Monks in orange robes seated on the floor
Colour,  Culture & tradition,  Laos,  One Word Sunday

Tak Bat in Luang Prabang

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
Monks in orange robes standing in the dark
Getting ready for Tak Bat at Wat Pa Phai

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.

Evening chanting

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.

Monks in orange robes seated in front of a gold Buddha sculpture
Monks in orange robes seated on the floor

At least my video enables you to hear the sound of the chanting.

Evening chanting at Wat Sensoukharam

I visited Luang Prabang in February 2020, just before the pandemic took hold

43 Comments

  • Suzanne

    I love experiencing every day events when travelling. Only chanting we have heard was in Turkey. I have yet to experience Laos. More locals than tourists is an added bonus. You’re very good at candid people photos, Sarah.

  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    Yes we were so looking forward to seeing this, but as you correctly say it’s been hijacked by badly behaved tourists. It was still atmospheric somewhat less edifying than we had hoped. It’s still worth doing – well, you kind of have to if you’re in Luang Prabang – and if you’re forewarned about the bad bits then you can hopefully see past them.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      We were glad we’d stayed away from the main road as our guide had advised. In ‘our’ corner of the town it still felt very authentic, with locals outnumbering tourists by at least four to one 🙂

  • Mike and Kellye Hefner

    Perfect selection for orange, Sarah! As someone who knows nothing about the culture, this was a wonderfully informative post. I also enjoyed hearing the chanting with its melodic tones, but I had to wonder what they were saying. It’s a shame that we all can’t share with our neighbors the way the people of Laos do, as I find that quite endearing.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Kellye 😊 I’m glad you enjoyed the chanting but like you I have no idea what they are saying! There is something rather appealing about the Buddhist focus on humanity.

  • sheetalbravon

    Beautiful photos, Sarah. The orange really stood out. We follow a similar sentiment of ‘daan’ in India. I loved how you beautifully explained the custom and traditions and you captured its scale so brilliantly. The difference in the way the men and women gave alms was interesting. I didn’t know that.

  • Marie

    You did very well Sarah – and have a great record of your time in LP – We’d a wonderful 5/6 days there in 2009 and managed a few days also in Vientiane. Then went to Vang Vieng and the camera fell into the river! I’ve about10 photos from the whole trip! So thanks for this!!!

  • Suzanne@PictureRetirement

    Sarah, thanks for explaining that there is a difference between Christian and Buddist Monks. I had noticed the cell phone too and my judgemental self thought, ‘how progressive’, but now I understand. P.S. A politely taken, fuzzy photo is so much better than a great one taken by a pushy tourist. Your around town photos are proof that patience pays. Very nice.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I’m glad that explanation was of interest to you Suzanne. Maybe I should have explained more in the post itself? And thank you for understanding that my photos are fuzzy because I was trying to remain unobtrusive 🙂 I’ never a big fan of flash but certainly not in these circumstances!

  • Sue

    Most atmospheric, Sarah. I had hoped to go to Laos, and specifically Luang Prabang and Ventiane about a decade ago, but sadly a viral infection put paid to that

  • margaret21

    Yes, very atmospheric! It must be quite a drain on the resources of a small town to have to give food every single day. Perhaps tourism helps the income of some – but not many. Did you see female monks at all? We saw quite a few in South Korea, but I wasn’t sure how general a ‘thing’ that is.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I think tourism helps the local economy here a lot, but tak bat happens everywhere regardless of the wealth or otherwise of the local people. But I think it’s understood that some won’t be able to give as much as others. As to female monks, I don’t recall seeing any in Luang Prabang but we certainly met one in Cambodia so they do exist outside S Korea at least. Oh, and I also saw one in Nikko in Japan. But I haven’t had the impression that they’re common in those countries.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Being a Buddhist monk is rather different from being a Christian one. For one thing, it’s not a permanent commitment. Many boys and young men go into the temples for just a few years, to serve their community through prayer and meditation etc. The chanting is part of this. In return they are fed and receive an education in Buddhist teachings as well as more generally. Many poorer families send their sons because they get that education and also the family doesn’t have the cost of feeding them. Most leave after a while to go back into the world although a few stay on for life. I guess that all makes them more worldly, or at least not so detached from the world.

        • Sarah Wilkie

          Women can be Buddhist nuns but from my observations it’s much less common, although elsewhere in this thread Marie mentions seeing quite a few in South Korea.

      • TheRamblingWombat

        I was in Hungry Jack’s (Burger King) yesterday for lunch — yes I do fast food occasionally and this is the best of the bunch — and about 4 Buddhist monks came in to eat. I assumed they had vegan/veg options but am not sure … they had to wait quite a while so presume veg burgers where made to order. They all had mobile phones so yes more worldly than many religious orders.

          • TheRamblingWombat

            Yes MacDonalds do similar here but I don’t think they are a permanent feature on the menu. I only go to Maccas (as it is abbreviated here to) for the relatively decent coffee they serve …. compared to the likes of Starbucks, most of which closed down in Australia due to lack of custom.

          • Sarah Wilkie

            We only go, and rarely, when they’re the only real option at a motorway service stop. I’ve heard their coffee is quite good, but with so many good independent coffee shops here, and some decent chains (Caffe Nero, Black Sheep and more), why would I go somewhere with zero atmosphere and full of screaming kids?!

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