“So, how does it feel to be giving alms for the first time?”
I asked Her*, a Laotian born and bred in Luang Prabang, Laos.
I was surprised when he told me he hasn’t done it before because alms giving – or tak bat as it is called here – is a Buddhist tradition. Her belongs to the Hmong ethnicity in Laos and the Hmong people believe in animism (belief in the spirit world).
I offered him my basket; Her scooped the rice while I placed the crackers into the bowls of the monks and novices walking past us barefooted.
*Her was my tour guide and as confusing as it sounds, Her is a 22 year-old man studying English in university. Together with Hue, they acted as translators and tour guides from Backstreet Academy.
Backstreet Academy: Make Impact Travel Mainstream
Backstreet Academy isn’t your typical tour agency that brings you to major tourist attractions and that’s it. Instead, they connect with locals who may have a story or craft to share, and bring that experience to travellers. In this way, we get direct contact with locals that may not have a chance for exposure due to lack of resources, language barriers or logistical issues. And in doing so, we impact their lives positively as much as they impact us directly.
My guides also told me that Backstreet Academy only hire locals as guides, coordinators and translators, thus bringing opportunities to the communities. I like impact travel and authentic experiences, thus I signed up for the tour to experience alms giving and meditation with a monk, or in their words: “A Monk’s Life in Luang Prabang”.
Tak Bat: Alms Giving in Luang Prabang
They were punctual in picking me up; in fact, I was still putting on my shoes when they arrived. Her and I walked to the less touristy part of Sisavangvong road while Hue rode there on his bike to set things up.
Her is keen to practice his English as he asked me questions about my country, my job and shared freely when I asked about Laos culture. Interactions with locals is my favourite way to get to know a country.
For example, did you know that English is a compulsory language at schools in Laos? However, the students don’t get much practice as the lessons are only 2 hours per week. Her is hoping to be an English teacher to help more youths with the language.
Different coloured little stools lined the Sisavangvong pavements, half of them occupied by locals. It seemed like we were early.
A basket was placed in front of the stools containing packets of crackers and a wooden container filled with sticky rice – a staple in Lao diet. Beside the basket are a scarf with intricate Laotian design and a plastic spoon.
Her told me putting on the scarf is part of the alms giving tradition. Women must cover their shoulders and knees while regulations are less strict for men. Likewise, when giving alms, women sit down while men stand up.
It wasn’t long until the monks walked before us in a single file. I stood up, scooped a little sticky rice for the first monk, and panicked. You see, unlike normal rice, sticky rice is… sticky. It takes more effort to scoop it and I couldn’t keep up with the pace of the monks and novices. It felt strangely stressful.
I guess the locals knew this because they used their fingers. But I still appreciate Backstreet Academy’s effort to include a plastic scoop for me.
The first group went by as fast as they came. The monks come from different temples and the ceremony happens throughout the city. After one street, they move on to the next street, while the second group take their place.
This time, I was prepared. I stabbed the rice repeatedly to loosen it and sure enough, it was easier to scoop. One by one, I scooped the rice into the bowls carefully (we’re not supposed to touch them), and was satisfied that I kept up with the pace.
Tak bat has received some sort of backlash for getting too touristy and some locals have stopped the tradition because they refused to be treated like exhibits in a human zoo. I witnessed this the day before when a whole group of Asian tourists made so much noise and taking selfies while participating in the ceremony. Even their tour guide was speaking loudly.
I asked Her how he felt about this change, and he thought it was for the better that more people can do good through this tradition. Kindness knows no boundaries.
Remembering that he hasn’t done it before, I passed him my basket and said “Let’s do it together. You scoop the rice and I’ll give the crackers”. Doing good doesn’t have to be restricted because of religion.
The ceremony ended after 4 or 5 groups of monks collected their alms.
Tips for Tak Bat
Morning Market and Meditation with a Monk
We continued our tour and walked to the morning market. It was around 6:30 am and the market was bursting with activity. Vendors display their produce on the streets for both locals and tourists alike.
There were all sorts of oddities that one would easily miss out without a guide. Hue and Her pointed out to me the blue pumpkins, massive silkworms, huge lizards, mudskippers and local fruits. Hue even bought a handful of fried bee cocoon for me to try.
It tasted… weird, but I wonder how much of it was psychological?
We stopped at a local restaurant near the market for breakfast - which is included. Khao Soi from Laos is different from the ones in Thailand and Myanmar. It has a dark red meat paste and the soup is spicy. In fact, Khao Soi is a Laotian word for ‘pork and fermented soy bean’, whereas it means ‘cut rice’ in Thai and ‘noodles’ in Burmese.
The morning and night market areas of Luang Prabang are filled with tourists and the menus and signs are in English. Yet Hue told me food prices are kept the same for tourists and locals. Interesting.
After filling our bellies, we walked around the city and visited several temples, including the ornately decorated but simple-styled Wat Pa Phai, also known as the Bamboo Forest. Her was thoughtful enough to print out a page of an English guidebook introducing the temple.
I couldn’t remember the name of the temple that we went to for a meditation session. The monks were still having breakfast when we arrived but we did not wait long. Monk Khamsing, a veteran monk, received us with English that surprised me!
Inside the temple, before anything, we bowed and prayed 3 times to the Buddha image to offer our respects. I sat face to face with Monk Khamsing, and had the opportunity to ask anything about Buddhism, meditation or life in the temple.
Even though I am not a Buddhist, my grandparents and relatives were Buddhists and I visit temples every year. Furthermore, I grew up listening to Chinese mythologies which always have a Buddhist element in them. Many people do not know this, but I (try to) meditate everyday too. All these felt familiar to me.
I did not ask questions, but rather had a conversation with Monk Khamsing. Monks are highly revered in Laos (they have priority on airplanes) and I could see both Hue and Her listening attentively. It was an honour to listen to a monk speak about life, suffering, materialism, presence and religion.
Monk Khamsing joined the temple when he was 7, and in Buddhism, was considered a novice until the age of 20. He owns nothing except the robe he wore and the bowl for alms giving. During the procession, monks walk in front and novices follow behind. You could always see the little ones trailing at the back, which is an amusing sight for me.
Monk Khamsing led a guided meditation for the three of us. By the end of it, I felt refreshed and as if my mind has been cleared. He also encouraged us to do it throughout our days. Meditation doesn’t mean one has to sit cross-legged with eyes closed. It basically means being present and aware of what we do. It was a timely reminder as my day job has taken up most of my waking hours, and I hardly have time to stop and breathe.
As I type this, I stopped to appreciate the chirping birds and the orange glow of the sunset right from my bedroom window.
We ended the session by paying respects to Buddha and Monk Khamsing warmly welcomed me to join the daily evening meditation sessions with the monks and novices of the temple. Sadly, it was my final day in Laos.
I was pleasantly surprised when a bright yellow and green electric tuktuk was waiting outside the temple for us, efficiently organized by my tour guides. The tuktuk usually drops tourists off at the National Palace/Museum, but I chose to return to my guesthouse, not before receiving a surprise gift from my guides.
watch a 1min highlight of the experience here
Backstreet Academy has gone above and beyond to organize this tour and surprised me again and again throughout the morning. Getting to know locals and having an authentic cultural experience has been the highlight of my trip to Laos.
I definitely recommend checking out Backstreet Academy and their numerous tours in Luang Prabang (and Asia). To learn more about this alms-giving and meditation tour, click here.
And now, it's your turn.