monks were kids running along carrying big carboard boxes, picking up the leftovers that the monks didn’t want, begging for some rice..

I must say, the monks didn’t look like they were enjoying their ceremony – at all! They were all very young, and it was almost as though they were runnning to get away.

What surprised me was that there really wasn’t anything special about these alms; they do the same thing all across Laos, but in smaller groups.

It was worth a look just to see how bananas the tourists got, but I must admit, it’s easy to get sucked in. I’m not completely innocent, I was there and therefore part of the problem.

There is I guess, one good thing coming out of this; a very good mental practice for the monks.. ;)

The next morning we were up at 5 o clock again to catch a bus down to Vang Vieng. Walking down a small side street in the pitch dark, we suddenly saw a long line of bright orange robes coming towards us.

Along the street were quite a few locals waiting for them with their baskets of rice.

These monks were much older than the ones from the previous day and walked in a nice slow pace, taking time for each local to give them their alms.

This was a whole different group, up earlier before the tourist, taking complete different route… not a single flash camera around, we stood enjoying the tradition before moving on.

Want To See The Morning Alms In Peace?

The morning alms is something special to witness, and I would definitely recommend seeing one, but not taking part in it, and perhaps not the one in Luang Prabang.

Luang Prabang is not the only place, they do the morning alms every day all over Laos. Just get up nice and early, walk the streets and you’re likely to find them walking there as well…

18 Responses to Luang Prabang And The Monk Paparazzi

  1. Anonymous April 16, 2011 at 5:36 am #

    Luang Prabang has some of the worst behaved tourists I’ve ever seen. The locals are becoming equally jaded and pushy as well. It once was a beautiful place to be, now it is simply annoying (though still beautiful).

    • Sofia - As We Travel April 16, 2011 at 4:31 pm #

      Yeah many of the tourists behaved really bad, and it felt contagious.

      • Cxxis April 26, 2011 at 5:06 am #

        As so often, the local greed is to blame. Better not to inform the thrill seekers that the alms giving is all over Lao. Concentrating the obnoxious tourist in LPB should be enough.

  2. Andrew April 16, 2011 at 6:51 pm #

    Oh wow that sounds kinda crazy! I haven’t visited there yet, but it sounds like you should stay away and maybe watch the monks in another part of Laos, thanks for this heads up!

    • Sofia - As We Travel April 17, 2011 at 5:55 am #

      Yeah – if you want to watch the morning monks, you really can do it anywhere in Laos – even in Luana Prabang there are dif. areas like we mentioned above, without all the cameras and the pushing.

  3. Andi Perullo April 16, 2011 at 8:16 pm #

    Anthony Bourdain did an episode exactly on this dilemma!

    • Sofia - As We Travel April 17, 2011 at 5:54 am #

      oh really? i haven’t seen that episode, will try and find it today and see how he talks about it.

  4. Nestor April 17, 2011 at 3:31 pm #

    Wow, cringeworthy. I always carry my camera with me wherever I go, but I know when not to take pictures or do it in a manner much more discretely. I wonder how these tourists would feel if people would come to their home town and take pictures of them doing mundane activities.

    • Sofia - As We Travel April 17, 2011 at 5:27 pm #

      Hey Nestor, thanks for the comment – yeah the crazy thing is that there are EVEN signs around Luang Prabang ASKING tourists to respect, and treat the morning alms with respect – but no-one really seems to listen … kinda sad :(

  5. travelettes April 18, 2011 at 7:16 pm #

    this post made me miss laos. i always felt that vang vieng was the epitomy of a backpacker’s disney land. hope to read more from you on that little town.

    • Sofia - As We Travel April 18, 2011 at 7:46 pm #

      Hey – yeah we spent a few days in Vang Vieng as well – personally not our fav. place in Laos – preferred Luang Nam Tha, but VV still had some amazing nature! :)

  6. Alexplorer April 19, 2011 at 11:52 pm #

    I think Vang Vieng is a backpackers dream land, however it’s not a great Laotian cultural experience haha… I’m surprised you didnt mention the bus ride from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng, Worst Bus Ride on the entire planet… I had to drive through a forest fire when I did it, crazyness… Check out my story on it if ur interested

  7. Megan April 22, 2011 at 6:43 am #

    Oh wow! I’d heard it was bad but those photos show just how terrible it really is…how on earth can any of those people think that kind of behaviour is ok?? The mind truly boggles.

    • Sofia - As We Travel May 31, 2011 at 8:01 am #

      We had no idea about the situation until we saw it for ourselves. 

      It was quite sad to see how it has developed, and it seemed as though once a few people stopped caring everyone else followed.

  8. Noladoxiegal May 30, 2011 at 10:26 pm #

    This is so shameful. I WAS planning a trip to Luang Prabang but I will probably not go now. I’m ashamed to be involved in any of this. 

    • Sofia - As We Travel May 31, 2011 at 7:53 am #

      While I’d really recommend witnessing the morning alms, you can do it everywhere in Laos. 

      Even in the smallest villages there are monks doing the morning alms, so go somewhere else and get out on the streets early!

  9. Sofia - As We Travel May 31, 2011 at 7:56 am #

    Yeah that ride was pretty bad too, but after having been food poisoned a few days earlier I guess I was just happy to be back on the road ;)

    Thanks for sharing your post!

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