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.
“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.