SILENT BUDDHIST MONKS IN SAFFRON ROBES darted this way and that around town, while shading themselves under umbrellas from the harsh midday sun. That same sun illuminated the mesmerizing mosaics adorning the grounds the Wat Xieng Thong — one of Laos’ holiest temples.
Quaint French cottages and open-air cafes lined the peninsula where the mighty Mekong absorbed the Nam Kan River. The croissants were as good as they get, outside of Paris. There was no traffic or horns blaring. Even the vendors at the Night Market weren’t aggressive hagglers like so many other places in Asia.
But beneath this polished exterior lies the real juxtaposition of Luang Prabang. An ancient Buddhist tradition dating back to the 14th Century is continually being honored — and exploited — in this UNESCO World Heritage City. Each day, nearly 200 monks line up and traverse the pre-dawn streets to receive their one-meal-a-day from devout locals. And although tourists are welcomed to participate in alms-giving, a strict protocol must be observed.
As special and as holy as Luang Prabang seemed to me, I just didn’t know how I felt about lining up alongside pious devotees for yet another “travel experience.” I decided to just be a fly on the wall and observe from a distance.
But when I found my way through the darkness to the trailhead of their daily route, three Laotian ladies pushed me down onto a straw mat, wrapped a traditional cloak around my body, gave me a basket of sticky rice and some biscuits and then demanded 40,000 Kip, or five dollars. Baffled, I shrugged and paid them. Surely I wasn’t the first westerner to sit where I was in the cool morning air.
“Let’s see what this was all about,” I thought. “Maybe my generosity will be reciprocated with blessings from above…Good karma and safe travels.”
Soon, native families began emerging from their houses and taking their seats nearby as the first hints of daylight sent a glimmer along the Mekong. And all of a sudden, streams of holy men poured past me in the sleepy daybreak as I quickly scooped sticky rice in as many of their brass bowls as I could. The first group shuffled on down the block when suddenly a spray of lightning strikes popped off in the form of camera flashes. Both the monks and I were instantly distracted from the sacred ritual at hand. Embarrassment swept over me, despite my wholehearted, earnest intent.
The next wave of tangerine robes was upon me already and I didn’t want to offend them by withholding food. So my small scoops of rice quickly became handfuls until I eventually offed my remaining alms into one lucky monk’s container and backpedaled into the shadows. The flashes from tourists’ cameras continued and I wandered away feeling very unfulfilled, almost dirty. I wondered how could I support such blatant ignorance by my participation.
I backed up against a brick building a half a block off the scene and silently watched this time-honored Buddhist custom between faithful monks, their dutiful followers and, nowadays, hoards of sharp-shooting, aggressive visitors.
Once the rising sun eventually drowned out the paparazzi’s flashes, I strolled back towards my guesthouse as the final band of holy men finished their alms collecting. Out of nowhere, a European woman chased down the last of the monks while her Nikon-wielding husband screeched for them to stop for a cheesy photo op. That was the last straw. I stomped upstairs to my room and threw myself face-first onto the bed.
Two hours later, as I sipped my latte and poked at my croissant, I thought of the monks. They were likely nibbling on a cold ball of rice that had been pawed by the dirty hands of westerners. And to think, these reverent lamas must endure blatant acts of disrespect like this daily just in order to eat.
But as I paid my breakfast bill, something hit me. Without the abundance of tourists bringing money into Luang Prabang, the daily alms-giving might have dwindled towards a slow death like it had in other parts of Laos. At least here, despite its exploitation, an ancient Buddhist tradition is still actively taking place as it has been for nearly 700 years.