With more than 30 wats, you’d be hard pressed to find a more spiritual town than Luang Prabang, Laos. However, much more than just photogenic buildings with beautifully stenciled facades, sweeping roofs that practically touch the ground, and colorful murals depicting the previous lives of the Buddha, Luang Prabang’s wats are home to some one thousand monks who minister to the spiritual needs of the townfolk.
Photo credit: Bluebird
One of the town’s most beloved rituals is Tak Bat, or the almsgiving ceremony, a practice said to date back to the 14th century in Luang Prabang. The ceremony takes place every day in the early morning hours (typically starting at 5:30am in summer, and 6:30am in winter), both inside temples scattered throughout Luang Prabang, but most visibly in the old town, along Sakkaline Road and in front of Wat Xiengthong.
Photo credit: Quang Nguyen Vinh
While similar ceremonies take place across devoutly Buddhist countries like Cambodia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, Luang Prabang’s is especially well-known for the sheer number of monks who gather.
Photo credit: Billow
In the atmospherically low light, around 200 saffron-clad monks and novices make their way to the town center to collect offerings from devotees, meditating as they quietly walk barefoot past lines of townspeople who place prepared gifts of homemade sticky rice, fruit (bananas are popular), sweet treats, and other food into alms bowls attached to a strap and carried on the shoulder by the monks.
For Buddhists, being able to contribute in a practical way to feeding the monks (who stop eating at noon) is both a responsibility and a way to earn merit bestowed upon them by the monks towards a better future life. Doing so often means waking up very early to cook the sticky rice before making their way to find a spot and set up by 5 am.
Photo credit: Daniel Marchal
There are two ways to witness this deeply religious procession – as an almsgiver or as an observer.
Either way, here are some ways to enjoy the ceremony respectfully without turning it into a cultural show.
- Arrive early so as not to disrupt the ceremony
- Dress modestly, covering up shoulders, legs, and torso
- Even though attending involves getting up much earlier than usual on holiday, the monks and locals appreciate it when observers are well-groomed and put together
- Maintain a quiet, somber atmosphere. Turn off your phone.
- Because the ceremony is lengthy, consider whether very young children should participate
- Learn about the religious beliefs behind the ceremony, either by researching or talking to someone at your hotel. This helps to emphasize the importance and meaning behind this custom, rather than seeing it as a “to do” activity
Photo credit: Binh Dang Nam
If going as an observer:
- Maintain a respectful distance of at least 5m between you and the proceedings
- Turn off your flash to preserve the dignity and religious meaning of the event
- Use a high ISO instead to make use of the natural light
- Consider using a long lens to be able to photograph without getting too close to the monks
- Find one spot and stick to it rather than chasing the procession which is seen as disrespectful
If giving alms:
- Kneel as you present your offerings so as to keep your head lower than the monks’
- Remove socks and shoes and tuck your feet underneath you
- Refrain from talking to or making any physical contact with the monks, their robes, or alms bowl
- If you aren’t able to prepare your own offering, pre-purchase from a local market or have it prepared by your hotel. Local vendors along the street are known for selling offerings which are not very fresh or clean.
Photo credit: Rob King
Here is an excellent video detailing a typical day in the life of a novice in Luang Prabang, along with insights into the Tak Bat almsgiving ceremony:
Victoria Xiengthong Palace is honored to be located along the route where the Tak Bat takes place in Old Luang Prabang. We are pleased to help our guests participate, either by providing offerings or by sharing information on this deeply religious ceremony that’s a part of daily life in beautiful Luang Prabang.