A guide to giving alms in Laos, South East Asia




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.laos 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.

Rome’s Vatican Museums host rare Aboriginal art exhibition

Aboriginal artNo one can ever accuse the Vatican of acting impulsively. In 1925, over 300 artworks and relics were sent to Rome by Aboriginal Australians, for a papal show. Since that time, the items have been squirreled away, despite being one of the world’s finest collections of Aboriginal art and artifacts, according to a recent New York Times article.

Fortunately, these treasures are now on public display, thanks in part to Missionary Ethnological Museum curator Father Nicola Mapelli. Last summer, Mapelli flew to Australia and visited Aboriginal communities to request permission to display the collection. His objective was to “reconnect with a living culture, not to create a museum of dead objects.” His goal is accomplished in the exhibition, “Rituals of Life,” which is focused on northern and Western Australian art from the turn of the 20th century. Despite the fairly contemporary theme of the exhibition, Aboriginal culture is the oldest surviving culture on earth, dating back for what is believed to be over 60,000 years.

The items include ochre paintings done on slate, objects and tools used for hunting, fishing, and gathering, a didgeridoo, and carved funeral poles of a type still used by Tiwi Islanders for pukamani ceremonies. The collection also includes items from Oceania, including Papua New Guinea and Easter Island (Rapa Nui).

The collection was originally sent to Rome because it represents the spiritual meaning everyday objects possess in Aboriginal culture (each clan, or group, believes in different dieties that are usually depicted in a tangible form, such as plants or animals). The items were housed, along with other indigenous artifacts from all over the world, and stored at the Missionary Ethnological Museum, which is part of the Vatican Museums.

“Rituals of Life” is the first exhibition following extensive building renovations and art restoration. The museum will continue to reopen in stages, with the Aboriginal art on display through December, 2011.

For an exhibition audio transcript, image gallery, and video feature from ABC Radio National’s “Encounter,” click here. The Australian series “explores the connections between religion and life.”

[Photo credit: Flickr user testpatern]

Haitian Voodoo Pilgrimage

VoodooHere is one that may not tickle the fancy of all on this particular Sunday morning and could have possibly been a topic on the recently past Friday the 13th, but I discovered the news yesterday and found the time to explore it more and pass it on to interested arm-chair traveling minds today. So…

CBS News recently ran a piece on the annual Voodoo pilgrimage made by Haitians to an area called Souvenance complete with a small photo gallery of people with their eyes rolled back, women dressed in white and some even smeared with the blood of a freshly sacrificed chicken or animal. While the article is short it packs in enough to give you goose-pimples and provide some insight on this West African ritual. The Souvenance area sits 90-miles north of the capital city, Port-au-Prince and the ceremonies which take place for five days began last Sunday on Easter. Voodoo is one of three constitutionally recognized religions in the country and although the event seems to have passed it is practiced like any other on a regular basis.

After reading the brief summary of the event I went in search of some other sites with more information. Haiti Surf has additional Voodoo ceremony photos as well as more general pics relating to the country. Below the gallery one can learn of black magic, the ancient traditions and beef up your voodoo vocabulary with words such as houngan or mambo – meaning priest or priestess. We Haitians also includes a couple of pictures from the pilgrimage back in 2004 along with other news worthy events taking place at the time.