Disrespectful tourists in Luang Prabang


morning alms giving luang prabang

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.

morning alms giving luang prabang

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 shorts 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?

30 Comments

  1. Greg
    July 29, 2012

    Uuugh. Some people just should not be given passports! It’s a good thing the Monks are all about non-judgement and peace, because if I were them I just might have smacked one of those obnoxious tourists out of my way!

  2. Alex
    July 29, 2012

    Unfortunately, Lao has been hit very hard by an influx of negative tourism on the Vientiene/Vang Vieng/Luang Prabang circuit. I remember passing through Vang Vieng to break up a bus journey between Luang Prabang and Vientiene in 2010. Stopped there for the night and a bunch of tourists got in my face trying to get me to go to a bucket bar to ‘experience real travel’. They worked at the bar in return for free liquor, food, and a room and didn’t seem to care that they were taking jobs from locals in one of the poorest countries in Asia. They actually told me I didn’t understand what experiencing culture was because I told them I’d rather stay in my room and read. These types of travelers are best avoided.

  3. July 29, 2012

    This post makes me so sad. I have heard from so many bloggers that Laos is a really wonderful place to visit, the people so friendly and kind… but with tourists behaving like savages, I really wonder how long it will be able to maintain its friendliness before the local people become jaded and frustrated. This alms-giving ceremony is one I would normally love to witness, but you are the third blogger in the past month who has written about what a circus it has become and I really don’t think it’s something I could tacitly endorse by attending.

    • Alex
      July 30, 2012

      The good thing about alms ceremonies is you can see them anywhere in Lao/Thailand/Cambodia . Wake up in any town and go to the market places and you’ll be able to have that cultural experience. Don’t be discouraged!

  4. Tiffany @ theUnimaginedLife
    July 29, 2012

    It seems like I’ve read so many posts about this exact same thing recently..it must be getting awful…How sad :(

  5. Alison
    July 29, 2012

    Ahh, rude, inconsiderate people like this irritate the hell out of me! I would have been mortified witnessing this kind of behaviour.

  6. Drew
    July 29, 2012

    They’re everywhere, unfortunately. It seems that some travelers apply different rules when they’re abroad, and the less developed the place, the worse it gets. In addition to lack of courtesy, the “debaucherous instinct” of some people slips unnoticed through customs.

  7. Beverley
    July 30, 2012

    Oh God, that sounds awful. It makes me so angry and sad that people can be so disrespectful to other cultures.

    When we were in Surfers Paradise a couple of years ago we took a day trip to Byron Bay on a small shuttle bus.

    On the way back to Surfers we got stuck in traffic on the motorway, apparently there’d been a massive car accident up ahead.

    When our bus finally crawled past the accident scene, I couldn’t believe how much of a wreck both cars were.

    What was even more unbelievable was the young chinese tourists snapping away with their cameras, taking pictures of the mangled car, police and fire services.

    I was thinking “something might have just DIED in there, you can’t take photos of that!!!”

  8. July 30, 2012

    Reading this made me sad. Backing off and being respectful would have been so easy – what a shame that people had to act this way!

    Hopefully reading posts like this will inspire people to be more considerate when they get the opportunity to visit other cultures.

  9. July 30, 2012

    Eurgh this sounds awful Lauren – one reason why I’m really considering leaving Laos out of my visit next year. Every post I read about the country seems to mention jack-ass tourists like the ones you’ve written about here, and it’s something I simply cannot stand.

    I don’t get what people don’t understand about respecting other cultures. Would they like it if people got up in their faces with cameras and started being pushy?

    • Jess
      July 30, 2012

      Aww, don’t leave out Laos! Don’t let inconsiderate tourists steal a wonderful experience in a breathtaking country from you(nor from the local economy)! There are countless places to visit in Laos that are quiet, laid back and off the “beaten track”! Check out southern Laos! Head to Pakse and rent a moto and do the Bolaven Plateau route; tons of serene waterfalls, beautiful scenery and friendly locals! On 4,000 Islands skip Don Det and go to Don Khon or Kong. instead! Very relaxing and super quiet. You can rent a bike a check out the island that way and still take a day trip to Don Det if you wanted.

      I avoid tourists haunts like the plague, and I will admit I refuse to go to Vang Vieng, but on my last trip to Laos I realized the country is SO SO much more than tubing and alcohol and my trip there was so incredible and memorable.

      Cheers :D

  10. Sheryll
    July 30, 2012

    UGHHH! This makes me so upset. And I guarantee the people being disrespectful assholes are the same ones who would throw a fucking fit if someone did the same thing to them. Sigh.

  11. TammyOnTheMove
    July 30, 2012

    Some people just have no shame. These monks are supposed to be in a meditating state when collecting the alms. I am glad you wrote a post about it actually, so that your readers might behave in a more mature and respectful way.

  12. July 30, 2012

    That is so sad! Clearly the world needs to be focusing on how to respect one another!

  13. Drew
    July 30, 2012

    Thought about this again. I guess part of the problem lies in why people travel, or what they hope to get from it.

    A lot of travelers, myself included when I was younger, do “the circuit”, going from place to place along a well-beaten path, using the same guidebooks as everyone else. So the same places get visited over and over (for good reason, usually…there’s a reason people go there).

    But you see it everywhere. Bus stops, people get out, they snap pictures, check the box, get back on the bus, and go back home to tell everyone that they saw X.

    My wife and I have started to go “deeper” in our travels…rather than skimming over multiple spots and moving on quickly. We now prefer to pick fewer places, stay longer, and focus on the activities that the place has to offer. I find this much more rewarding, less costly, and more relaxing.

    I wrote my “incomplete manifesto for travel” to remind myself of this.

  14. July 30, 2012

    For people who are considering skipping Laos altogether because of incidents like this, 90% of the country is mostly tourist free. It’s really just Luang Prabang and a few other places that attract these kind of disrespectful people.

    I don’t really know what can be done about it other than instituting a complete ban on cameras during this ceremony and fining offenders on the spot. I really hate to suggest something so restrictive, but unfortunately a large number of people simply aren’t mentally equipped to handle complete freedom.

  15. July 30, 2012

    Ohhhhh how terrible No respect.

    Tut, tut, tut!

  16. July 30, 2012

    travel ought to make us better, make us more aware of who we are and where we are.

    I was in luang prabang in february 2012 and I had the same awful feelings. ladies trying to sell me overpriced rice and cookies, camera-wielding visitors interrupting the tradition unfolding before them. it just made me sad.

    common etiquette doesn’t come naturally to some, I guess.

    all we can do is remember to be respectful everywhere we go.

  17. pokeken
    July 30, 2012

    Unfortunately the actions of these Chinese tourists just reflect the misplaced importance that they place on money. They really consider it their right to do whatever they feel like as they are paying tourists.

    Ultimately they view the rest of the world as the western countries did 50 years ago…shallow and indifferent.

    Maybe in 50 years they will learn to respect others and not throw money at the world with contempt.

  18. Ali
    July 30, 2012

    I heard about this happening so often before I went there that I decided not to even bother. I really don’t understand people. It’s just so awful that people would do things like this.

  19. July 31, 2012

    I’ve seen many tourist be disrespectful accidently. In particular in museums where there are a billion signs saying “no foto” but they somehow miss all of them and the security guard has to repeat what is printed on the signs.

    Some don’t care and just snap a photo of David anyway.

  20. Juliann
    July 31, 2012

    I was so afraid this was about to be an Ugly American story. (And maybe the original group of strap-topped tourists were…)

    I see this all the time. This and people shoving their way into places they’re not supposed to be; ignoring requests and rules to refrain from taking pictures or walking in certain areas.

    Seems everyone in the world is “special” – the rules don’t apply to them.

  21. Drew
    July 31, 2012

    There is a solution. A couple, actually. Assuming that people won’t change their behaviour, you could:

    1) Encourage the monks to take advantage commercially (i.e. find a way to charge admission) Admittedly not very “monk-like”.

    2) Set up boundaries and rules, and fine violators. You would need police cooperation for this.

    I wonder what the monks think of all this, anyway? Has anyone asked them?

  22. PJ
    July 31, 2012

    Unfortunately tourism can be a blessing and a curse at the same time and, personally, I skipped Vang Vieng because of the impact of the party travelers and enjoyed the peaceful tourist-free journey through Xaignabouli and Pak Lai instead to reach Vientiane from Luang Prabang.

    In terms of bad behaviour by tourists, taking pictures of people close-up without asking permission is my pet hate..especially in countries where some people believe that taking a picture of them takes away their soul.

    Apart from that, I see the usual, patting Buddhist children’s heads..saw a girl say something very abusive towards a Thai seller after a bargaining fiasco..clearly she wasn’t too aware of Muay Thai..etc.

  23. Torre – Fearful Adventurer
    August 3, 2012

    Disgusting. I’m finding it harder and harder to travel without feeling jaded by how f*$#ed up humans are. Tourists are an especially ugly species.

  24. August 3, 2012

    Ugh. We live in Luang Prabang and I’ve never seen it this bad, but I don’t doubt it can be some mornings along the main tourist drags. Sad! I wrote about this too, last year in a post called “Please don’t feed the monks” http://www.lisamckaywriting.com/please-dont-feed-the-monks/

  25. Chris
    August 5, 2012

    wow that sucks! I saw the procession once (although admittedly by complete accident as I was on a walk of shame!haha!) and where I was it was very peaceful actually and I sat an watched on my own :)

  26. Tell me about it! Living in the Middle East for a year and in Morocco for 4 months allowed me to see *atrocities* by tourists. Many complain about how they are treated…but oh, if you would only see their behavior! It is sad that so many tourists don’t take the time to read a thing or two about the country they’ll be visiting. It’s horrendous, really.

    -Maria Alexandra

  27. Micamyx|Senyorita
    August 11, 2012

    So sad to hear this story. I don’t really know why, but it seems like there’s a trend on posts related to how tourists disrespects and don’t act well while in Luang Prabang. I’ve heard this part of Laos is a nice place and it is a pity that the visitors are doing such thing :|

  28. CapnBob
    June 6, 2013

    Thanks for writing Lauren. As a frequent visitor to Luang Prabang since the late 90s it has been disturbing to watch the whole “alms” thing turn into such a tourist circus. Unfortunately I can’t see the situation being corrected anytime soon, as long as the incentive is there for local shops to sell ridiculously overpriced “donations” for tourists to hand off. Visitors should stop, think and show more respect (sigh).