When traveling to other areas of the world, religious ceremonies or locations are frequently the main tourist attraction. While these might be interesting to watch or to participate in as a foreigner, these sites or rituals have deep spiritual significance to the people who have lived there for hundreds or thousands of years. So how do you go to see one of these locations without helping to turn it into a tourist trap?
For example, my dad and his wife went on a trip through Southeast Asia for their honeymoon, visiting many different countries along the way. One of their stops was in Laos, where they stayed for several days in Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage city.
One of the major “attractions” of the city is the Morning Alms ceremony (Sai Bat)
Their tour company offered the option of taking part in the ceremony, with some background information:
Wake up very early (~5:00AM) to observe the seemingly endless procession of Buddhist monks on alms rounds along the main street at dawn – as many as 200-300 monks depending on the season, barefoot, in single file, and in descending order of seniority.
Next was a reminder that this is a real ceremony and not a photo-op for tourists:
If you wish to make an offering to the monks, thereby gaining merit according to Buddhist philosophy, visit the fresh market the night before to buy some fresh fruit or snacks – apples, bananas, hard-boiled eggs, instant noodle soup packets, or similar. Please keep in mind this is a traditional religious ritual of great significance to the local people – it isn’t a “photo op” staged for tourists, as some tour bus groups seem to think. Appropriate and respectful behavior toward the monks is greatly appreciated. Your guide will assist and provide instructions on proper etiquette.
Lastly, a warning about what to avoid:
Note: Laotian ladies (often not Buddhists themselves) roam the streets early in the morning selling sticky rice and other poor quality food for the monks to unsuspecting tourists – they charge exorbitant prices and can be quite aggressive – please ignore them.
Following the instructions of their tour guide, they purchased food for their offering to the monks and picked out a spot along the route.
They truly appreciated the opportunity to take part in this experience. Since they were staying in the town, it gave them a greater sense of how the community integrates their beliefs into everyday life.
So when Sharon and I visited Luang Prabang, we also wanted to be a part of the ceremony. It also required us to wake up early in the morning to grab a spot. Fortunately, our guides with Adventures by Disney arranged for us to have stools to sit on and provided the appropriate garments to the group.
As the monks passed by, we dropped sticky rice and cookies into their containers.
Whereas many people headed home after giving sticky rice to the monks, we stayed around. We were invited into a local temple. Here’s where we learned way more than the tourists who showed up, handed out rice and left after checking another box off their travel list.
At the temple, we learned why many young children choose to be monks (it’s the only way for their family to afford an education). We also learned that the local residents provide more than sticky rice to the temple. We saw the monks praying over the food that was left at the temple which would be their meals for the day. We also saw many stray dogs hanging around, only to learn that they were fed by the monks.
My big question is how to participate in or watch an event such as this without being part of the machine that tries to make money and commercialize an important cultural event. Is that even possible, and should it matter? My only suggestion is if you are going to take part in any event or ceremony, do your homework and have some common sense.
Reading through online posts, the bad behavior of tourists and the prediction of the demise of this ceremony has been going on for over a decade (I found articles going back to 2007, but I’m sure there are even older ones). There does seem to be a specific part of the route where the tour buses take their guests, and this is also where the most egregious behaviors happen. I’d definitely do everything I could to avoid these areas if I was going to watch or take part in the ceremony. While there are varied opinions online on the value of doing so, all of the posts give similar suggestions on how to be a good tourist:
- Only take part in the ceremony if it means something to you.
- Buy your rice in the morning market rather than at the street food vendors on the main road. (Our local guides purchased our rice so I wasn’t worried about this.)
- Remove your shoes during the ceremony.
- Dress conservatively. Cover your shoulders, chest, and legs.
- Do not make eye contact with the monks or touch them.
- Be silent.
- Keep your phone on silent
- Women must keep their heads lower than the monks at all times.
- Bow your head to show respect to the monks.
After hearing my dad’s wife talk about participating in the ceremony, I know that she and my dad benefited by taking part in it. She’s told me about the history of the tradition, why it’s still done, what the local residents’ involvement is, and even about the importance of the ceremony to Buddhists.
Now that we’ve experienced the ceremony, I agree that there’s something special happening. More that I feel it’s a connection between the residents and the monks. Sort of a symbiotic relationship. After visiting the temple and seeing a monk praying over the food offerings provided by the locals, it means way more than tourists dropping rice into buckets.
If the only reason you’re getting onto a tour bus to take part in this, or any ceremony is to get some unique posts for your Instagram account, please stay home. The people who are watching and taking part in the ceremony for the solemn event it is will thank you for it.
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