It's 5 AM in Luang Prabang, and residents of the Nasang Veuy neighborhood are rolling out wicker rugs and kneeling down upon them, setting their shoes to the side. On this October morning, in this city in Laos that borders the Mekong, over a hundred people are patiently waiting in front of their houses in the middle of the city's busiest intersection. They have all come with baskets of offerings, which, for the most part, consist of dry biscuits, fruits, and freshly cooked sticky rice. Most women are wearing sinhs, traditional Laotian skirts, along with finely knit silk scarves across their left shoulders. The men, by and large, are dressed in button down shirts and black pants, and don similar scarves. All are anticipating the arrival of the monks, who will soon walk out of the nearest temples and monasteries to collect alms.
This ritual, whose origins date back to the 14th century—a period during which Theravada Buddhism became the chosen religion of Laotian kings—is called the monks' alms round, or tak bat. It takes place every morning without exception. The city's monks, who have taken a vow of poverty, depend solely on the generosity of devotees to subsist. In Luang Prabang, they enjoy a privileged status and are respected by all residents, and the laity seeks to gain goodwill by giving them offerings. My mother, Somsy, spent her entire childhood in Luang Prabang, and explained to me that children usually participate in the ritual; otherwise, they risk reprimand. "Every night, we had to prepare cakes that we wrapped in banana leaves, and my mother forbid me to taste them—it was considered a mortal sin," she explained.
Outside of the ancient royal capital of Laos, the tak bat is also practiced in other Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Cambodia. But it is in Luang Prabang that the ritual has retained its true authenticity—with 1,600 monks and 80,000 residents, it is considered the epicenter of Theravada Buddhism. And while it welcomes several hundred thousand tourists every year, the city has been remarkably well preserved, thanks in part to its classification as a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1995. Since then, it benefits from the protection of its own Heritage House, whose mission is to "ensure the preservation and enhancement of the city's historic neighborhoods."
Around 5:30 AM, the sound of a gong echoes in the distance, and dawn starts to break. Shortly afterwards, the first monks appear. Barefoot, in single file, they retrieve the offerings in absolute silence. They come from the closest monastery, located in Wat Phou Kwai, one of 30 temples scattered across the city. As they pass, worshippers slide a handful of rice or biscuits inside their cloth sacks which quickly fill up with food. Behind the monks, children holding baskets retrieve the surplus of food that their narrow sacks are unable to contain. Some people have put tubs next to their rugs so that the monks can also unload any excess goods there—they will be allowed to eat these products afterward.
The overflow of participants in the ritual eventually blocks the intersection completely. A few scooters manage to push their way through, while trucks, cars, and tuk-tuks—whose fenders are often adorned with stickers of Che, Frank Serpico, and John B. Rambo—honk their horns in vain before finally making U turns. The abundance of people, however, isn't all due to the devotion of Laotian Buddhists. Today, October 27th, marks the end of a Buddhist fasting period and the Festival of Lights, during which all the city's temples stock up on candles that locals send floating away along the Mekong River like small, illuminated boats. Since today is a holiday, donors are here in larger numbers than usual.
Several vendors stand among the worshippers, selling biscuits to latecomers, or to tourists keen on participating in the almsgiving. Even though the former assistant director of Luang Prabang's department of tourism, Khamtanh Somphanvilay, publicly deplored the idea of any Laotian generating a profit from the ritual, street vendors still continue to operate all over the city.
Over the years, the tak bat has been hoisted up to the rank of major tourist attraction, in spite of itself—consequently, it is not uncommon to spot hordes of tourists still running on Beer Lao in the early mornings, sandwiching the monks draped in saffron robes. The ritual is open to all, but only those who feel compelled to give to the monks are invited to take part in the procession. Therefore, most tourists buy sticky rice at the stands set up along the procession route, which is apparently of lesser quality than the kind cooked by locals. Tradition has it that the rice should be left to soak in cold water overnight to get rid of impurities, then steamed before the alms collection—but such preparations are not necessarily respected by vendors. With time, even Laotians have stopped making their own cakes, opting instead to buy vacuum-packed biscuits.
During the high season at dawn, white minivans packed with tourists converge on the main road in Luang Prabang. To meet the demands of backpackers—who are often criticized for participating only to bring home some dumb selfies rather than finding true religious significance—many tour operators have now included the morning almsgiving as a special option in their vacation packages.
In response to this phenomenon, many places post signs displaying basic guidelines so tourists can be careful not to disturb this religious practice. Among the warnings: do not take photos with flash, avoid any physical contact with the monks, and make sure you are never in a higher position than the monks. This is perceived as a lack of respect, and explains why most devotees remain on their knees throughout the entire ceremony.
At the end of the ritual, the monks head back to their respective temples, their sacks loaded with food. They also take home bills given to them by worshippers, which will go towards buying robes or cell phones. Meanwhile, children empty the contents of their bags on the ground and examine the goods they've scavenged. Next to a grocery store around the corner, little girls start eating fruit jellies and a few other treats. Other Laotians go back home with offerings they were not able to give out, which will, most likely, turn into lunch.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES France. Julie Le Baron est Online Editor chez VICE France, elle est sur Twitter.