Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Alms in Luang Prabang

From Siem Reap, Cambodia, we flew to Luang Prabang, Laos, and spent 5 days there.  It is a very photogenic city, and one morning, we got up early to see the Buddhist monks collecting alms.

The Therevada monks in Laos eat two meals a day; breakfast and lunch, and both meals come from the tak bat procession at 6 AM every morning.
Each monk has a lidded, metal bowl, carried in a sling.  As they approach laypeople offering food, they would open the lid to accept the food that is being offered.  The main offering is sticky rice.
It is a popular subject for photographers, though we only saw a handful.  Most were respectful, and kept their distance; some were not.  Lana specifically asked one person to turn off his flash (it’s a little amazing how few people know how to turn off automatic flash on their own camera).  After we observed the procession for a while, and took a couple of warm-up shots, we traded cameras, and Lana shot the bulk of the morning with the DSLR.  As with the night market earlier, almost all of the pictures here are hers, with just two exceptions.  The 200mm telephoto lens was ideal for getting close-up shots from a distance, without encroaching on the monks’ meditative walk.
No, this young monk is not doubling as an exotic sommelier.  The platter is wedged into a notch in the tree behind him, for a restaurant, and the timing was accidental.  We were impressed by how young some of the monks were.  As is the case elsewhere in southeast Asia, it’s possible that they are only temporarily ordained for several weeks.  It’s hard to imagine a Western child of this age demonstrating this kind of discipline for an hour, before their first of two meals for the day.  The tak bat is conducted entirely without speech, and there was clearly no need for adult supervision of these young gentlemen.
The other way visitors participate is in offering alms; as with the photographers, some do this well, and some do not.
This group of tourists were very respectful; they had sticky rice, which they may have even prepared themselves or purchased earlier that morning in the market, and they were kneeling to ensure their heads were below the monks’.

While we didn’t see any disrespectful almsgivers, it was clear that the monks were receiving inappropriate food.  This gentleman, also pictured above, had set out a box several paces up the street from him, for the monks to use to discard items that they had been given.  Mostly, they appeared to be discarding packaged foods.
These kids were practicing a sort of trick-or-treating, whereby they were humbly accepting discarded alms. In contrast to the solemnity of the monks that were not much older than them, these kids spent some portion of their time examining their loot—or trading items-- in between the stream of passing monks.
We just noticed this monk has a tattoo on his ankle!  Lana loved taking photos of children in Laos, among other places. They were incredibly sweet to watch, and provided some really fun subjects to photograph.
The procession was much more lengthy than we anticipated, as there are a large number of wats in Luang Prabang, and they all must collect alms each day.
Even the dogs of Luang Prabang know what time of the morning they can anticipate a treat. We didn’t ever see any monks feeding them, but clearly they were trailing the procession hopefully.
After the monks set off to enjoy their first meal of the day, we began to think about our own breakfast.  We had a date that afternoon with an elephant.