What It’s Like To Get Breakfast In Luang Prabang, Laos

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

For travelers who’ve been to Southeast Asia, they know that Laos itself is no longer the hidden gem of the region it once was, with more and more travelers having been turned on to the slow rhythms and friendly people that populate this small, landlocked country. Many backpackers end up in the city of Luang Prabang, in north-central Laos, a former royal capital and the recipient of a UNESCO World Heritage Site recognition in 1995. Here, they find Buddhist temples sitting next to French colonial era houses sitting next to plain structures housing the 100,000 or so residents that make up the city.

But how is Luang Prabang’s new popularity affecting the city? As a recent Sydney Morning Herald story reports, it’s a little unnerving to see the clash between local customs and those observing from afar. Take the case of the tradition of giving alms to local monks.

Entire households wake early, drape white scarves across their shoulders and gather on street corners with cane baskets filled with little banana-leaf parcels of sticky rice prepared this morning. The monks stop to chant at intervals, then walk on, silently and slowly, as their bowls are filled by the faithful, for whom this is a gesture to accrue heavenly merit and an act of practical compassion, for this is the young men’s main source of food.

Some people complain that the alms-giving has turned into a spectacle for tourists and, certainly, it’s appalling to see noisy busloads pull up on Sakkarine Road, jump in front of the priestly procession for hasty digital snaps, then roar off. But I see plenty of considerate, observant travellers. And on the backstreets, in the warm morning rain, I’m the only visitor among residents gathered, kneeling, with their alms, as they do every day.

Okay, if you’re going to take in this tradition, please do not do so by pulling up in a noisy bus. I know there’s air conditioning and maybe even some fun Vietnamese soap operas playing inside, but at least try to be as discreet as possible, maybe even walking there, and keeping your distance. These are monks, getting breakfast. I can only imagine what it’d be like if an Australian couple snapped pictures of me as I munched on my morning bowl of generic frosted shredded wheat while I watched the Today Show (and, yes, that is my typical morning routine). Show some respect, and at least wait until I’ve had my first cup of coffee for the day.

[Morning Alms by Kwong Hong Leong/Flickr]

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