The UNESCO World Heritage City of Luang Prabang is the perfect place to see one of the most sacred Lao traditions, the Buddhist Alms Giving Ceremony. Despite being a highly revered ritual for locals, visitors are encouraged to be involved as long as a level of respect is maintained throughout.
Alms giving takes place daily as the sun rises, beginning on the main street of Luang Prabang before spreading out to all the side streets. You should buy your offerings (usually food) in advance and arrive with plenty of time to spare, as it’s considered very offensive to disrupt the ceremony once it has commenced.
Follow the guidance of the locals by kneeling down ready to give your offering to the monks; most common gifts include rice, fresh fruit and traditional sweet snacks. The idea of the alms giving is for the Buddhist monks to make merit and also to collect food for their one meal of a day.
As the sun rises in Luang Prabang around 200 Buddhist monks depart from their various temples to gather their daily meal. The tradition of alms gathering dates back to the 14th century, yet still today locals wake early to prepare the food for the monks and wait quietly by the roadside to give their gifts. Although the main purpose is for locals to give alms to the monks, you will also notice small children kneeling with baskets in the hope that the monks will share some of their alms with them so that they can take food back to their family.
This daily ceremony is both peaceful and spiritual and gives you a wonderful opportunity to experience an ancient Lao tradition. The procession is quite lengthy and therefore not suitable for very young children or those who cannot sit quietly for more than a few minutes. If you are taking photographs it is best to step back from the front of the line to avoid causing offence. If you are not making an offering maintain an appropriate distance and do not under any circumstances get in the way of those making an offering. Visitors should also remember to be there before the monks arrive and never ever to follow the procession.
There are many unspoken rules regarding etiquette when attending an Alms Giving Ceremony, firstly shoulders, chests and legs must be covered in modest clothing as a mark of respect. You should also remain at a suitable distance from the monks and do not interrupt the procession under any circumstances. Therefore photographs may be taken, but from a distance and never use flash.
When seated, shoes and socks must be removed with your feet tucked underneath as you observe the ceremony in absolute silence. 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, even when making an offering. Suitable offerings include some simple food which you can probably arrange at your hotel or buy from a local market en-route, if you buy alms on the street do not negotiate on price as this is also considered highly disrespectful.