Respecting the Buddhist Alms Giving Ceremony

Story and photos by Erin Michelson

In Luang Prabang, Laos, one of the most beautiful sights is the sunrise alms giving ceremony called “Tak Bat” in Lao. Tak Bat takes place every morning at 6:00 am and is performed in about 15 minutes.

Photo by Erin Michelson

Moments before the monks appear, the Buddhist townspeople kneel quietly on the sidewalk and raise a basket of sticky rice (the mainstay of the Lao diet) to their forehead to bless the rice and issue a prayer. Then Saffron-robed monks from the city temples silently walk down Sisavangvong Road, Luang Prabang’s main street, with a rice basket at their hip. Each believer gives the passing monks a small handful of sticky rice.

This Theravada Buddhist tradition is a sign of respect to Buddhist monks and nuns from Buddhist laypeople.  The act of giving is a way to show humbleness and Buddhists believe it is the first step in the path towards nirvana.

Respecting the Tak Bat Ceremony

Observing Tak Bat has become quite popular with tourists in Luang Prabang, but unfortunately, not everyone acts appropriately. Here’re a few guidelines when observing the ancient ritual:

Photo by Erin Michelson.

Sit down.

Making yourself lower than the monks is a sign of respect.

Stay quiet.

No talking, cell phones, cars horns are allowed.

Dress modestly.

Shoulders, chests, and legs should be covered.

No physical contact.

Do not touch the monk or Buddhist worshippers.

Photograph from a distance.

Camera flashes are disruptive to the procession. I took my photos from the curb across the street.

Do not participate in the ritual.

Some tourists are now participating in the alms giving, purchasing rice from street vendors and offering it to the monks.  This is a personal judgment call, but I equate the alms giving procession with the act of taking communion in the Catholic Church. If you’re not baptized, it would be presumptuous (and offensive to believers) to participate in this sacred rite.

The Tak Bat ceremony is indeed magical and one of the many traditions that makes life in Laos so unique. I say come, observe, and enjoy the tranquility of the moment – all at a respectful distance.

Erin Michelson is a social entrepreneur and world traveler. A self-styled Adventure Philanthropist, Erin is embarking on a 2-year global giving adventure called Erin Goes Global. Starting in Fiji on New Year’s Day 2011, Erin Michelson will travel to more than 70 counties on 7 continents during 2011-2012. Along the way, Erin will be volunteering with global non-profit organizations, including building wells in Uganda and tutoring young girls in Bangladeshi boat villages. She’s donated $25,000 and is holding monthly polls to see which worthy nonprofits receive the grants! You can follow Erin’s living and giving adventures at