You only have to spend a few hours in Luang Prabang to see why this town regularly tops lists of travellers’ favourite places. Its laid-back vibe, its historic royal palace and perhaps most of all its beautiful Buddhist temples, over 30 in total.
The town is listed by UNESCO for its ‘unique, remarkably well-preserved townscape’ which blends traditional Lao and colonial architectural styles. The listing tells us that:
‘The religious buildings are regularly maintained; monks teach young monks restoration techniques for their heritage. Moreover, the Buddhist cult and the cultural traditions related to it (rites and ceremonies) are still alive and practiced diligently.’
What struck me was the way that the monks and tourists of Luang Prabang co-exist, with full respect among (most of) the latter for the traditions of the former. Most famously that is seen in the practice of Tak Bat. or almsgiving. This isn’t unique to Lao, or even to Luang Prabang; but it has become particularly associated with this town because of the sheer number of temples in a concentrated space. Every morning the monks leave the temples to walk the streets, carrying a pot in which local people place food, usually sticky rice. In this way the monks have food to eat; and the people receive good karma and blessings in return for their giving.
In recent years Tak Bat has however become a bit of a tourist spectacle with, as I understand, some of those tourists not always behaving appropriately. They get in the way of the monks; they take flash photos; they give to the monks not out of charity but in order to get a ‘selfie’. We didn’t want to risk getting caught up among any of that; so we decided to watch from the relative peace and quiet of the street just in front of our hotel, the Villa Chitdara, rather than on the main street, with only a few other respectful tourists joining us alongside the locals. But before that we took a walk around the corner to our nearest temple, Wat Pa Phai. There we saw the monks gathering before heading out on their walk around the town.
Observing Tak Bat
Our guide Lee had explained to us that while men or boys may stand to give to the monks, women must always be lower than them; so they bring small stools to sit on or simply crouch at the kerb. He also told us that other people take food directly to the temples – meat, soup etc. The rice given at Tak Bat is in part a symbolic offering, as well as being a staple part of the monks’ diet.
There were a couple of large baskets beside the road too, into which the monks sometimes dropped rice that they had been given. These baskets are used to collect food for the poor; the monks donate the surplus that they have been given.
It was really too dark for photos, but I tried, perhaps capturing the atmosphere if not the detail.
Another tradition that can be witnessed by visitors to the town is the evening chanting of the monks in the temples. We visited Wat Sensoukharam one evening. We were permitted to stand at the back, as long as we were quiet; and we could take photos and videos, without flash, naturally. This temple was originally built in 1718 and was restored in 1957.
Do play the video with the sound on to hear the chanting!
Around the town
I’ll finish with a few more photos of monks taken in various temples in the town, all in the distinctive orange robes. So I’m sharing these images for Terri’s Sunday Stills theme of orange; and I’m also linking to Jude’s Life in Colour for this month.
I visited Luang Prabang in early 2020