At the break of dawn every morning, a truly captivating phenomenon takes place all across the streets of Luang Prabang. Clad in saffron-tinged robes and with collection bowls strapped around the shoulder, hundreds of monks line up to collect morning alms from local Buddhists. This enlightening ceremony, known as Tak Bat (or Sai Bat), is conducted in total silence as a form of meditation.
Though morning alms takes place in everywhere Theravada Buddhism is prevalent (notably Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar), none is quite as enchanting as in Luang Prabang. Thus, Tak Bat should undoubtedly be at the top of anyone’s list of things to experience when visiting this cultural UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Tak Bak Ceremony – Monks
Monks typically start their day at 4 AM with a chanting session before setting out for their daily Tak Bat rounds. And because sunrise in Luang Prabang varies from 5:30 to 6:45 AM depending on time of year, morning alms can take place well before the sun first breaks the horizon during the winter months.
Home to over thirty temples, each of Luang Prabang’s holy sites has a different route depending on its location. One by one, monks walk through the streets barefoot as each almsgiver places a handful of Lao sticky rice (and sometimes other treats) into a passing bowl. Aside from the occasional prayer or blessing, both parties remain quiet throughout the ordeal.
Upon returning from morning alms, the collected rice is shared with any monks who stayed behind for breakfast. The remaining portion is then set aside for lunch, their only other meal of the day.
As mentioned in our article about Lao sticky rice, khao niew is rich in calories and carbohydrates while its longer digestion process curtails hunger. These nutritional qualities are ideal for a monk’s diet since lunch is their last meal of the day. This 18-hour gap until the next day’s breakfast means that monks are essentially food-fasting each and every day of the year (though they do drink sweetened beverages to sustain energy levels throughout the day).
The Tak Bak Ceremony – Almsgivers
Just as significant to Tak Bat as the monks are the local almsgivers. It should be noted that offering daily sustenance is not the same as charity, as a westerner would view it – but rather religious dedication. And to the faithful, giving alms is a form of cleansing the soul through spiritual redemption.
Almsgivers also rise early, as they must cook the sticky rice which has been soaked in water overnight, then secure their spot on the street prior to the ritual. A mat is set out, footwear removed and, while the monks file past, rice is offered in the kneeling position.
Almsgiving Etiquette for Outsiders
Though Tak Bat is an integral part of life in Luang Prabang, unfortunately it has also become such a popular and commercialized tourist attraction that, in recent years, prominent figures have pondered whether to continue this age-old tradition. Please keep in mind that, as outsiders, it is an honour to be able to witness this holy ritual.
In order to preserve Tak Bat, visitors should adhere to the following guidelines:
- Maintain a distance: Allow the monks and almsgivers a wide berth of several metres while not obstructing the route.
- Photography: Taking pictures and videos is acceptable so long as it is from a respectable distance. Turn off camera flash (particularly if it is still dark outside) and do not pose with anyone involved with the procession.
- Volume level: Because Tak Bat is a silent process for both the monks and almsgivers, keep your voice to a minimum.
- Appropriate attire: Much like visiting a temple, make sure your shoulders and knees are covered. If giving alms, also take off your shoes.
- Do not buy rice from opportunistic sellers: Though we highly recommend just being an observer to the ceremony, some travelers insist on giving alms. If participating, we emphasize the importance of not purchasing sticky rice from nearby hawkers trying to make a quick buck from tourists – it is often several days old rice and likely to give the monks food poisoning. Instead, ask your hotel to either prepare some freshly made sticky rice or where you can obtain some.
Experience Tak Bat During a Heritage Line Cruise
While moored in Luang Prabang, guests on Heritage Line’s 7-night and 9-night upper Mekong River cruises (between Huay Xai and Vientiane) may wake up early to witness this fascinating ceremony with our guide.
Those on our shorter 3-night journey (between Luang Prabang and Huay Xai) can also witness Tak Bat before or after your cruise. Note that Sakkaline Road will have the highest concentration of monks along with a crowd of tourists – if a quieter location is desired, your hotel should be able to make a recommendation.