Gallery: the monks of Luang Prabang (a life in orange)
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
I loved this town, the French influence and monastery people. Great photos as usual!
Thank you Ruth 😊 I’m yet to come across anyone who doesn’t love Luang Prabang!
Fabulous photos Sarah – I’ve been going through mine for the orange challenge and have only one or two rather poor quality shots of the almsgiving. I’d love to go back to Luang Prebang –
The alms-giving was really hard to photograph, it was so dark. I’m told it’s easier if you go in the summer as the mornings are lighter, but the weather would suit me then – too hot and sticky! I’d love to go back too 🙂
Brilliant orange in those robes, Sarah. I wonder if they were new. Someone perhaps donated them to the monks as a thanksgiving, or to ask a favour? Lovely, in any event.
In some of the temples we saw them hung out to dry and looking pretty bright, so I think they must retain their colours quite well. Having said that, I also saw some that were more muted, almost mustard coloured, so either they come in different shades or (more likely, I feel) they do fade eventually.
Wonderful post on the monks of Luang Prabang with great photographs ,Sarah !Thanks for sharing!
Thank you for the kind comment 🙂
I loved that when we visited Buddhist temples, their spiritual life continued regardless – visitors, whether gawpers like us or pilgrims were just part of their landscape.
Thank you Margaret, and yes, that’s just how it seemed to me too. We weren’t in the way, we could take any photos we wanted, but we made no impact on their day to day lives which continued much as they have always done – apart from the mobile phones!
I actually don’t remember noticing any mobile phones!
When were you there? Maybe it’s a recent development? Not that we saw a lot – just this one here and a couple in Cambodia (Angkor Wat and Phnom Penh). Also the previous year in Beijing 🙂
This was South Korea, 2017. And every single other citizen was completely glued to their phone, 24/7. Which wasn’t yet quite the case in the UK.
Wonderful photos Sarah and what an amazing experience to witness the evening chanting. I always find it amusing to see the monks with their mobile phones.
Thank you Jude 🙂 Yes, that always amuses me too – they look so traditional until the phone comes out!
We loved our stay in Luang Prabang, you have some great photos of the monks, it is such an atmospheric ritual.
It is indeed. I was sorry to read that in places on the main street too many tourists tend to congregate and turn it into a bit of a side show, so we asked Sam the previous day if we’d be able to observe monks passing on the side street where we were staying and he not only (correctly) assured us that we would, but unexpectedly turned up the next morning, at 5.00 AM, outside our hotel to make sure that we did!
Nice one! Yes, we included in our blog post about it that it’s clearly been taken over by visitors and isn’t quite the ritual it once was. Sadly.
Oh, I must read that some time!
Terri Webster Schrandt
I have seen a post or two about the monks in their orange traditional clothing, Sarah. It is always a stunning sight to see, especially against the architecture and inside the temples. The different hues of orange are also cool to see. I wonder if the monks get tired of all the orange? Glad you could share this on Sunday Stills this week!
Thanks Terri, I’m glad you liked my contribution 🙂 I’m not sure they get tired of the colour, it’s very symbolic for them. It wouldn’t suit me (I look washed out in autumn colours!) but that wouldn’t be a problem as the nuns wear white 😉