The giving of alms to monks – Luang Prabang

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Luang Prabang, a small quirky little town, filled with temples and little streets with cafes and shops that lead to the Mekong on one side and the Nam Khan River on the other. I liked this place immediately; it is definitely the nicest town in Laos. What makes this place so special, however, is the century’s old tradition of giving alms to monks, every morning before sunrise. I had read and seen photos of this practice, and I was excited to see it, however I didn’t just want to be another tourist with a camera. I wanted to pay my respects to this tradition, as opposed to treating it like a tourist attraction. The people that give the alms to monks are all lay Buddhists, who are not only local, but come from all over the world. But I wanted to take part, too, out of respect for the monks, the tradition and the religion, so I asked my Buddhist friend who I was travelling with if she would come with me so that if the monks wouldn’t accept the donation off me she would be able to place the food in their bowls instead. After some research we settled on bananas as our chosen food. A lot of people give sticky rice, however the monks won’t accept anything that has been contaminated or isn’t clean, with products such as insect repellent, so bananas seemed like a good alternative, even still we made sure not to have any products on our skin. We searched the market for a stall with enough bananas to feed all the monks. We eventually stumbled on a lady sat by the side of the road with a blanket full of the fruit we desired. ‘How much to buy them all?’ we asked. She looked at us like we were playing some kind of practical joke on her. It was 9pm and she had probably been sat there for hours trying to sell her products, all to no avail. Two tourists turning up and asking to buy all of them must have seemed inconceivable. We asked her again, ‘All?’ ‘Yes, all.’ Eventually she realised we were being very serious and she bagged up what felt like a truckload of bananas and we dragged them home ready for an early start in the morning.

The streets were shrouded in darkness as we made our way to sit outside the temple. We passed people sat by the side of the road on their blankets with their rice baskets and baskets of snacks. We found a spot and sat down on the cold, hard floor envious of the people more prepared than us sitting on their mats. We were so tired that we couldn’t speak; we had rolled out of bed and straight to the street, no time for our usual cup of coffee. We waited and waited and more and more tourists arrived as we sat on the ground surrounded by bags full of bananas, ourselves and the lay people on one side and the tourists on the other. After what seemed like hours we saw movement to our left, the process was starting. Shoes off, we kneeled on the ground, feet behind us and bananas at the ready. The monks came thick and fast, one by one they stood in front of me with their alms bowl as I tried to place the fruit in the very full bowls making sure not to touch the monks at the same time. At first we presumed we had bought too many bananas, however we ran out of the fruit when there was about five monks left in the line. We quickly collected our bags and ran to the opposite side of the street so as not to be in the way. The process had gone so fast, it seemed like we were throwing bananas everywhere, we just about kept up with the pace of the monks as they made their way down the busy streets. As we walked back to our hotel we both felt a sense of pride that we had actually participated and made a donation, as opposed to standing there pointing a camera.

 

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