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Every dawn in Luang Prabang, the streets are filled with leisurely processions of saffron-clad monks participating in Tak Bat: The Alms-Giving Ceremony, one of the wonderful ancient traditions of the Buddhist Land of a Million Elephants, drawing visitors from all over the world to visit and observe or even participate.
The ceremony demonstrates the importance of Buddhism in the lives of locals. “Luang Prabang” translates to “Royal Buddha Image”, referring to a small golden statue of the Buddha housed in the Royal Palace of the ancient capital. Since the 14th century, from 4:30 to 6:30 a.m., barefooted monks walk in solemn, silent lines through the streets to accept alms from kneeling, barefooted residents dressed in traditional clothing. They receive food that has been carefully wrapped and put in rattan or bamboo baskets. The donations are not excess or unwanted items but made with love or carefully handpicked. This is out of respect for the living monks and their sacred faith, as well as for the deceased family members of the alms-givers. Before putting the offerings in the monks’ bowls, the worshippers often say a short prayer, and the monks also quickly pray to bless them for their good deeds. The monks will keep what they can eat for the day, and share the rest with the poor, including the children kneeling by the wayside with baskets to bring food back to their families.
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Alms-giving is a popular tradition in Southeast Asian nations such as Myanmar, Indonesia, and Malaysia, but participating in the Laos Tak Bat ceremony can stir strong emotions. No matter their age or gender, worshippers offer alms with utterly sincere respect and solemnity. Children are encouraged by their parents to participate in the ceremony to build humility and giving spirits.
There are a few things that visitors should take note of. As the ceremony is carried out in silence, alms-givers and observers should stay silent to be polite. Thus, this is not recommended for children too young to behave. Make sure your clothing covers your shoulders, chest, and legs. Do not try to talk to or touch the monks.
If you want to give alms, please prepare the offerings and join the alms-givers before the ceremony begins. Suitable food offerings are rice, fruit, and traditional snacks. You should not wear shoes or socks. Do not buy offerings from street vendors as the monks walk by. Before the ceremony, you can bring small stools to sit on (like locals do), but once the monks arrive, you should kneel. Women should bow while giving offerings, making sure that their heads are lower than those of the monks’.
If you only want to observe, please stay at a respectful distance to avoid getting in the way, and do not use flash photography.
The daily alms-giving ceremony of Luang Prabang is a beautiful cultural tradition. It demonstrates respect and gratitude for people who have chosen to give up earthly life to pursue their calling and become spiritual guardians of both the living and the dead.