Giving alms is an important part of Laos culture and occurs in many South East Asian countries. When I took a trip to Luang Prabang, I was actually traveling with a Thai woman named Jaeb who asked me if I’d want to take part in the tradition with her. While I shuddered at the thought of waking up at dawn, I was excited to get the chance to be a part of a local tradition and get a deeper look into the culture.
Almsgiving is a religious ritual where the community gathers around the monastery at 5:30 AM to give food to a silent procession of monks. Monks are not allowed to cook or hoard food, so for many this is their only daily meal. The monks do not eat for pleasure, but to sustain their bodies, which are conditioned and trained to live with very little materials things, including food. I was also told that not having to think about food later on in the day clears the mind of distractions.On the sidewalk, women kneel down on mats holding baskets full of sticky rice balls and bushels of bananas while the men stand around them. While the setting is of a peaceful nature, you still need to be careful, as local women looking to make money off tourists will literally throw you down onto a mat and shove food in front of you before telling you to pay a ridiculous amount of money. The problem with this is not only will you be getting ripped off, but you are often given low-quality food. Only the best food should be given to the monks, so buy fresh fruit the night before or have your hotel prepare some sticky rice for you.
There’s some etiquette for women that goes along with the giving of alms, as well. Women should never touch a monk or their pots. Otherwise, the monks will have to go through a purification process. Also, a woman’s head should always be lower than the monks and shoulders and knees should be covered, although this goes for whether you’re in the presence of a monk or not.
So, what can you get out of the experience? To me, it was about more than just feeding the monks. Almsgiving really showed the sense of community in Luang Prabang, and how easy it really is to give to others and let go of addiction and neediness. If you attend with an open mind and make sure to be respectful of the customs, the tradition of Almsgiving can be a very worthwhile and eye-opening experience.