Early every morning in much of Southeast Asia monks can be seen out on the roads collecting alms. This is an ancient, religious tradition and those who give alms earn merit for their next life. There is a town in the mountains of northern Laos where the alms gathering ceremony is simply spectacular because it involves almost 30 monasteries and several hundred monks.
Luang Prabang is on the Mekong River about 425 km north of Vientiane. Buddha rested here during his travels and said it would one day be a powerful city. Indeed it was once the capital of Laos and today is considered one of the best-preserved towns in Southeast Asia. It is also an unquestionably charming place.
The alms ceremony is an early morning event with people starting to gather along the main road (Sisavangvong) around 6:00 am. At that time it’s still dark and the only light is coming from a couple of shops selling coffee and a string of white lights wrapped around a tree. A handful of street vendors wander around trying to sell small, round bundles of sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves. Another has a big pot of sticky rice and she just scoops it out and sells it as is.
There are notices around town asking tourists to purchase rice at the market just before the ceremony and not to buy it from street vendors for their rice is sometimes inferior and has made monks sick. The suggestion seems preposterous for I can hardly see my feet in the dark much less find a market. Authorities could easily control the situation.
As the sun starts to rise, those giving alms find a place to kneel along the edge of the sidewalk. Most are Asian and probably Buddhist. Temple boys arrive with baskets or bags and will help the monks carry the alms back to the temples. There are a couple of obviously needy people seated by the sidewalk, each with an empty straw basket, and I later notice monks passing some of their alms on to them.
Just when I’m starting to feel a little impatient a long single line of men and boys in saffron-coloured robes make their way down the sidewalk. Their feet are bare and each is carrying a bart bowl. They keep coming and coming. The oldest monk from each monastery leads his line with the youngest at the end, but the lines are so tight that it is difficult to tell when one monastery ends and another begins. Soon there are so many monks that it is hard for those giving alms to keep up. Finally there is a bit of a crush and the line slows down.
Tourists, both those giving alms and those observing from the street, take photos and sometimes get too close and are very obtrusive. The monks try to ignore them and their expressions remain passive but they must be annoyed and I wish there could be some crowd control.
I follow the line as it turns off along a side road and the monks eventually disappear behind monastery walls. In an hour or so they will be out again, busy with their daily activities. In the meantime, it’s a perfect time to climb the 328 stairs up Mount Phou Si that is across from what used to be the Royal Palace and is now a museum. There is a gilded stupa on the summit where people leave offerings and release live birds. You can just about see the whole town from the summit, the golden-roofed temple, the long-tail boats, and the many restaurants that line the river.
It’s one of those places where travellers stay awhile and feel very comfortable. They just stroll down the streets and lanes, talk with the monks, rent bicycles, float along the Mekong, have a pot of tea, breathe in the atmosphere.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photos credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2012