Tak Bat is the morning alms giving rounds. In Luang Prabang this appears to have become a major tourist attraction. The monks process down the main street then return along another block and then down the street that passes Lotus Villa. In the main street, there are many vendors selling tourists the alms to give to the monks, with enterprising stallholders setting up seats for the tourists on the footpath and providing what they need at quite a price. If there is an opportunity to make money, people will find it. This procession begins at around 6.00am – the monks have been up since 3.30am – and takes around half an hour.
Unfortunately poor tourist behaviour has got to the point where there are signs and websites posted with the following guidelines (the bonzes are the monks):
How to respect the Tak Bat
- Observe in silence and only make offerings if, for you, they correspond to a religious step that you can take with dignity.
- Buy your rice in the market, preferably early in the morning rather than with the stallholders on the path of the bonzes.
- Remove your shoes to give your offerings; women must stay on their knees and ideally wear a scarf over her shoulders.
- If you’re not making an offering, stay at a distance, in a respectful manner. Don’t hamper the procession of bonzes and the donations of the faithful.
- Make sure you are decently dressed, with your shoulders, body and legs well covered, especially if you are giving any offerings.
- Don’t take photos of the bonzes from too near; the flashes are most disturbing both for the bonzes and the faithful.
- Avoid any physical contact with the bonzes.
- Never position yourself so that you are in a higher position than the bonzes (on a wall or on steps, for example) its very disrespectful : the bonzes must always be on the highest points.
- Large buses are strictly forbidden in the protected area of the World Heritage, and create serious problems. Don’t follow the procession by bus. You again risk being higher than the bonzes, which in Laos is a lack of respect.
- Participate in the ceremony for the bonzes quest, by protecting its dignity and its beauty. The population and the authorities of Luang Prabang thank you in advance for your cooperation.Normally, make sure you’re dressed in town, but especially in the temples, making sure that you do not show your knees or shoulders, and especially anything in between.To bow (even slightly) in front of the bonzes is recommended, and appreciated. It’s a mark of respect followed by all Laotians, a tradition to which you must conform.
Women must absolutely not touch the bonzes. Men may, even though physical contact is unseemly.
On our street, when the monks are returning to the temple, they walk more quickly and most of the alms giving is by local people rather than tourists. It feels very peaceful and I can appreciate the spirituality of the ceremony.
Of course, it’s a little incongruous writing about tourist behaviour and tourist impact when I am also a tourist…
We have a terrific breakfast at our villa each morning, served at tables in the central courtyard – in my case, a table immediately outside our room. It means that I can enjoy multiple cups of excellent Lao coffee while I work my way through the menu. Yesterday was an omelette, but today was delicious fresh spring rolls.
It seems that a visit to Big Brother Mouse has become a regular daily activity for my family. We’re enjoying conversation with the young people that are attending. During the week most of the young people attending are novice monks, keen to improve their English. On the weekend there was a large group of other teenagers as well. Dan handed over his camera yesterday so that the monks to talk photos of one another. Another tourist had his fiddle with him and played beautiful music in addition to the general conversation.
The monk in the photo above has very good English and is keen to expand his general education as well. Dan has been chatting to him about physics and mathematics and other related topics. The monks are teenagers – some leave their villages to go to temple when they are as young as ten years old. The novices we were speaking with this morning were between sixteen and nineteen years and had all been at the temple for quite a few years. I cannot imagine leaving my family at such a young age. We are still trying to find out more about the lives of teenage girls in the villages. We are already aware that many get married very young – from about age 15 or 16 – unless they feel strongly otherwise and are more interested in expanding their education.
This is our closest wat, and it’s extremely beautifully decorated. In the grounds were a classroom and photos of novices learning traditional arts and building crafts that in the future will maintain wats like this one.
Now it was time for a massage! We found a place on the street by the river for me to have a head and neck massage (that also included back and shoulders) and the rest of the family to have a foot massage. It was wonderful!
Stella had especially requested that we return to La Rosa restaurant for wood fired pizza for lunch. We’d gone there for dinner on our first night but sadly Stella was still unwell at that stage and the pizza did not remain in her stomach for long. This time was much more successful – our meal was absolutely delicious! It’s nice to take a break from local food every now and then and eat something more familiar. From there we wandered down the streets toward the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC), taking in more sights (and more food) as we went.
From the website of the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre:
Founded in 2006, TAEC collects, preserves, and interprets the traditional arts and lifestyles of the country’s many and diverse ethnic groups. The doors opened in July 2007 with professional exhibitions on the ethnic cultures of Laos, and a museum shop promoting handicrafts from village artisans.
The Centre has expanded to include a growing collection of ethnic minority artefacts, a small library, and the TAEC Cafe space for special events. In July 2014, TAEC opened the TAEC Boutique, a stand-alone shop featuring the finest hand-crafted items from ethnic minority artisans in Laos. In its first five years, TAEC welcomed over 55,000 Lao and international visitors, and has rapidly emerged as a regional leader in cultural heritage management and community development.
Today, the Centre is engaged in a broad range of community engagement activities, reflecting our commitment to supporting living ethnic minority communities to preserve and promote their cultural heritage while looking towards the future. Explore our website to learn more about our work:
- Developing engaging and professional permanent and temporary Exhibitions;
- Fostering learning and awareness through Education and Community Outreach;
- Documenting masterpieces of material culture in our Collection;
- Supporting sustainable income-generation opportunities through our Advocacy and Livelihoods programmes; and
- Conducting and facilitating Research in and with ethnic communities.
This is a relatively small centre that is beautifully maintained and all exhibits are presented at a very high standard. There were activity sheets for the children, excellent information boards at each exhibit, and a lovely gift shop where half the proceeds of the handmade goods are returned to the craftspeople who made them. The toilets were in excellent condition – always a huge plus when travelling in South-East Asia when your intestinal system often needs recalibration – and even the fittings had little explanation tags. The toilet roll holders were made from wooden weaving shuttles; the light shades were hand-woven cane baskets; the handtowel was from cotton grown and processed and woven in a particular region. No detail was left unattended to. TAEC is clearly a very important resource for Laos.
From there we took a walk up Phou Si Mountain. Surprisingly, this rather tall hill is right in the middle of town. We walked up the back route, since we were coming from TAEC, which took us through some of the less fancy parts of the town. It’s easy just to see the UNESCO listed buildings if you stick to the main streets, but head off down the side streets on the side of the mountains and you come across much smaller buildings with peoples lives very much on display.
The views along the way are spectacular, and we made the most of the fancy camera with zoom lens. The mountain is 150 metres above the centre of town, and once you eventually get to the top there are views in every direction. It’s worth climbing up all those steps – around 350 I think!
Wat Tham Phousi is half way up the side of the hill, and has a number of gilded Buddha figures in a variety of positions, many nestled into the rocks. There is a multiplicity of praying opportunities if you are so inclined.
Once at the top we briefly explored That Chomsi before settling down to wait for the sunset. With what appeared to be another couple of hundred tourists. It definitely was beautiful, but certainly not a peaceful spiritual experience as long lenses and selfie sticks jostled for space on the narrow viewing platform around the temple!
We descended the staircase on the other side of the hill to find ourselves straight in the centre of the Evening Market. Colour, light and people everywhere!
Many of the stalls sold essentially the same items, probably out of the same factories. Hand-made is not terribly hand-made at this market! It didn’t take us long to do a circuit of half the market before deciding that it was time to return to the villa. It had been quite a long day out – we’d left at about 9.00am and now it was after dark!
There were a few stalls like the one below that had signs up explaining that they were selling items made from aluminium scavenged from UXO. I’m not sure how I feel about this. Part of me says it’s great that they are able to find a source of income from something terrible – another part questions if they really ARE items handmade from UXO (since there were a few stalls selling what looked to be identical items, although I suppose that if they are using moulds then things would be the same – and yet another part of me screams “get away from that UXO and don’t try to fiddle with it to salvage anything – it might explode”! As if often the case here, competing thoughts and ideas and lots of questions.
We had a light dinner at the unnamed restaurant on the corner near the villa that we have been frequenting whenever we want something small, local and cheap. Mango and sticky rice, yum! The middle-aged (or older?) lady running it doesn’t appear to speak any English other than the words for the items on the menu, and shows us the final price via a calculator. She is quite entertained by our clumsy attempts at speaking Lao.
Back at the villa plate of Lao sweets was waiting for us. Each evening the villa leaves us a little gift when they turn down the beds. The first night it was a scarf; the second a packet of local coffee. I wonder what tonight will bring!