Not Too Late

11 Mar 2008

Giving alms in Luang Prabang tomorrow?

This is the information IÂ wish I'd found quickly:

  • Be sure that you want to do this, and that you can do it respectfully: long pants, cover your shoulders, lose the camera, understand what you're doing.
  • Be at the south end of the fresh-produce market at 6am to buy a large box of hot, fresh sticky rice. Street directions are unreliable in Luang Prabang, but the market is shown on most maps.
  • From there walk east to the roundabout, turn south onto the main street, and stop opposite the Jomo Bakery.
  • Monks will approach from the south at about 6:30.
  • Barefoot, on your knees, place one small handful of rice in each monk's bowl as he passes you.

Read on for my experience.

Don't let the internet tell you that travel sucks.

The signs everywhere in Luang Prabang ask, if you are going to be involved in morning alms-giving, that you do so respectfully. But that's all they tell you.

Respect means understanding, so IÂ turned to the internet for precise details on what would be expected. Forty minutes later I'd learnt that the ceremony's been horribly defiled by hordes of rude tourists, that there are touts that rival Saigon's worst, that it's too late, and that rather than rise at 6am IÂ should sleep in, move on, and mourn for the Luang Prabang that was.

This didn't help much. IÂ did at least know that I'd need freshly-cooked sticky rice - from somewhere - and that proceedings would be underway by 6am. IÂ did the only reasonable thing, which was to set an alarm for 5am and hope that things would be clearer in the morning.

We're at the fresh-produce markets by 5:10am, but it's pitch-black and there's little activity. The few locals who are around are very surprised to see us. A quick lap of the main street reveals several touts already on the scene, but I'm very wary. We return to the markets and wait.

By quarter to six I'm a bit nervous, and start asking people. Eventually they direct us to a stall all the way down the far end of the market, where broken Lao and bizarre gestures get us a couple of huge baskets of rice. Paying is complicated; it's so early in the morning that IÂ can't grasp the Lao numbers.

Back on the main road I'm disappointed to see that the baskets the (evil, evil, according to the internet) touts are selling look the same as mine. But at least I know that I've done the right thing. Karma strikes fast as we discover a roadside coffee stall that's open - and the owner knows a good place to wait for the monks.

We head south and take position on some mats that have been laid on the side of the road. There's maybe a dozen people around, half of them locals. I try to explain the whole procedure in thirty seconds to a camera-wielding Israeli who's just arrived and doesn't even have any kip yet. While he is approached by a tout, there doesn't seem to be any extortion involved, and they leave us alone completely. In fact, there's a fresh-rice kitchen across the road.

It's fully light by now. Lyn's looking hungrily at her rice, and I'm counting the minutes that I've been needlessly awake - people are still arriving. Suddenly the monks are on top of us, appearing silently and at speed from around the parked van that blocks my view.

I know that men are supposed to stand, but all along the street, everyone is kneeling. I'm very, very visible, and at least in ritual, if you're the only one who's right, then you are wrong. IÂ sink to my knees.

I don't see much besides my container and the monks' rice bowls; I'm too busy working. Lyn never gets the chance to take any photos. We've chosen to be in it, not to see it.

They come in descending order of age, eyes forward, expressionless and silent. If they've judged us as intruders, they're keeping it to themselves. As the group of twenty or so ends, we relax, and stand up. Funny, IÂ thought there were meant to be more than that.

"Incoming!" - I've spotted another group rounding the parked car. We just have time to get back on our knees and open our containers. My fingers are burning as IÂ scrape them across the hot rice, trying to form rice-balls quickly enough to feed every monk. Lyn's run out, so IÂ surreptitiously pass across a handful.

After a few more groups, the locals around us leave. That must be it. We walk back to the market to return our food containers - Lyn snacking on the leftover rice on the way - then wander up the main street in search of breakfast.

And now we see the tourists, hordes of them, moving in the large, ragged groups that mean they are part of tour packages. A few monks are still making their way down a side street, deserted except for one local who is waiting with her rice. A tourist stalks them, point-blank, with an oversize camera. IÂ would not have liked to have been here, half an hour ago.

And maybe, for a two-hundred metre strip of the main street, Tak Bat has been "ruined". But you don't have to work very hard to find something relatively fresh. The beauty is that people who are too lazy to show respect, to buy proper food, or to arrive without a bus, are also too lazy to walk very far.