The do’s and don’ts of almsgiving in Luang Prabang

  • Laos

IN ANCIENT LAOS lies Luang Prabang in a valley at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers.

Known for its many Buddhist temples, it is listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site. Aside from hiking Mount Phousi, climbing waterfalls at Kuang Si and ploughing rice fields with water buffalos, one of the most popular activities for tourists when visiting the old capital is giving alms to monks.

A sacred Lao tradition, the peaceful and spiritual Buddhist almsgiving ceremony takes place daily as the sun rises. Monks walk in a long row beginning on the main street of Luang Prabang before spreading out to all the side streets. Although locals make up a large number of participants, tourists are encouraged to take part as long as a level of respect is maintained throughout.

By tradition, locals offer only rice to the monks by putting it into their bowl. Hence, tourists are advised to buy rice from the morning market in advance. But some tourists, especially Thai people, like to offer other goodies such as packaged snacks and colorful sweet drinks from Thailand. And in response to the tourists’ demands, vendors have been providing the goods.

In order to quickly curb such activities and to preserve tradition, the District Office of Luang Prabang has issued a notice to ban imported snacks from alms offering, The Laotian Times reported. It is also forbidden to sell khao lam (sweet sticky rice mixed with coconut cream and sugar, and cooked in bamboo) as alms.

Sticky rice that is sold to tourists to give as alms must be of good quality and freshly steamed, and absolutely cannot be reheated old rice. Rice must be sold by weight and at the permitted price, starting from 1kg for LAK$10,000 (US$1.20).

Vendors who violate the rules will face disciplinary measures such as revocation of licenses and suspension of almsgiving sales for six months or permanently.

Other good-to-know-rules include:

  • It’s a sacred tradition. Shoulders, chests and legs must be covered in modest clothing as a mark of respect.
  • Female attendees must keep their head lower than the monks when giving alms and they must not talk to or touch the monks at any time.
  • When seated, shoes and socks must be removed, with feet tucked underneath.
  • Observe in silence. Do not follow or interrupt the procession under any circumstances.
  • Photographs may be taken but without flash. Do not hound or circle the monks like moths to a flame. Keep a suitable distance.