I woke up at 5:30 am, eager to watch the ceremony of tak bat in Luang Prabang. But what I saw disgusted me.
Tak bat is a sacred Buddhist alms-giving ceremony. At dawn everyday, food is offered to monks by the local community. In return, the alms-givers receive spiritual redemption.
This ritual is ancient, and it supports Luang Prabang’s large monastic population. Each morning, hundreds of monks walk the streets, led in lines by the eldest monks. The alms-givers wait, either sitting or kneeling, and put food in the monks’ bowls.
Tak bat’s reverence means it’s carried out silently. The alms-givers cannot speak, as the monks meditate while they walk.
Or that’s the theory anyway. But from what I saw, tourism has ruined the sacred practice of tak bat in Luang Prabang. Before the monks arrived, tourists were paying touts for a seat in the line. Food for the monks was on sale, awful sugary snacks with no nutritional value.
As the monks left the temple, tourists with flashes started taking photos, breaking the monks’ meditation. Unclean hands gave the monks sticky-rice, which fell from their baskets onto the ground. At intervals were large containers into which the monks poured their collections. The monks looked miserable and I doubted they’d actually eat this food.
From what I’d learned, many locals no longer participate in tak bat. It’s gone from being a religious ceremony to a commodified cultural performance. Officials are even considering stopping tak bat in Luang Prabang.
I thought back to my first morning in Laos, in the tiny town of Huay Xai. On the walk to the slow boat, I’d seen a local woman giving alms to four young monks. She’d bowed and handed them a basket of delicious looking food. In return, the monks sung a prayer and then blessed her with water. It was a beautiful moment; the real tak bat.