Every morning at dawn, the monks make their rounds. They walk barefoot through the streets, carrying their alms bowls, and collect sticky rice, crackers and fruit from local people. In theory, the giving of alms connects the people to the monks and gives them the opportunity to earn merit for their next life. Buddhist monks all over the world practice this alms ceremony, but Luang Prabang is especially well known for it. This owes to the sheer number of monastaries and monks in the city – there are several hundred monks on the streets every morning making the walk through town.
Since the ceremony is so impressive it has become quite the tourist draw. Most of the people giving alms now are tourists, and the roads are full of travelers with cameras documenting the event. Unfortunately, many of them are invasive and disruptive to the process, getting quite close to the monks to snap photos and chatting when they are supposed to be silent. (I realize the irony of me saying this, given the photos I took, but I stayed across the street and did my best to be unobtrusive and respectful. I did not use a flash and I took all of four photos.)
There appears to be quite a bit of controversy about the alms ceremony because of its tourism component. I can’t imagine the monks enjoy having their photos taken day in and day out, but the government reportedly keeps them performing the ceremony because of the tourist draw.
During our five day stay in Luang Prabang, we only watched the alms ceremony once. It was a cool opportunity to see the various ages and faces of all the monks (some are very, very young), and the sea of saffron robes is a sight to be seen. John even participated for a bit. But it felt a little weird to contribute to the glut of travelers in the streets. So for the rest of our days, we skipped it. It felt more respectful.