Greetings from Laos! On my first trip here, I should be telling you about how frankly wonderful it is; how the language is very similar to Thai; how the food is amazing, and how the French left a bizarre legacy of baguettes and bakeries.
Sadly the image which stuck out the most is the circus of the monks collecting alms on the street at dawn.
The entire internet calls it a "must-see". More importantly, my highly-travelled friend, who I absolutely trust, said it was one of the great things to do here in Luang Prabang.
So, up late from drinking and talking, 3 friends and I decided we'd just stay up and see the monks. Not very classy, but we weren't drunk and went out with a respectful attitude.
What we saw was dozens of tourists - far more than there were monks - lining the streets with cameras. Not all of them acted badly but many did, getting up close to monks, shoving cameras in their faces and those of the locals who come out to give. Some literally ran down the street just to get the right shot. Some just blankly took photos of any monks they saw, not really caring or understanding what they were looking at.
The whole atmosphere felt like a circus and I can't see any magic in an event where locals are treated like zoo animals in their own town.
To be clear:
- I'm not someone who thinks that we should keep foreign places "cute" in the way that we, the tourist, find cute. It's a patronising attitude held by many travellers and bloggers and I won't buy into it.
- I don't think the problem is the number of tourists, and that this would be a perfect cute tourist event if there were just less tourists. I've already heard people saying "go see the monks at X, there's hardly any tourists", utterly blind to the irony of what they're saying.
- Neither am I totally naïve, and nor are the locals trying to sell things to tourists to give to the monks. The event is not untouchably sacred, foreigners have been coming for a long time, and I'm sure many monks have a joke and a smile before they start.
The problem is respect.
For the monks accepting alms and for the locals who give to them, this is a very significant and important thing.
The tourists, on the other hand, are just taking photos of something they were told to go and take photos of.
If you have a genuine interest in Southeast Asian Buddhism, or you genuinely want to support the monks and give to them in the same way as the locals of Luang Prabang, great. I'm sure they will appreciate the genuine interest.
But if it's just another thing to tick off your list, between riding an elephant and tubing in Vang Vien, please don't contribute to this farce and just sleep in.