The Alms Giving Ceremony in Luang Prabang, Laos

12 Jan

To be honest, I didn’t know much about Laos before I went backpacking around Southeast Asia. To be even more honest, I didn’t really know where Laos even was, let alone that it was a country. I knew nothing about the culture or the people.

Regardless of my lack of knowledge, I ended up LOVING Laos.

Before I went, I had done a little research and knew I needed to do at least two things while I was in Laos — participate in an alms offering ceremony in Luang Prabang and go tubing in Vang Vieng.

The anthropologist in me was really itching to participate in this traditional Lao ceremony.

This is how it works…

When: It occurs every morning at around sunrise. My friend and I got up a lot earlier than sunrise and we found ourselves waiting around for quite some time. So, just make sure you give yourself a little bit of time to buy your offerings before it begins. No need to get there an hour early.

Where: The procession starts on the main street in Luang Prabang. It’s not hard to find since LP is a small little town. There are a ton of little side streets in LP and one big street where all the restaurants and tourist offices are — that’s the street where the procession take place.

Who: The LP monks and novices!

What: Basically, it’s an alms offering. Locals and tourists line the street where they kneel on woven mats and hand offerings of food to the monks. The offerings mostly consist of sticky rice, bananas, and little square candies.

We chose to cover up our skin as a sign of respect.

There are also small children kneeling on the mats with their own baskets hoping to receive some of the offerings back to share with their family. The monks can choose to give their offerings to these children.

How much and what’s included: I believe I spent around $5 in Lao Kip on food offerings. I actually did not buy it on the main street. What I didn’t know was that the price included the offerings AND the spot that had the mat where you would be kneeling. So, when we got to the main street we had to buy more offerings to be allowed to sit on a lady’s mat. Watch out for that! The locals are begging you to choose them to buy offerings from, so don’t just buy from the first person you see (like we did) and wait until you get to the main street. Also, don’t try to negotiate the price. This is an offering that will help a lot of people who might need the food. Every lady we talked to was selling her offerings for the same price anyway so don’t expect to bargain.

Also, keep in mind that the procession is fairly long in duration. We actually didn’t stay for the whole thing because we gave all of our offerings away within the first few minutes. Don’t rush! Spread the love!

One thing that I had heard from many people was that this alms ceremony was completely a tourist trap. While I think that is definitely a part of it, I do think that we should respect this tradition for the locals in LP who actually find this ceremony sacred. I was extremely bothered by all the tourists who were going right up to the processing monks and snapping pictures right in their faces. I took a lot of pictures, but I did it with a little more discretion. There’s no need to get up in their faces. Believe me, I am that tourist who needs to take pictures of everything, but there are times when you just need to step back and stop pursuing that perfect shot.

The alms offering ceremony in Luang Prabang was a really cool cultural experience. Although I really do believe that it has become something that is invented more for the tourists, I really don’t see the harm in that. I mean, if everyone’s benefitting from it, why should it be a problem? We are giving the monks offerings that they can give back to people who really need food and they are giving us a little taste of what Lao tradition might really be like.

I definitely recommend participating in this ceremony if you are ever in Luang Prabang.

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