Please Don’t Feed The Monks

by Lisa McKay on October 6, 2014

Tonight* my husband, Mike, and I took the little dog and walked down to one of our favorite restaurants in Luang Prabang from which to watch the sun set over the Mekong. While we were eating and watching the long-boats glide downriver in golden light, two tourists at the next table struck up a conversation with us.

“Is that your dog?” they asked. “Do you live here? What do you do?…”

In return they told us about their trip. They were backpacking around Asia together, and they loved Luang Prabang with it’s stately temples and unexpected, French-influenced, other-wordly charm. Just that morning the guy we were chatting to had gotten up early and gone out to feed the monks who come out in silent lines to receive alms at dawn. He’d bought rice to give away from one of the girls selling it nearby, lined up with the local women, and started dishing out food as the monks trailed past.

MONKS BREAKFAST IN EARLY MORNING IN LUANG PRABANG, LAOS

“There were so many monks!” the guy raved. “I had no idea there would be that many. I gave all my food away to the first twenty – I was piling it into their buckets, two biscuits and a handful of rice at a time – and then I went and bought some more and kept giving.”

Now doesn’t that sound charitable? Noble? At the very least, harmless?

Not so fast.

As this total stranger relayed this to me while Mike was inside paying the bill, I felt torn. On the one hand I didn’t want to be that know-it-all who jumps on an unsuspecting tourist, shoots him down, and tells him that what he’d done was culturally inappropriate.

On the other hand, what he’d done was culturally inappropriate.

Locals here (usually women seeking to earn merit for their families) get up before dawn to prepare the fresh rice they give to the monks. They line up alongside the road, kneeling, with head and feet bare as a sign of humility. As the monks walk past, the women quickly and silently place a small offering in each bowl without making direct eye contact. Giving alms is a cultural and religious ritual that carries great meaning for the locals – they practice it with commitment, care, and deep thoughtfulness.

The unique picturesque symbolism of the monks making their dawn rounds has made it one of Luang Prabang’s premier tourist attractions. Some locals have capitalized upon this by staking out places where alms-giving occurs and selling unsuspecting tourists rice that they can offer to the monks. These rice and cakes sold by the hawkers are often not fresh, and tourists who do not fully understand the meaning of the ceremony or how to perform it respectfully then offer this left-over food to the monks. This is disruptive to nearby locals and to the monks (who, from what I understand, do not want these offerings that are not prepared or given in the proper spirit of humility and thoughtfulness by their community or by genuine seekers who approach the ritual with reverence).

So, what to do with my new and garrulous buddy at the pizza place?

Initially I let it slide. He’d already gone and done it, I reasoned. He was leaving tomorrow. Why risk embarrassing him in front of his girlfriend now?

But then the conversation continued. After he told me of that morning’s activities, I mentioned that many here were wondering how long there would enough locals living in the Old Town district to sustain the ritual and feed all of the monks in the area. As more and more guesthouses are built in the Old Town, it seems inevitable that more of the local families currently living there will leave. With them will go their early-morning-rice-preparing wives and mothers. Who will feed the monks then?

“Oh, no problem,” the stranger proclaimed. “There are plenty of tourists around, they can just sell more rice to tourists and get the tourists to do it and make money out of the whole thing to boot!”

After this I couldn’t let him leave without at least trying for a course correction.

“You know,” I said, “tourists feeding the monks is a bit of a controversial practice…”

I explained why as gently as I could, and then Mike and I wished them well, collected our leftovers and our little dog, and left.

“Do you think he got it?” Mike asked as we walked home

“I don’t know,” I said. “I hope so. Do you think I was too indirect? What would you have said?”

“How about just, don’t feed the monks!” Mike said.

So for all of you readers who may come visit us in Luang Prabang at some stage I’m telling you now so I don’t have to tell you then. Unless you earnestly desire to give dawn alms in ways that are fully respectful of local traditions here, please don’t feed the monks!

When did you last have one of those awkward moments with a visiting stranger?
What did you do?

*This post first appeared on lisamckaywriting in 2012.

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About Lisa McKay

Lisa McKay is a psychologist and the award-winning author of the memoir Love At The Speed Of Email, the novel My Hands Came Away Red, and several books on long distance relationships. She lives in Laos with her husband and their two sons.
  • Elizabeth Trotter

    Not exactly the same thing, Lisa, but we used to live next to an orphanage. We would talk to the volunteers. The thing was, though, that we knew this orphanage wasn’t being run well, and we also knew the volunteers meant well. So we kept our mouths shut and were just kind and welcoming to the volunteers, because they weren’t trying to do anything bad. It’s part of why I started speaking out against the corrupt orphanage system in Cambodia on my personal blog (though there are a few “good” orphanages, I believe the system as a whole is harmful to the children and to society). It was just too hard to watch good-hearted people participate in a system that harmed the very children they were purporting to help.

  • Julia

    This is such a hard topic! We’ve tried to have conversations around picture-taking (especially in our line of work, which is counter-trafficking) and how to respect the dignity and personhood of “the other.” It’s hard when people truly believe that showing pictures of people (or victims) is somehow the only way to “raise awareness” about the issues they encounter overseas.

  • Krista B

    Ah, the direct vs. indirect issue. Where I am you can ask for something with a tilt of the nose or chin. A visitor who holds out one hand, points with the other, and loudly asks for the item… well, in my home culture that’s what we call three strikes. I think I was so shocked to discover how (relatively) indirect I had become myself that I didn’t have a good chance to guide my visitor to a more culturally appropriate approach. Next time, I guess.

  • Shari

    I am living in Cambodia, and had a visit with a recent arrival who wants to “help stop trafficking.”
    This person proposes to go into some bars and start talking to the girls and try to get them to leave. An admirable goal, but there is a lot more to it than that, I tried to explain.

    I helped some homeless people for an extended period last year around the time of the floods. One young widow, who survived the death of her husband, and being shot by her father-in-law was then homeless, absolutely destitute, recovering from a horrendous surgery. I visited her many times. She was eager to hear words of hope. She cried one day as she told me she asked someone for money, and some westerners got pictures of her doing this. She felt so vulnerable, humiliated.

    As much as we try to learn before we jump in, perhaps we are all guilty of this kind of uniformed decision making at one point or another, on some level. I know I am. We can only pray for greater wisdom and know that in some ways it is inevitable that we make these mistakes. There is never just one side to the story. At which point I beg mercy and grace.

  • Jessi

    I would absolutely love to visit Laos and see this one day. Good to know this tid bit 🙂

  • Michael Franklin

    I love what this post tells us about missions, culture, and tradition — make your project fit the culture not the other way around! Thanks for the read,
    Michael Franklin
    AHMEN Public Relations
    michaelsmissionsmusings.blogspot.com
    honduranmissions.com

  • Anna Wegner

    People here aren’t easily offended and we don’t get any tourists -ever (isolated area of Congo.) But we do have visitors that come out to help us. Some people come with open attitudes, ready to learn how things are here. Some people come with the idea that if we aren’t doing things the way they do them in the US, it is wrong. I’ve noticed that the most condescending people are usually the ones who know the least themselves. (like the pre-nursing student who criticizes the African doctors and says they don’t know anything.) It’s embarrassing to be associated as the same group sometimes.
    But at the same time, I’m sure there are times I’ve trampled all over the culturally appropriate things without even realizing.

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