I was barely awake and not six inches outside my hotel gate in Luang Prabang before the woman caught sight of me.
“Feed the monks!” she cried, shoving a woven basket full of tiny bananas at me. “Bananas, very good for monks. You feed the monks, the monks come here!”
It took me a moment to realize why her little sales pitch sounded so eerily familiar: an extra syllable at the end of “monks” and I could be back in Ubud, turning down the bananas offered up by women outside that place where Hayley got mugged by a primate. I politely, but persistently, turned down the woman’s offers and rushed around the corner.
The truth is, I was there, and awake at 5:00 a.m., to see the monks Luang Prabang is becoming increasingly famous for. The little city is positively stuffed with lovely old wats, and each day the temples’ resident monks walk the early morning streets in a mammoth, snaking queue. Holding out the copper bowls strung around their necks, the monks collect food donations from the locals lining the sidewalks. The handfuls of sticky rice or fresh fruit dropped into their bowls will be all the food they’ll eat that day, and 24 hours later they’ll repeat the same ritual.
It’s a very moving tradition, when you think about it: the whole city taking care of its spiritual leaders on the most basic and human level, selflessly rising before the sun each day to do it. And, of course, it’s a stunning sight to behold: hundreds of monks, young and old, padding softly down the avenues and side streets of this charming old city, their crisp tangerine robes and yellow sashes rustling. The gentle clanging thud of a fistful of cooked rice as it hits the bottom of a monk’s outstretched copper pot. The momentary look of recognition between each monk and each person dropping food into their bowls. It’s charming and moving and colorful and exotic.
Trouble is, just about every visitor in Luang Prabang seems to have heard the same thing and, more than likely, has brought enough camera equipment to make a Hollywood movie about it.
Now, I understand that with the advent of tourism, it would be nearly impossible to preserve the monks’ daily alms collection as a completely unadulterated tradition. After all, what am I myself but a visitor who’s come to gaze upon the weird and the wonderful in all of these countries I’m visiting? But there is a respectful way to observe traditions, and there are, conveniently, far more ways to trample them. That morning in Luang Prabang, unfortunately, I saw all manner of the latter.
Arriving on the town’s main street, Sisavangvong Road, at 5:05 a.m., I noticed one sidewalk was already covered in rugs, a line of stools and baskets of rice spaced evenly along them. I crossed over and sat myself on the other side of the road (though I’d originally considered handing out food myself, the locals discourage it and, apparently, the food purchased by visitors on the street tends to make the monks ill). Perching there for a few minutes, I marveled at how still the street was, how few people were there, but how obvious the locals’ dedication was – they must have been up since at least 4:00 a.m. setting up their alms-giving stations. Surely they’d walk up any minute, squat down on their little chairs, and wait patiently, respectfully for the monks to show.
Instead, a few minutes later, five jumbo tuk-tuks came sputtering down the street. Out of each hopped ten yammering tourists, who quickly dispersed to their little plastic stools and individual stores of sticky rice while the locals squatted on the curb edge. It was suddenly painfully obvious that a hotel had set up all these neat little feeding stations, and likely charged each guest a pretty penny to occupy them. Within moments, tourists from Europe, America, Japan, were also flooding the road, pulling flash bulbs and telescopic camera lenses out of purpose-made cases. I actually had to wait for a break in the human traffic in order to cross the street whose tranquility had stunned me just minutes before.
To get away from the madness, I turned onto a little side street just off the main drag. The tourists seemed concentrated on Sisavangvong street, I reasoned; from the side street I should be able to watch the monks from a distance without getting in their, or anyone else’s, face.
But I still had an unobstructed view of those who did. I watched from the sidelines in horror as camera-wielding tourists elbowed each other out of the way for the best shots. As the monks swept gracefully and wordlessly down the street, I listened to visitors yelling at each other in Japanese and German and broken English to get out of their frames. I sat agape as foot-long lenses and more flash power than I’ve worked with at professional video shoots were poked to within inches of the monks’ faces.
I should note here that in Laos, a huge number of men dedicate at least some part of their lives to monk-hood – typically from a few months to a few years. In particular, you’ll often see extremely young boys – we’re talking elementary-school-aged kids – strolling the streets in their saffron robes. As you can imagine, the younger the monk, the more “adorable” the picture when it comes to the alms collection, and the visiting photographers go after these little boys with all the sympathy of baby-seal clubbers. These are young kids who are being trained to live ascetically, spiritually, to eat only what the faithful offer them and to dry the one outfit they have on the clothesline outside their wat at night. And yet each and every morning they must deal with being stalked by tourist paparazzi as if they were Justin Bieber or Madonna. I couldn’t help but wonder if these little boys understood what was going on, if their elders had ever explained this bizarrely intense mass interest in what, for them, is fact of daily life. I tried to imagine how hard it must be for the child monks to save face, appearing serene and unflustered even as they were being mobbed each day.
Opposite me, on the other side of the little off-shoot road, a group of young children were crouched in a line, each with a plastic basket. They held their hands in prayer-position, and, as the monks turned off Sisavangvong, each monk threw a handful of rice or a piece of candy into each kid’s basket. It took me a few moments to realize just what was happening here: these children were up at 5:00 a.m. asking the monks to sacrifice part of their own meager daily diets to help feed their families, and the monks were obliging without complaint.
Next to their baskets, each small child had set a plastic bag, which they’d use later for separating the rice they’d collected from the dry goods. Eventually, one particularly aggressive tourist decided to leave Sissavangvong and come document the children receiving surplus alms on my street. Lining up his shot at the end of the row of children, he suddenly paused, lowered his camera, and ran over to a girl about six years old. He looked down at her pink plastic bag, snatched it away from her, and ran back into position to get his shot. He’d literally taken away the receptacle this poor girl was using to gather food for her family in order to make his picture more artistically, and artificially, attractive.
Now, I am not going to claim total innocence here. I got up early specifically to see the monks parading through town; I brought my camera and, yes, I took two pictures. But I’d made sure to wear long-sleeved, appropriate clothing despite the sweltering heat; I’d twisted my legs backwards so as not to show the monks disrespect by pointing my feet towards them. I’d opted not to risk making them sick by offering them street food just so I could say I’d “fed the monks.” And yet here were all these other tourists not just flagrantly ignoring the etiquette one follows in the presence of monks (there are signs posted all over town detailing appropriate behavior and actions), but making a mockery of the whole idea just so they could get a few pictures.
The thing is, I do believe that seeing the way these monks survive, the deeply moving way their community takes care of them, has the ability to be both enriching and humbling. But it’s hard to get past the circus sideshow that’s enveloped the whole experience. And I’ll bet it’s even harder walking through it with a copper pot weighing you down and a flashbulb in your face.