Heisenberg? Alms giving ceremony? No, I haven’t lost the plot. And for fans of the amazing Breaking Bad series, I don’t mean that Heisenberg…
I’m referring to Werner Heisenberg (the one Walter White chose his alias after, in fact), the German quantum physicist who enunciated the uncertainty principle. One consequence of this principle at the subatomic scale is that we can induce changes in a phenomenon by simply measuring it.
And this is where we leave armchair physics and get to the alms giving ceremony, a Buddhist ritual dating back to the 14th century, and which famously takes place every morning in Luang Prabang. The problem, as I see it, is that it has become a tourist attraction. And with our presence and behavior, we tourists (or travelers, if you fancy yourself as such) are altering the very “phenomenon” we are trying to observe.
What is the alms giving ceremony?
Every day at sunrise, hundreds of monks set out in procession on the streets of Luang Prabang to collect food from local people who patiently wait for them by the roadside. This is a way for both locals and monks to make merit through good deeds, an important concept in Buddhism. It also provides monks with supplies (mainly handfuls of sticky rice, fruits and snacks) for their daily meals, and for helping the poor.
The reasons why it has become a tourist attraction are quite clear. It’s a spiritual, deeply meaningful ceremony, and the sight of dozens of monks walking in a straight line in their saffron robes is a beautiful one. Not only that, but tourists are explicitly encouraged to participate in the ritual, according to official tourism websites.
Why I hesitated to go
Despite all that, when I spent a few days in Luang Pabang I was reluctant to attend the alms giving ceremony and kept weighing the pros and cons in my head. I’d read some articles about it, and my conclusion was that the assimilation of this ritual into the circuit of tourist attractions was eroding its very nature and significance. What was supposed to be a serene, devotional experience was turning into something else altogether.
The presence of a somewhat large number of tourists seemed like a factor that could significantly change the event itself. And of course, whenever a crowd gathers, there’s bound to be a small number of people who are ignorant, thoughtless or selfish enough to behave in completely inappropriate ways or ruin the experience for others.
Because I’d read about all that, I didn’t want to witness it or, worse, become an unwitting accomplice of the ruining of a centuries-old tradition. After much thought, I decided to ask the very friendly owner of my guesthouse on the eve of my last day in Luang Prabang. He basically confirmed that, yes, the ceremony was not what it used to be, but also advised me to go, provided I was respectful.
There are several places where you can read about how to behave correctly at this ceremony, so I won’t repeat that advice here. In addition to sticking to those rules, I decided above all to be as unobtrusive and discreet as I could, and to watch from a reasonably long distance so as not to disrupt the event in any conceivable way.
What I saw at the Alms Giving ceremony
Determined to stick to that resolution, the following day I picked up my camera and 55-200 mm lens, which would allow me to stay well away from the action, and headed out of my guesthouse shortly before 6 am.
I reached Sakkaline Road, the main street in Luang Prabang’s old town, where many of the temples are located, and, sure enough, a lot of people were already in the area. There were minivans parked and pulling over, tourists trying to find a good spot somewhat hectically, and local women trying to sell them food for the ritual.
Amid all that, the bunch of local people kneeling or sitting on the sides of the road, waiting to participate in the ritual, looked scarce and slightly overwhelmed. They were predominantly aged women, but there were also some men, and a few people who definitely looked like tourists who had decided to participate in the ceremony.
There were also quite a few kids trotting around with boxes. The owner of my guesthouse told me later that the monks usually gave the kids all the food put in their alms bowls by tourists. I’m not sure if it’s because some of it might be inappropriate, or because they don’t think the ceremony means anything to tourists and refuse to keep their food. I remember seeing the monks give food to the children as the ceremony went on, but I’m not sure that they were specifically giving to them what they had got from tourists only. I may have misunderstood some of that.
A few minutes later, I saw a line of about 30 monks walk towards the corner I was standing on, and craziness started (or rather, picked up). Many people kept silent or spoke in a low voice tone, and didn’t behave in way that could be taken as blatantly disrespectful.
However, far too many people started taking photos of the monks at close quarters, almost physically interfering with their march, and far closer than common sense would dictate. The flashes on some cameras and phones were firing off, which I found extremely rude.
I know many people are not aware of the fact that the flash on their camera can be disabled, or think they won’t get any good photos if they do so (which may well be the case in some situations, with some cameras and without proper adjusting of the shooting parameters). But still, it was quite sad to watch the stoic look on the monks’ faces, and on that of the people for whom the ritual actually meant something, while all this was happening around them . I suppose they must be used to it by now, in a way, but it’s hard not to feel for them.
As you can tell form my selection of images, vertical compositions were the way to go, in order to unclutter the images from the vehicles parked on the sides and other obstacles. Verticals also worked well with the typically compressed perspective of the telephoto lens and the long lines of monks, I thought.
Meanwhile, I was observing from a distance, taking a few shots here and there. Since my telephoto zoom lens is not very fast (f/3.5-4.8 maximum aperture), I had to crank the ISO quite considerably. Although my camera delivers rather clean images even beyond ISO 3200, I was stuck in old habits and decided to underexpose my images. I was trying to achieve adequate shutter speeds without resorting to very high ISO values, but I overdid it a little and some of the earlier images look noisier than they should after I raised the exposure in post-processing.
Once the monks turned a corner towards one of the smaller side streets, I walked briskly along a parallel street (so that they wouldn’t see a crazy guy with a big camera and lens running past them) in order to find a new spot ahead of the procession.
At that stage (if I’m honest, pretty much from the beginning) my heart wasn’t in it. Despite all my precautions and misgivings, I felt I was no different to the rest of the people there. Maybe they were taking their photos so close because they didn’t know better, or couldn’t afford a telephoto lens, and I was lucky I did and could.
All in all, I still felt I was contributing to turning an age-old religious ceremony into a shallow tourist attraction. And I didn’t like the feeling.
So, do I think the alms giving ceremony is worth watching? I’m not sure. But if you’re in Luang Prabang and decide to go, please do your best to be respectful and unobtrusive, and don’t forget it is a religious ritual, not some kind of show for tourist consumption.
Have you attended the alms giving ceremony yourself? What were your impressions?