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Luang Prabang: Up in alms

The road to nirvana is paved with good intentions… and — specifically — sticky rice.

By James Draven
Published 5 Jun 2019, 17:54 BST
Luang Prabang almsgiving procession
Photograph by Getty Images

Feet pad rhythmically through silent backstreets. Each individual step is scarcely audible, but together, in reverential unison, the crunch of gravel makes a sleeping, stray dog’s ear twitch and involuntarily turn towards our approach.

It’s not yet 5am and this subdued, somnolent procession wends through desolate residential streets whose colours have been sapped into the void of the black sky above; lent sepia tones by the dim glow of road lamps. Nobody speaks.

I’m in Luang Prabang in Laos, walking silently with a small group of travellers each too tired to talk, only opening their mouths to breathe, to help keep open eyes glossed with tears of exhaustion. For many of us, a late night only ended an hour or two ago, and being pried from our beds at 4.30am has rendered us unable to communicate in any meaningful way. So instead we sleepwalk towards the centre of town, just as the faithful of Luang Prabang have done for hundreds of years.

The ancient practice of tak bat is woven into the fabric of Lao culture. This daily almsgiving ritual of Theravada Buddhism – which dates back at least 600 years — sees the townsfolk rise before dawn to cook batches of sticky rice, the daily bread for the town’s monks, ready for reverential donation on the streets of Luang Prabang. In return, the monks bestow merit unto devotees — karma capital for the next life; the only currency you can take with you to the grave.

As we turn onto the arterial Sakkaline Road, the town is suddenly lively with groups of tourists, most of whom are being herded like sheep by umbrella-waving tour guides. Hawkers mingle with the crowds, carrying cigarette trays laden with candy bars and pre-packaged Rice Krispie Squares; overpriced offerings to those wanting the chance to buy a stairway to nirvana. The distant illuminated market stall canopies, neon-lit stores and the fluorescent strip lights of food carts are diffused by a light, early morning mist, and the surrounding mountains are barely visible against the inky sky. Amid all this, on the pavement at the side of the road, locals kneel on roughly hewn matts, each with a big pot of rice before them.

I take my place beside them and put my own bowl of rice on the footpath in front of me. Then I kneel, pointing my feet behind me as tradition and respect dictates. My companions join me, a few of them buying packs of sweets to supplement their rice, and we wait.

As the sky pales from indigo to violet, faint peach robes appear amid the distant mist, darkening to saffron as the first of the monks comes into view. I hold my breath as they approach. Self-consciously — partly ashamed of my meagre offerings and slightly overawed by the spectacle — I reach into my woven basket and tear out a chunk of sticky rice, about half the size of a golf ball. It’s glutinous and, well, sticky on my fingers. I drop it onto a young monk’s plate and he looks at me with condescending approval. I guess I’ve earned my first merit point.

I’m so bemused by the experience that I miss the next two monks in line. Their silent, meditative, barefoot procession continues inexorably through town, past gilded temples and French colonial mansions shuttered with rich, dark wood, and past us, the faithful and tourist alike. It’s an endless orange array of hundreds upon hundreds of monks. Soon, though, I find my rhythm, and I’m pulling clumps of rice from my pot and depositing them in begging bowls like an automaton. After a while, I realise I can no longer see where the line of monks ends and where it begins. A flip-book of uniform, shaven-headed faces looks down on me approvingly as I mechanically dole out my scant offerings in a trancelike state to him, and him, and him, and him. The spell is broken, however, when a companion to my right places a Rice Krispie Square upon an alms collecting plate.

For the first time I see a different expression in this cavalcade of faces: a quizzical look, a frown. I turn my head to follow the perplexed monk who continues to march with his peers, but whose reverie is temporarily broken as he turns the blue foil packet over in his hands and examines this incongruous rice offering. After a few more paces, he tosses it into a dustbin, then disappears, becoming invisible among his companions as his naked feet once again pad rhythmically in reverential unison.

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