Alms Giving

Alms Giving

After spending three months in predominantly Buddhist countries I have observed first hand the beautiful paradox in Buddhism that the more we give – and the more we give without seeking something tangible in return – the wealthier (in the broadest sense of the word) we will become. By giving we destroy those covetous impulses that ultimately lead to further suffering. This is why monks do not have any worldly possessions; some sects of Buddhism only allow monks four items other than their robes; a razor, needle, water strainer and alms bowl.  Monks are required to go on an alms-round every morning to collect food for their two meals per day, though monks are not permitted to ask for anything.  Offering of alms are both a cause for merit and to aid the monks, whom are an important part of Asian culture.

Monks collecting alms on Sisavangvong Road in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is known for the morning monks alms round (in Lao: Tak Bat), which is a time honored Buddhist tradition that has become a tourist attraction of sorts.  The hundreds of orange robed monks that fill the streets before dawn on any given morning in Luang Prabang provide tourists the chance to have a front row seat to one of the most important spiritual exchanges in Buddhism.  Without the alms-giving the monks would go hungry and worshippers would be limited in their opportunities to gain merit.  However, tourists are not just satisfied watching, so guides and street vendors selling items for alms now make it possible to participate.

I felt intrusive enough photographing the monks, but I did not participate in giving alms as I am not Buddhist and the exchange, while beautiful would not be meaningful to me in the same way as it would be to a worshiper gaining merit.  As I mentioned earlier and as you can see from the photos I am not absolved of interfering with the alms-giving, but there is a considerate way to observe this tradition and I would like to think that I exercised respect.  Before getting up at five o’clock in the morning I did my research by carefully reading the above “rules” listed at the temples around town.  I observed in silence and did not give alms as I am not Buddhist, I covered up wearing long sleeves and pants, knelt down so as not to be above the monks and I photographed sans flash from a distance (that’s why I own a telephoto lens).

Tips on how to respect the Alms Giving ritual

I am not suggesting that anyone participating in alms-giving is being disrespectful, but it brings up an issue that has been at the back of my mind since we embarked on our journey back in December.  How do you get a sense of a culture without putting yourself in the middle of it?  The world over and particularly in South East Asia where culture and religion are all but synonymous how do you participate or even observe respectfully?  I have no doubt that the tourists giving alms in Luang Prabang were well intentioned and if you asked them they would tell you that it was a meaningful experience.  I still wonder if it is appropriate?

A tourist giving morning alms while a guide snapped photos for her


Do your research and decide for yourself if you want to participate in the Alms Giving ritual, make sure you are dressed appropriately and if you decide to participate in the alms giving that you aren’t just doing it for a photo opportunity.

Get up early, you will need time to find a spot that you can comfortably observe from a distance and set up a tripod if you have one as it is dark early in the morning and you will want to avoid using a flash.

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» Kate C :
Apr 8, 2011

I so very much agree. I too had a big problem with this while in Luang Prabang. I got up early, found a place out of the way, made sure I was always lower than the monks, and also did not give alms. I knew I’d have to be satisfied with a high ISO shot due to the low light and that the pictures might not be as crisp as I’d like, but I refused to use flash. Yet I was so mad to see so many tourists buying rice on the spot, standing above and often in front of the monks, snapping pictures and flashing in their faces. I felt they did the rest of us a disservice, not to mention being just plain rude to the country. I mean, this is a country that posts rules for tourist behavior in public, yet so many walk around like the rules don’t apply to them! I’m glad to hear that you took the ritual more seriously than the average tourist, but I really wouldn’t have expected anything else from you guys!

LOCAVORista Reply:

Kate, thanks for your thoughts and agreement it’s always hard to sort these things out on the road. I have lots of blurry and dark pictures of the monks, but for the monks that collect their alms a little bit later in the morning there was enough light to get a few good shots. To me it was the right decision because like you said they post the rules!

» dad :
Apr 8, 2011

trying to understand and respect the cultures you are visiting is a challenge……i understand that most, if not all of the tourists intentions are good, but then as your grandmother often reminded me the road to he** can be paved with good intentions…….the buddhist monks are an amazing sect and how can you disagree/fight karma… pleased to see your spiritual as well as mental and phyisical growth……peace… safe… dad

LOCAVORista Reply:

Dad, I definitely wasn’t going to take on karma so we were happy to keep our distance. However, I do agree with you I am sure that the tourists had great intentions even if they did hurt their karma.

» Mom A :
Apr 11, 2011

I thought about the same issue when I had cotton thread/string tied around my wrist at a temple. While it was more of a blessing instead of making merit, and they were willing to “bless” all, still I wondered. Since I have a broad view of “god” or who/what constitutes a higher power, I went ahead. I also had a little twinge about the fact that Bruce could have a different “bracelet” tied on, and a somewhat different blessing, from a monk. But because monks can’t touch women, I could not. That thought quickly left me since they are entitled to their culture and their ways, and they still let me into their temple! I decided that since they were being inclusive and I was being respectful and “universalist,” using the term loosely, I went ahead. Of course no pictures were taken, besides, I had one had tied! We also thoroughly enjoyed conversations with a guide who had been a monk. Religion and beliefs were a far easier conversation there than here!

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About the Author

LOCAVORista: A curious adventurer exploring the culinary delights and local traditions around the world. Currently on a 3 year round-the-world trip discovering amazing cultures, must-eats and off-the-beaten-track destinations.

About the Author
LOCAVORista: A curious adventurer exploring the culinary delights and local traditions around the world. Currently on a 3 year round-the-world trip discovering amazing cultures, must-eats and off-the-beaten-track destinations.


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