Luang Prabang is well known for the daily ritual of the tak bat, the morning alms giving ceremony. Everyday, before sunrise, hundreds of saffron-clad monks silently walk in single-file through the streets of the town, collecting food offerings from the locals.
It is supposedly one of the highlights – a must-see for any visitor to Luang Prabang, so once I’d recovered from my awful experience on my first night, I forced myself to wake up at 5am so I could witness the event for myself.
Groaning and cursing myself as I dragged myself out of bed, my exhaustion wasn’t helped by the local women who immediately crowded around me as soon as I left my guesthouse – trying to force me to buy extremely overpriced food so that I could take part in the ceremony… They followed me half-way up the street before giving up and running after their next target.
Breathing a sigh of relief, I took up position on the opposite side of the road and sat down, excitedly watching the glimpse of orange on the horizon getting closer and closer.
Suddenly, around 20 people from a nearby guesthouse spilled out onto the street and rushed excitedly towards the approaching line of monks, laughing and joking loudly. A few metres up the road, the same thing happened.
Within a minute, the street had gone from being almost deserted to packed with tourists.
I watched as one guy pushed his girlfriend through the procession and positioned her next to the alms givers, where he told her to pose and pretend to give food to the monks while he took photos. As she pulled more and more ridiculous poses (while wearing hotpants and a strap top…), he moved to interrupt the procession and stood in front of the monks for a few seconds – causing them to stop, before turning the camera on them – forcing it in their faces and snapping away.
Further up the road, I saw another guy jump in front of the procession – tripping up a monk in the process.
This is awful. What am I doing here?
I had seen enough. I’d attempted to take some photos from the other side of the road, but there were too many people, and I couldn’t help but cringe every time my shutter broke the silence.
I had seen enough; I was leaving.
As I turned around, I was stopped in my tracks by the screech of tyres as two white minivans careered around a nearby corner in a cloud of dust. Before the vans had even finished moving, the doors had swung open and out rushed a crowd of over 50 Chinese tourists who instantly charged towards the monks.
Once more, I witnessed them crowding around the monks, forcing their cameras in their faces (with the flash on!) and chattering loudly.
This was so uncomfortable.
I felt terrible for even being there.
And so, I left.
The whole experience was incredibly disrespectful and I felt so embarrassed to be there. What should be a significant and spiritual experience for the monks has now become an unpleasant tourist circus. And really, there’s no excuse for their behaviour – there are signs all over Luang Prabang, literally everywhere, telling tourists how to be respectful, what to wear, that they should stay on the other side of the road, to only take photos from a distance. Signs that are mostly ignored.
Have you ever experienced badly behaved tourists while travelling?