When Tourists Ruin a Good Experience – Luang Prabang’s Alms Giving Farce

Laung Prabang being a Buddhist city has one particular attraction, which has everything to do with the religion, but has been destroyed by tourism: Alms giving to the monks.

This is where every dawn, monks from all the monasteries, walk along Luang Prabang’s main road, collecting alms from residents, which mostly consists of food.

This probably was at one time a very moving and spiritual experience, but with the onset of mass tourism, the initiative has lost its spirituality and morphed into the same money making tourism machine you might see in any other place.

Raquel and I, arrived quite early in the morning, and sat down across the road from where we saw people setting up for the alms giving. It was somewhat confusing seeing locals setting up various mats on the floor, with little baskets with food inside. We didn’t understand why one person was setting up so many alms, but just assumed it was for a large family.

We quickly found out, that this was not the case. These mats were for tourists. Tourists who were willing to pay, to get a photo opportunity of them giving alms to monks. When I realized this is what was going on, I was sickened not only by the tourists, who take part without actually being sincere in their donation, but also the locals, who sold out a very moving display of charity for the sake of making a quick buck.

Finally when they monks came out, we then saw something else, which annoyed and saddened us:  The complete lack of consideration of tourists taking photos of this ceremony. We read everywhere about the requests to stay on the other side of the road while taking photos; not walking up to the monks and taking photos of them and not using flash.

I would have expected the worst culprits to be the Chinese, Japanese etc. with constant desire to take a photo without consideration for the subject, but we saw a lot, too many, western tourists do exactly the same, with one particular Australian women getting right in the faces of the monks for a photo.

Liz, from This Kentucky Girl, in her post about the experience, wanted to name her post “Tourists Suck!”, which would have appropriate, but I was even more shocked at the locals disregard for religion and traditions, by their selling alms giving spots to tourists…

I have to be honest and say I was disappointed that a very beautiful and moving ceremony was ruined by tourists and locals a like, but at least we did see some honest alms giving along the way, which was a relief in between all the farce.

This post is based on our day of the 12th of October 2012.

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10 Responses to When Tourists Ruin a Good Experience – Luang Prabang’s Alms Giving Farce

  1. Leonardo Neves says:

    For the record I always make sure it’s okay to take photographs and though getting close makes better pictures you have to look around at the context and factor in respect for the subject.

    • Tonito says:

      I think in this case, there was no justification for getting so close. I don’t think a Catholic would like if someone shoved a camera in their face during communion…

  2. tokyomike55 says:

    People exploiting tradition, spiritual or otherwise, seems to be universal. And just as you wrote, is is usually exploited from within the culture itself. Here in Japan, people don’t become Shinto priests or Buddhist monks because of spirituality, they do it because it pays huge. If you do weddings, funerals or other ceremonies, people pay though the roof. And it’s only a matter of time before we see the commercialization of religion in SE Asia — and area still relatively “pure” in terms of the separation of money and spirituality. Indeed, your post shows this happening right now.

    As for the tourists, there ought to be some form of cultural sensitivity training where the locals are given cameras and asked to take photos of tourists being tourists. Just get right up in their grill while they have lunch…objectify them then post the pics on the internet because they are “quaint.” Can you imagine how annoyed your Joe Average tourist would get at this. Yes, feel free to take photos when you are a participant or in cultural displays that are meant as displays. But paying to play the role in something like this cheapens the culture and shows a lack of respect.

    Great post!

  3. Gah. Of course, I couldn’t agree more… Maybe others will catch on and with blog posts like this they will think twice about paying to participate in something like this…

  4. Pingback: Luang Prabang | Travel & Leisure Articles

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