The traditional ceremony of Tak Bat, or almsgiving, isn’t unique to Laos, or even to Luang Prabang, but 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.
Observing Tak Bat
In recent years Tak Bat has become a bit of a tourist spectacle with, as I understand, many of those tourists not always behaving appropriately. Getting in the way of the monks and taking flash photos. Or giving 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 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.
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. Some people take other foods (meat, soup etc.) directly to the temples. 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. 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.
My equally poor quality video gives some sense of the steady stream of monks filing past our vantage point.
Around the town
But you don’t need to get up early to photograph the monks of Luang Prabang. There are over thirty temples in the town to visit. And you’re also likely to see them on the streets from time to time. Here are some of my favourite photos from our visit, shared for Debbie’s One Word Sunday, Orange.
One evening during our stay our guide took us to one of the temples, Wat Sensoukharam. There we observed the monks’ ritual chanting to mark the end of the day, which they do every evening in most of the temples. We were permitted to stand at the back, as long as we were quiet. And rather to my surprise we could take photos and videos (without flash, naturally). The light was poor, so as with my Tak Bat shots the quality isn’t great. But I hope the atmosphere in the temple comes through. My feature photo was taken here too, by the way.
At least my video enables you to hear the sound of the chanting.
I visited Luang Prabang in February 2020, just before the pandemic took hold