Alms – Giving Ceremony: all things to know
While Luang Prabang is one of top attractions in Laos, the Alms – giving Ceremony is considered as one of top things to see in this ancient town. Please go with Laos Travel to discover this traditional ritual.
What is the Alms – giving ceremony?
It is a longstanding tradition in Laos Buddhist culture that people will giving alms or donations. It dates all the way back to the 14th century, around the time when Theravada Buddhism was chosen as the official religion by Laotian Kings. It is still daily practiced by thousands of Buddhist monks across Laos today.
This act is known as “Sai Bat” or “Tak Bat”. Every morning at dawn, Buddhist monks and novices in orange robe set out from their monasteries to receive offerings of food from the local people. The offerings consist mainly of sticky rice which devotees wake up before dawn to cook. But sometimes offering food may contain fruit or other sweet treats, forming the monks’ daily meal. With more than 30 active Buddhist monasteries in Luang Prabang, the long column of monks walking silently and barefoot to receive their alms from people kneeling before them is certainly a sight to behold.
The alms giving ceremony occurs not only in Luang Prabang, but in villages and towns throughout Laos and other countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand, to name a few. Sai Bat occurs on the streets and also in temples during special Buddhist festivals.
When and where is the ceremony taken place?
There is no fixed time for alms giving in Luang Prabang. The ceremony usually takes place at dawn. In summer, this will usually be around 5.30am. In winter, it tends to be later as the sun rises around 6.30am.
The ceremony takes place throughout the town of Luang Prabang. The popular routes for visitors to observe is by Wat Sene Wat along Sakkaline Road or Wat Mai temple on Sisavangvong Road. Monks and novices will begin their progress from their wats along the main streets and be joined by others from surrounding wats. So, you can witness the ceremony in any side streets in town.
Meaning of the ceremony.
The almsgiving has a reciprocal relationship between people who give and receive alms. The monks are sustained by the offerings of food and in turn provide spiritual merit for the almsgivers. Lay people believe that they will gain merit by giving food to sustain the monks, thereby generating “good” in their future lives.
How to behave right at the ceremony?
Sai Bat is a highly important religious ceremony for Laos people. Despite this, local people still welcome tourists to get involved but the ceremony should be treated respectfully. Recently, the ceremony is becoming a chaotic due to bad behaviors of some tourists. Being responsible travelers, you should learn about the ritual beforehand. It is important to understand the etiquette and be respectful as to not disrupt the process. Whether you decide to join or just witness the ceremony, please remember in mind the strict rules you should follow:
- If you make offerings:
- Prepare your offerings in advance. You may ask your hotel to cook it for you or buy it at local markets. It is not good idea to buy food on the streets as it is extremely disrespectful to haggle or negotiate the price.
- Arrive before sunrise to find a spot to position yourself before the ceremony. It is considered very offensive to disrupt the monks and the ritual once it begins. It is also a good chance to watch the locals seting up and preparing the food for the monks.
- Remove shoes and socks, tuck your feet underneath you and keep silent. Female participants must keep their head lower than the monks when giving alms, do not talk, touch or get eye contact with the monks at any time during the ceremony.
- Never hand any gift directly to a monk. You must place it in his bowl.
- If you do not make an offering:
- Maintain an appropriate distance from the ceremony. Make sure that you won’t get in the way of those participating in almsgiving.
- Observe the ceremony in silence. If you need to talk to someone, do it quietly.
- If you are taking photos, take a huge step back from the line to avoid causing offence. Do not stand in front of monks and break their lines. It is considered as very rude manner. The recommended way to take photo and watch the ceremony is to stand on the other side of the road. Remember that your flash must be turned off.
- Always keep your head lower than the monks, even if you are observing. It is disrespectful to watch through the window of a tour bus or the balcony of a hotel.
- Avoid following the procession and moving a lot. It’s best to try and find a comfortable place to experience the ritual and then stay in the same place until it ends
- Keep your phone on silent.
In any cases, dress respectfully by covering your arms and legs. Singlet tops and shorts are recommended. Lastly, the procession is quite lengthy and silent, therefore please consider if you travel with small kids who are naughty and cannot sit quietly for more than a few minutes.