In the grainy gray light just before dawn, I stole from my suite at the Luang Say Residence and walked the silent streets to witness Binthabhat, the daily practice of giving alms to monks in Luang Prabang, Laos. I was conflicted over this event. As a photographer I desperately wanted to take photos of the spiritual procession but as a Buddhist I wanted to show my respect for the sangha, the community of ordained monks. I compromised, shoving my camera into my backpack. Before taking a single photo, I would participate in the alms-giving ceremony. By doing so I would join my Buddhist brothers and sisters in the belief that, at the very least, doing so would earn merit. At best, it might lead to a better next life or lessen the number of times I will be reincarnated before achieving nirvana.
My peaceful morning was shattered as I approached the edge of the historic district. Women rushed into a wooden shack lit by a single flickering bulb, loaded wicker baskets with sticky rice and spring rolls and bustled back out. They carried the baskets on long bamboo sticks hefted across their shoulders. One of them locked and loaded on me like a heat-seeking missile. Before I knew what was happening, she had spread a woven mat on the sidewalk, shoved me into a kneeling position, and slapped a basket of food in front of me. I looked up just in time to see the first procession of monks emerge from the gloom like a ghost ship on foggy seas. “How much?” I asked anxiously. “30,000 Kip,” she said curtly. (about $4 U.S.) There was no time to negotiate. The monks were steps away, already sweeping aside the shiny silver lids of their alms pots in preparation for receiving my donation.
Being careful not to touch their pots, I carefully dropped a scoop of sticky rice and spring roll into each as the monks effortlessly glided past. Just as I was about to run out of food my eagle-eye vendor artfully deposited a second basket at my knees. I didn’t miss a single monk’s alms pot. When the last saffron robed monk had disappeared from sight I pulled out 30,000 Kip, an obscenely expensive price for a couple heaps of rice. The woman shook her head. “You pay 60,000!” Apparently the second basket hadn’t been part of the deal. I stood my ground. “I did not ask for a second basket,” and handed her 30,000. Disgustedly she ripped the tattered bills from my hand, rolled up her mat, and headed off to find her next mark. I had expected to feel warm fuzzy all over after giving alms but instead I felt naive and used. Shaking off my disappointment, I pulled the camera out of my backpack. Now I would do what I do best.
Nearer the center of town, worshipers kneeling on mats stretched as far as I could see. The procession of barefoot monks bobbed and weaved down the sidewalk like an enormous orange ribbon. They deftly opened and closed the lids of their pots to they rhythm of the alms-givers, while dodging throngs of flashbulb-popping tourists, aggressive food vendors, and poor children hoping for cast-off items. Chagrined by the circus, I stood back deferentially and documented the event with a telephoto lens, thinking that I may not have earned merit by giving alms, but I was certainly doing so by respecting the sanctity of the Binthabhat ceremony.
Proper protocol for attending or participating in alms giving to monks in Luang Prabang:
- While Binthabhat has become something of a touristy nightmare, the reasons behind it are still genuine. Even if you have only two or three days in Luang Prabang, I highly recommend attending this alms-giving ceremony. But please do so with respect for the monks. Taking photos and videos is perfectly acceptable, however tourists are asked to do so from a respectable distance.
- All are welcome to participate in Binthabhat, however come early to ensure your place on the sidewalk and if you arrive late do not break through the line of monks. The procession starts around 6:30 a.m. and lasts for about an hour.
- The Lao PDR Government has begun to post signs asking tourists not to purchase food for alms-giving from the street vendors in Luang Prabang, as it is not only overpriced, it is of questionable quality. Instead, it is recommended that you ask your hotel to prepare food the night before, or purchase fruit and/or local pre-packaged snacks and biscuits.
- Wear suitable clothing, which includes a top that covers the upper arm and pants or skirt that falls below the knees. Lao also wear a hand-woven sash across the chest and over the shoulder; these traditional weavings are available for very reasonable prces and wearing one s a sign of respect for the culture.
- The best place to view the Binthabhat procesion is on Sisavangvong Road, between the National Museum and Vat Xieng Thong.
- Women should take extra care not to touch the monks, or any part of their clothing or effects, including the rim of their alms pots when depositing food, as monks who have contact with women must go through a purification process.