My first stop in Laos and I was in awe of the little town of Luang Prabang. Busier than I was expecting, the town buzzed with activity as soon as the sun crept over the verdant mountains to begin the day.
For the longest time, I’ve been in awe in South-East Asian culture, particularly Buddhism and monks and the reverence associated with it. I’ve studied martial arts for more than half my life, so this is partly where my interest stems from.
The devoutness and respect that is instilled in the Buddhist monks from such a young age has always fascinated me, so when the time came to book my trip to Luang Prabang, I knew this was the perfect opportunity to witness Laos monks go about their daily business.
Or so I thought.
What is Sai Bat?
Initially I was so excited to witness the local tradition of Sai Bat, also know as Tak Bat, or more commonly, “alms giving”. It is a long-standing tradition in Laos Buddhist culure, over 700 years old.
It is a representation of the symbiotic relationship between the local people and the monks of the temples. Every morning before sunrise, the locals of Luang Prabang (lay people) wake up and prepare a fresh batch of sticky rice to offer to the monks at sunrise.
The monks only eat one meal a day: the sticky rice prepared by the lay people. As dawn approaches the monks file out of their temple in complete silence. They walk in meditation along the streets of Luang Prabang, with a metal pot by their side to collect their alms.
The lay people kneel as the monks approach, and with a bowed head, offer a scoop of sticky rice into their pot.
Sai Bat Today
The people of a Luang Prabang are a welcoming folk and we received lots of toothy grins as we strolled around the town. I’ve heard the locals welcome tourists to observe Sai Bat, and are proud of their traditions. The only thing they ask is that visitors to their town be respectful.
It’s quite a simple request, and in my opinion, it’s purely common sense when visiting a country foreign to your native home. However, the concept of respect and dignity seems to go out the window with some people when the opportunity for an Instagram snap arises.
Guidelines to Participate in Sai Bat Respectively
“Participate” may be the wrong choice of word here. You really shouldn’t participate unless you are of Buddhist faith. In my opinion taking part in Sai Bat while not a practicing Buddhist is the equivalent to a non-Catholic receiving Communion.
- If you choose to observe the ritual, you must stand far away at a respectful distance.
- You must never get in the monks’ way, meaning crossing their paths or stepping in front of them.
- You should never touch a monk on his head, it’s a huge sign of disrespect.
- You must never stand higher than a monk during Sai Bat. Sit when they approach.
- NEVER stick a camera in a monk’s face. This isn’t some special rule for monks, this is common decency. No one likes to have their picture taken by strangers, especially in a state of meditation.
- Never use your camera’s flash – it’s distracting and downright rude.
- Observe in COMPLETE silence. This ritual is done under absolute quiet as the monks meditate.
- Finally, dress APPROPRIATELY! Cover shoulders, knees and chests and remove hats.
Tak Bat and Tourists
I will always remember, my visit to Luang Prabang as the place I officially lost faith in tourism and what it is becoming. Already skeptical about Sai Bat after reading reviews online, I battled with myself whether I should join in on the circus or not. My curiosity got the better of me and I convinced myself it would not be as bad as some of the reviews described.
How wrong I was.
There is a huge presence of Korean tourists in Luang Prabang, who eagerly take part in Sai Bat every morning. They arrive in their droves every morning in tour buses and mini vans. Their actions were sickening, but the Asian tourists were not the only culprits here. Westerners were just as eager to snap up-close and personal pics of the young monks.
I can’t even begin to describe the horror show that awaited me when I left my hotel at 5.30am that morning. The blatant disrespect and total disregard for religion and customs was appalling.
People, with two or more cameras, were actually chasing the monks down the street trying to get their pictures. I even saw one man position himself the path of the oncoming procession to get a photo face-on. The monks had to stall the line while the man snapped away, got his shot, then only when he saw fit, moved out of the way.
Women chattered loudly and posed for the camera, as they placed rice into the monks’ bowls, while their husband stood inches from them snapping away. It was so noisy you could easily mistake the morning’s scene for a daily market.
Western tourists were just as bad, setting up their tripods and camera equipment in their shorts and tank-tops. Only a handful of tourists stood back and tried to respect Sai Bat. We sat under the shade of a tree on the opposite side of the road, but all in vain. There were so many tourists standing directly in front of the monks we could not observe in peace.
My blood boiled the whole time we were there and ended up abandoning our post ten minutes into the circus. When I turned back to see if the circus had ceased, a Korean tourist popped up beside us snapping our picture ten inches from our faces.
We objected but she did not care, merely continuing to snap from different angles. We had to quite dramatically shield our faces with our arms to get her to leave, like some short of Z-List celebrity. I experienced only one minute of this torment, and my heart bled for the young monks who must go through this disgraceful charade every single morning.
Locals and Sai Bat
You’re probably wondering why there are not more sanctions on this tradition to keep in sacred, and so was I. I believe this is essential for its survival, as Sai Bat will not continue much longer if this circus show carries on.
I have heard that many locals do not participate in Sai Bat anymore, in protest to the joke it has become. In fact, while I strolled through the streets of Lang Prabang at sunrise, I could count on only one hand the amount of actual locals offering alms. The rest seemed to be tourists.
Local women, desperate to make a quick buck, are also not helping the matter. They stand in the middle of the streets offering all tourists the chance to participate. We were not out of our hotel door ten seconds when we were approached with the question “sticky rice for monks?”. We politely declined and she moved on to the next batch of foreigners.
I was pretty shocked that local people would exploit the monks like this for money. Later we found out, these women apparently are not of Buddhist faith, and come from the hill tribes around Luang Prabang.
What Can We Do to Help?
The short answer?? Simply not participate or even observe. I was ashamed afterward and felt sick having witnessed the shambles Sai Bat has turned into.
If like me, curiosity is getting the better of you and you would like to witness Sai Bat, my advice is do. It even bring your camera. Then, that way you will not be tempted to snap ignorant pictures.
Also, spread the word to other travellers. Tell them the truth and make them realize what they see on social media is not true, and is also contributing to the demise of Sai Bat.
The Future of Tourism
Not so long ago, many corners of the world were closed off to the world’s majority. Now, thanks to social media, nowhere is secret anymore, and dare I say sacred.
While travelling, I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly of tourism. I’ve seen stunning spots like Boracay Island and Maya Bay closed due to over-tourism. But I’ve also seen small villages in the depths of poverty now thriving due to an influx of tourists and their money.
Tourism is a scary thing. It can literally make a destination, or break a destination. I truly believe we need to ease the pressures of social media, put down our cameras and just enjoy what’s right in front of us. This incessant need to capture every little detail on film is ruining everything tourism touches, even something as sacred as the 700-year-old Sai Bat tradition.