The Spectacle of the Alms Ceremony

In Luang Prabang, a city of many wats and monks, saffron-robed monks silently make a circuit at dawn, seeking alms of cooked sticky rice. Good things flow from this alms ceremony, called the tak bat. Monks need to eat, donors gain merit, and monks in saffron-colored robes make a striking image. But too much of a good thing can make a spectacle. And so it was in Luang Prabang.

The old quarter of Luang Prabang contains many wats, contributing to its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With increased tourism, the old quarter has become gentrified with hotels and guest houses, so that most local people can’t afford to live there. Many donors are tourists. Below, a flashlight illuminates these donors before dawn. Perhaps a guide has coached them and is helping them prepare for the tak bat.

getting ready for the bat by flashlight
donors getting ready for the tak bat by flashlight

The monks below are getting ready as donors, and they’re taking pictures of each other. Monks with DSLRs and smartphones? Perhaps these monks are tourists like us. They appear to have name tags on lanyards, and I later saw a busload of monks drive off.

monks taking pictures
monks taking pictures before dawn

As monks arrived seeking alms, the donor monks photographed the alms giving.

monks photographing the bat
monks photographing the bat

The next photo has an exposure of 1/30 second, trying to capture the movement of the monks’ feet as they walk.

the bat (click to enlarge)
the bat (click to enlarge)

The boy below seeks food from the monks. His head is bowed with averted eyes, and his hands are held with palms together below his chin — expressing gratitude. Taken at 1/15 second, this photo shows more motion. The walking monks are blurred, while the boy and the monk sharing his offering are sharp.

giving to a boy
giving to a boy

In the photo below, the street is overrun with tourists and vans bringing in more tourists. On the right, monks in saffron robes are gathering alms despite the crowd and the glare of headlights from vans clogging the street.

tourists at the bat
crowds of tourists at the bat

We were told that monks don’t want to wake up before dawn to go through this. According to wikitravel, “the government has made it clear that the monks have to continue the tourist pageant or risk being replaced with lay people clothed in saffron robes in order to keep up appearances, and thereby maintain tourist revenue.”

I saw the tak bat, practiced hand-holding shots showing human motion with dim lighting, and enjoyed seeing saffron-colored robes. But this spectacle was not the religious ceremony I expected.


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I enjoy travel, art, food, photography, nature, California native plants, history, and yoga. I am a retired software engineer. The gravatar is a Nuttall's woodpecker that visited our backyard.

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