Circle of Rice: Alms Giving in Luang Prabang, Laos

I’ve seen the photos – the saffron snake of monks lining the streets with shiny metallic bowls hanging from their shoulders: alms-giving was an experience that the temple-filled Luang Prabang in Laos was known for, and it was definitely on my list of things to witness while I was there.

Saffron Snake Alms, Luang Prabang, Laos

Alms-giving is the act of giving food (or money) to the poor. Since monks try to abstain from ‘desiring,’ they are not allowed to cook for themselves and depend on the generosity of others instead, making rounds each morning accepting, but never begging for, whatever food the local people have to offer.

What I didn’t realize is what a HUGE tourist attraction this actually was.

Sticky rice baskets, Luang Prabang, LaosIt is 6am, still dark, but there is traffic: tour vans full of people wanting to catch a glimpse of the alms rounds line the streets.

Tour groups gather in the intersections; a guide explains some basic do’s and don’ts.

“Do put fresh sticky rice in the bowl. Don’t put money in with the sticky rice. And don’t use flash in their faces – this isn’t a show.”

But it is a show.

Alms tourist attraction, Luang Prabang, Laos

A shallow drum sounds. The tour groups take their assigned places on rolled out carpets that line the sidewalks; baskets full of sticky rice in front. The poor kids punctuate the spaces between the tour groups, empty plastic shopping crates in hand.

The first orange blurs appear in the distance.

“Respect the monks. Respect the culture. Respect the country.” The tour guide says.

But cameras are already going off like a zoo at feeding time.

Alms-giving assembly line, Luang Prabang, LaosThe monks walk single file, bowls outstretched like in a cafeteria line: the tourists give food to the monks, but the monks give their excess to the poor kids. Rice in, rice out.

Boy Begging for Alms, Luang Prabang, Laos_1000px

It is like a circle of life that sustains the community, sustains the tradition: the poor sell rice to the tourists who give it to the monks who give it to the poor. The whole thing seems contrived but at least the tourism weaves some money back to the locals.

Monk Back of the Line, Luang Prabang, LaosThe saffron snake continues. Cameras flash in monk faces.

Monks take photos of monks giving alms to monks.

It is bizarre, beautiful and awful simultaneously.

And like a syndicated television show, in a half an hour, it is over.

Baskets of Offerings, Luang Prabang, Laos

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