OBSERVING THE RITUAL OF TAK BAT FROM A RESPECTFUL DISTANCE
We left Luang Prabang today and spent most of our day in a bus travelling to Vang Vieng in Central Laos. Before we set of for Vang Vieng, however, we got to observe one of the most humbling rituals we’ve ever seen: the tak bat, or the morning collection of food and alms by Buddhist monks.
Luang Prabang is renowned for its many temples; like Chiang Mai in Thailand this is a town once famous as a centre of learning and Buddhist religiosity. To this day there are more than 80 functioning temples in Luang Prabang, all of which have a number of resident monks*. As a result there are lots and lots of monks in Luang Prabang, which is what makes the morning procession of alms giving so touching. We saw hundreds of saffron-robed monks walking serenely down the street this morning, humbling putting their rice bowls out and hoping the residents of Luang Prabang would give them food.
*It is custom in Laos for every male child around the age of 10 to spend at least 3 months in a Buddhist monastery serving as a novice. Some children choose to stay for longer, eventually becoming monks around the age of 19.
The monks leave the monasteries early in the morning and walk through the town in meditative silence. They walk in single file, oldest first, carrying their alms bowls in front of them. Lay people wait for them and place food in the bowls; this food will feed the monks for the day and usually consists of just some rice and perhaps small portions of fruit or vegetables.
The ritual is done in respectful silence at dawn, and was fascinating to watch. It was truly touching to see the humility with which the monks received the proffered food, and the reverence with which the locals handed out spoonfuls of sticky rice and bananas.
We saw this ritual performed in Chiang Khong, in Thailand, and in Pakbeng, in far Northern Laos, but there the population of monks was much smaller and we saw just a handful of monks going around the village seeking alms. In Luang Prabang, however, the procession is huge – which is what motivates so many tourists to wake up at 4:30am to see the dawn ritual. Unfortunately with mass tourism comes the worst of human behaviour. We saw some truly appalling behaviour this morning – people sticking their cameras in the monks’ faces, blinding the monks with their flashes, and basically treating the whole thing like a circus act, rather than the humbling, profound ritual it is. It was just awful to see people behaving so badly, all for the sake of a photo!
We had intentionally positioned ourselves across the road, well away from the procession of monks and alms-givers, and could see all of this transpiring from our vantage point. We left feeling terrible for the monks and a little unsettled by what we’d seen. The ritual of tak bat itself is incredible and we are so grateful to have experienced it here in Luang Prabang, but the circus it has become is appalling. It’s tragic to think that the behaviour of a few morons could ruin something so ancient and spiritual. We can only hope the authorities here in Laos intervene and impose some regulations on the visiting tourists to keep them from causing any further damage.
After watching the last of the monks return to their monasteries, we walked back to our hotel to pack and prepare for our departure from Luang Prabang. It’s been an interesting few days here and we’ve really enjoyed seeing the sights around this area, though we’re not really sure what to make of the influx of tourists to the area and the effect they’re having on the town. There’s so little government regulation of things here in Laos that tour operators can seemingly do what they want, and the lure of the tourist dollar is driving many of them to do things that are tarnishing Luang Prabang. Some of what is happening here in great – like the Asiatic Black Bear Rescue Centre and the work of the Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre. But it seems to us that tourism is proving to be both a boon and a curse for the people of Luang Prabang – as it seems to be in many places around the world.
We were ruminating on these thoughts as our bus left Luang Prabang, bound for Vang Vieng in Central Laos. Pretty soon, however, our thoughts turned to outwards to the incredible scenery around us.
The journey from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng is only 220km long but takes 7-8 hours due to the incredibly windy road. The road (note the use of the singular here) follows the mountain ridges and valleys, as traders would have once done centuries ago. Along the way we passed through a number of small villages, many of them not much more than a few huts clinging precariously to the mountain-side.
Driving through the villages we caught glimpses of village life, Laos-style. We saw women sitting on doorsteps, rocking their babies whilst weaving an chatting with their neighbours; men clustered around low wooden tables playing cards and laughing over beers; and children playing in school yards and, later, making their way from school.
Life sure does seem to function at an incredibly slow pace here, with many things still being done by hand, as they have been for millennia. The only concessions to modernity we saw were the power lines that stretch across the countryside, bringing electricity to these small hamlets, and the ubiquitous satellite dishes. It was actually quite a funny juxtaposition, seeing these tiny cottages made of wood and thatch, with giant satellite dishes outside! Seems television is one of life’s essentials everywhere in the world these days!
Most Laotians are subsistence farmers, with rice being the main staple crop. At the moment the rice is ready to harvest and, in a few villages, we got to see the villagers out with their scythes collecting this year’s* crop. Backs bent, they worked in small teams to clear one field at a time. Seeing this work being done by hand really made us appreciate how basic life here in Laos really is.
*In the lowlands of Laos, along the fertile Mekong River valley, they get 2-3 crops of rice per year, but in the highlands they just get the one.
We were treated to some incredible vistas during the journey, especially as we neared the karst mountains surrounding Vang Vieng.
Vang Vieng is a tiny town in central Laos famous for its stunning natural beauty, riverside setting, and party scene. We’re not interested in the parties, but are keen to see more of the town’s surrounding hills and countryside.
That will have to wait for tomorrow though. For tonight we’re just happy to have arrived safe and sound, and are planning on finding ourselves a simple meal somewhere nearby and then having an early night. Join us tomorrow to find out what Vang Vieng is really like…