Tak Bat is an incredibly special and sacred Buddhist tradition that occurs all throughout Laos. One of the most popular and accessible places to experience this tradition is in Luang Prabang. In the early hours of the morning each day, as the sun is rising, the local Buddhist monks pad softly around the streets barefoot in single file, accepting gifts from the locals. All around the town, locals kneel down on the street, offering the monks gifts of rice, fresh fruit and sweets to contribute to their one meal of the day.
Approximately 200 monks participate in the ceremony in the UNESCO World Heritage City of Luang Prabang. This Buddhist tradition lives on in Laos as a way for monks to maintain their vows and for regular local Buddhist people to practice their faith and gain merit for the afterlife. Although the main purpose of the alms giving ceremony is for the monks to collect food for their meal for the day, you will often see small children kneeling along the streets, hoping that the monks might share some of their gifts with them – so that they can take some food back to their families.
There are many different temples spread across Luang Prabang, more than 30 in fact, in both the main and side streets. The local monks depart and return to their individual temples, which means you can find monks participating in this tradition all across the village of Luang Prabang, as well as right across Laos.
The history of Tak Bat
The tradition of alms gathering dates all the way back to the 14th century, around the time when Theravada Buddhism became the chosen religion of the Laotian kings, and is still practiced by thousands of Buddhist monks across Laos today.
It takes place every single morning no matter what. The monks who live in Luang Prabang have taken a vow of poverty, and depend only on the generosity of the local Buddhist laypeople for their daily food. In Luang Prabang the monks are very lucky, as they have a very privileged place in the community and are respected by all residents. Because of this, each monk can collect many offerings and the community is very generous. In other communities around Laos and Southeast Asia the monks might not be as lucky.
If you would like to participate
Unfortunately, Tak Bat is becoming more and more of a tourist spectacle and less of a sacred tradition for the locals in Luang Prabang. Despite this, visitors are encouraged to get involved, as long as the level of respect and importance around this tradition is understood and maintained throughout the whole ritual.
It’s a good idea to buy your offerings in advance, and arrive well before sunrise to find a spot to position yourself before the ceremony. If you buy alms on the street it is also extremely disrespectful to haggle or negotiate the price. Pay what is asked if you would like to purchase your alms this way. It is considered very offensive to disrupt the monks and the ritual once it has began, so you want to make sure you’re set up and in a comfortable position well before the monks begin to arrive.
If you are taking part in the ceremony, shoes and socks are to be removed and you must tuck your feet underneath you, while you remain silent. Female participants must keep their head lower than the monks when giving alms, and must not talk or touch the monks at any time during the ceremony.
It is important to remember though, that Tak Bat is a highly important religious ceremony and should be treated that way. If you are not a practicing Buddhist it’s a good idea not to actually participate.
How to be respectful
Over the years, with more and more people visiting and wishing to experience Tak Bat, it has become a little bit of a circus. As you often find everywhere, people often don’t respect the sanctity of traditions and ancient ceremonies. The locals have no issues with people coming to watch and experience the ritual for themselves, but it is also important to understand the etiquette and be respectful as to not disrupt the process.
Observe the ceremony in silence. Absolute silence – not just a low voice. If you are taking photos of the ceremony, make sure you take a huge step back from the line to avoid causing offence. The monks do not want you in their face or space, and want to continue their tradition as normal. The recommended way to photograph and watch the ceremony is to stand on the other side of the road. Well out of the way of the monks and locals presenting them with offerings, and stay quiet and respectful. It’s also important to make sure your flash is turned off.
If you are not making an offering yourself, maintain an appropriate distance from the ceremony – again, across the road is a respectful and decent distance to maintain – and do not under any circumstance get in the way of those making an offering.
Always keep your head lower than the monks, even if you are observing. It is disrespectful to watch through the window of a tour bus or the balcony of a hotel.
Avoid following the procession as it is disrespectful to join the line of monks or break the line of monks. It’s also important to avoid changing places and moving a lot – it’s best to try and find a comfortable place to experience the ritual and then stay in the same place throughout the morning. If you need to cross the street, wait until there is a large gaps between groups of different monks.
And importantly, whether you are participating in the ceremony or not, make sure you dress respectfully in the presence of the monks – with elbow and knees covered, high neck tops for women and remove any hats or head ware.
During our visit to Luang Prabang we were a little bit late to wake up – probably leaving our hotel around the time of the sunrise instead of before like we should have, but it turned out so well. As our hotel was located over the river, we had to walk through the back streets to get there and across the river bridge. It was such a good thing that we did.
As we walked down our dead silent street, in the minimal light of the dawn hour, we were able to see the ritual in an extremely peaceful setting. We turned the corner towards the bridge, we saw a procession coming our way. In this quiet part of the town we were able to appreciate the simplicity and peacefulness of the ritual so much more. In terms of spectators, there was only us and one other couple who were standing half a block away. No sound, no crowds, no craziness. In the quiet and tranquility of these streets, the monks actually sung a song of thanks to the locals giving the alms as they collected them. It was so beautiful and such a raw moment of tradition and culture.
After watching this peaceful moment, we crossed over the bridge to the main streets of Luang Prabang. Here things were a little more chaotic. People weren’t getting the message about keeping a respectful distance, and were taking photos right in the monks faces. It was a little bit of a circus and we could immediately see people doing everything we had read not to do.
We were unfortunately already late, as we had stopped for so long to watch the ritual in the back streets, so it was difficult to secure a place to observe the ritual away from the crowds. We finally found a spot though, down one of the side streets, where there crowds had thinned out a little, and we were able to find a place to sit across the road from the monks and try and maintain the silence and respect that we had been able to in the back streets around our hotel.
For anyone travelling to Luang Prabang in the hopes of experiencing the Tak Bat ritual, I would recommend getting up VERY early, at least an hour before the sunrise and finding a spot to observe that’s not on the main street. If your hotel is in the back streets or around where we stayed at My Dream Boutique Hotel, I would also recommend experiencing the ritual in the back streets away from the crowds all together. While the number of monks walking these streets are not as high, it was a much more meaningful experience for us, as we witnessed the monks singing in the early hours. On the main streets there was no singing, and no time for the monks to give thanks to the locals giving alms as they were always on the move aiming to get away from the crowds.
Overall though, it was a beautiful experience and I can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone travelling to Laos. We only got up early enough to witness Tak Bat on one morning, but I would even recommend getting up one morning to experience the back streets ceremonies, and another to witness the circus and high number of monks on the main streets. Either way you will not be disappointed and it’s so special to be able to observe such a sacred ceremony which dates back centuries.