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Published: March 3rd 2010
Monks at tak bat
I am across the street taking photos, this is OK.
A few days ago, I woke early to give alms to the monks and novice monks. Giving alms, in Lao “tak bat”, is an ancient Buddhist tradition, wherein people prepare sticky rice and other small snacks to give to the monks and novice monks, in order to gain merit for themselves and their families. The ceremony is very meaningful to the people involved. In Luang Prabang, there are hundreds of monks and novice monks (see my previous blog on the difference between the two if you‘re curious), and they take different walking routes for their morning alms collection, depending on the location of their temple.
The procession is silent, as the monks are supposed to be deep in walking meditation, and the people giving do so silently, respectfully and sometimes in deep prayer. The monks have a large bowl with a lid, which hangs on a thick string around their neck. The monks slowly walk by the almsgivers, who kneel or stand by the roadside, and place small fistfuls of sticky rice, bananas or sweets directly in to their bowls. The sticky rice must be of a good quality, and must have been prepared by the giver themselves. This tradition
Novices collecting alms
Here I am taking a photo from across the street. This is OK too. And see how the photo is still close! The problem is when people stand much closer, which they really do!!
has been practiced for hundreds of years in Laos.
Women and men giving alms should be dressed properly according to tradition, in long skirts, or pants for men and shirts with covered shoulders plus a silk scarf laid diagonally across the shoulders. Women must take care not to touch the monks while giving, as all monks and novices have taken a vow not to touch women. In some towns, the monks will recite a blessing for almsgivers. In Luang Prabang, there are so many monks, and so many almsgivers, that no blessing is said at the time of the giving.
As you might imagine, tourists visiting Luang Prabang are completely obsessed with seeing and photographing this exotic tradition. Many tourists also want to participate themselves. Lao people welcome foreigners to participate in their traditions, but ask that they do so correctly and respectfully. Many locals also feel that foreigners should participate only if it's meaningful for them to do so, and not if they just want a photograph, to say they have done this Buddhist ceremony. Participation for that reason makes tak bat in to a sort of tourist activity, a 'to-do' to be checked off on a
Procession of monks collecting alms
Here I am across the street taking photos, this is OK too.
travel checklist, when it is of profoud meaning to many.
Despite information in guidebooks, as well as various informational posters around town, many tourists behave rudely and disruptively at tak bat, watching and participating. I have witnessed many tourists stepping in the middle of a procession of twenty monks to take photographs, up close, directly in the face of the monks and novices. The monks, supposed to be in meditation, are forced to look up and step around these intruders. Often the almsgiving is so early in the morning that it is still dark, and the monks are interrupted in their walk by dozens of camera flashes. Some tourists may have somehow managed not to be aware of the polite way to behave, while other tourists just completely ignore the correct code of conduct.
Either way, the outcome currently is a shocking state of affairs, offensive to monks, novices and local people as well as to those tourists that behave respectfully. Many people refuse to go to see or participate in the alms, including monks and local people, because the current situation is so upsetting. There is even talk of stopping the tradition, the experience has become so
Novice checking what he got in his bowl
Here I am taking a photo after the monks and novices have passed, from ten feet away. This is OK too.
unpleasant for those involved. This is unlikely to occur, as tak bat is an important part of Lao tradition and religious practice, but it shows how upsetting the current state of affairs is.
There are also a number of naughty local women encouraging tourists to participating in the alms giving. These women hang around where the monks and novices will walk by, soliciting tourists to buy sticky rice and bananas to give to the monks. Many tourists think these women are just kind local women. The tourists take the rice and the bananas and hand them to the monks and novices, having no idea how to do so correctly. Tourists are wearing tank tops, some short skirts, wearing their shoes, standing to give, touching the monks, running after the procession to give. And after they have given, the naughty local women demand large payments. An average demand is 100,000 kip or about $12, for a portion of food worth about 50 cents. The women are exploiting the tourists lack of knowledge about the process.
Many monks and novices say they no longer want to go to collect alms, as they are harassed to such a degree. Some temples
Procession of monks and novices collecting alms
I am standing back at the curb, this is an OK place too.
are moving across the river, to a town where tourists do not visit, to get away from the tourists. As well, the rice the naughty local women sell is not of a good enough quality to give to monks. Sometimes they are selling their family's own rice, from the day before. If you are a Christian, imagine the Pope coming to visit and you preparing bread to offer to him. What if you gave him yesterday's bread! But worse, this old or poor quality rice is mixed in with all the good rice in the bowl's, so the novices and monks can't even separate it to avoid eating it.
So there are many problems with the tourist fascination with this ancient tradition, problems that hopefully will be worked out soon to ensure this fabulous tradition continues. We need to find a way to enforce a distance between spectators and participants, to make tourists understand how disruptive their photo taking can be and to ensure those that want to participate do so respectfully. The government is currently considering many possibilities to effect change.
But the morning I went to give, with a few Lao friends, was the worst I’d
ever seen the situation. Five of us had seated ourselves upon a mat, on the curb and were awaiting the arrival of the procession of monks. A line of twenty cars pulled up and parked on the opposite side of the street. A hundred Chinese people got out and swarmed upon us, like bees to honey. They began taking photographs of us, not even the monks, as they’d not yet arrived, with flashes, up close, from afar, with themselves in the photograph. Not one of them asked to take our photograph. I can only imagine how the monks and novices feel each day when this happens. Chinese people were sitting down close to me, nudging me, telling me to smile for their friend to take a photograph. I didn’t even know these people!
It was my friend Ken’s birthday, and he’d suggested we give alms that day, as a way to make merit and give back. I had woken up at 4:30 to cook a kilo of sticky rice. Lao people have many different sized bamboo baskets with lids for holding sticky rice, and keeping it safe from ant intrusion. I had put my sticky rice in a big basket. Ken had bought lots of little individually wrapped cakes and cookies to give.
By his example, I learned increased patience. I found myself getting more and more upset by the photographic harassment, but Ken, he just smiled and went along with the stranger’s requests. He had been a novice monk for years before so he had already years of experience being photographed. I wanted to tell the Chinese people, “No, this is not respectful, this is not the right way to do this,” but there were too many of them, and they didn’t speak English. So I learned from Ken to just make the best of this situation, knowing I could hope to fix the bigger situation later.
When the procession of monks arrived, slowly walking up the street, the Chinese people surrounded them, taking photographs with flashes just inches away from the monks. They were all around us, and some had loud CB radios attached to their belts, belting out communications in Chinese. They chatted away, seemingly unaware that this was supposed to be a silent event. And the few that bought alms to give from the naughty ladies had no idea how to give. One man sat down next to me, and tried to put an entire bamboo container of sticky rice in to the bowl of a monk. The container, which he was supposed to open, and just put a handful of sticky rice from in to the monk’s bowl, filled up the monk‘s entire bowl. The monk took the basket out and handed it back to the man, but the man didn’t learn, and repeated the action with the next monk, a novice monk. This novice just looked at the basket, amused, and walked on.
A few sets of monks came, each from different temples, and after the last had gone, the Chinese people all got back in to their cars, and drove on. I’m not sure whether they had just arrived in town, driving from China, or if they had all already been staying in town, yet all got in to their cars to go watch the morning alms giving. For me, I thought I had seen bad behavior from tourists watching alms behavior, but this was by far the worst, due to their sheer numbers and lack of any respect.
That evening, Ken invited all his friends to an outdoor restaurant for drinks and food. About twenty people showed up and we had a grand time, drinking and eating. During the meal, I realized how much courtesy and care Lao people have for each other. Anytime any person’s drink was empty, someone at the table would find a beer, and refill that person’s glass with beer and ice. Finding a beer wasn’t difficult, as Ken ordered beers here by the case. Each case held twelve 640 ml big beers. One case costs about $10US.
Lao style is that if you see an empty glass, you fill it. You don’t let it sit empty. You don’t ask the person if they want to drink. You just take care of them. Every time a new person came to join the party, Ken would make sure they had a plate and a spoon, and that the food was accessible to them. If you see someone with an empty plate, you put rice on their plate, and perhaps spoon some pieces of fish or some vegetables on to their rice. You really care for everyone else, whether you know them well or not. Another constant is the toasting. Lao people really prefer to toast on every single sip, which gets a bit tiring, but it’s the thought that counts. They want to drink together, and they want to make sure everyone is having fun. They do that with a toast every few minutes. No one gets left behind in this drinking.
As well, since beer here is drank with ice, if you see a glass with beer and the ice has melted, you refill the person’s glass with ice. You don’t ask if they want a refill, or want more ice. You just do it. And although there are a few varieties of beer now commonly available, BeerLao is still by far the beer most drank and adored. So generally, nobody asks what kind of beer you want. It’s always BeerLao. BeerLao has made a dark variety, availably only in normal 330mlbottles, as well as a light variety, plus an additional brand, called Lane Xang. All of these are drank rarely by Lao people, who are very allegiant to the original.
The original is a great beer, named by Time Magazine as Asia’s best beer in 2004, and the topic of a praising article six months ago in the NY Times. Many people feel proud to drink BeerLao, seeing it as a patriotic act to support their nation's industry, as well as one of their countries best products. However, the company who makes BeerLao, LBC, was originally started as a joint venture between Lao and foreign investors. And in 2005, half of LBC was sold to Carlsberg, a Danish company. Fortunately, I think many Lao people don't know about this foreign ownership, and can blissfully continue drinking their beer.
If you’re wondering what it’s like drinking beer with ice, I recommend you try it. On a hot day, it’s really quite delightful. I think it’s one of those things you can adjust to easily and happily. I still don’t add ice when drinking other beers, but with BeerLao, always.
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