The Luang Prabang alms giving ceremony is an historic feature of daily life in this former Laotian royal capital, and has been continually practiced since Buddhism first arrived in the thirteenth century.

In that time, the city was known as Muang Sua, later renamed Xieng Thong, and was the seat of power of the early Laotian Lan Xang kingdom.

Every morning, several hundred monks awaken in the early morning and leave their temples to form a ribbon of saffron robes meandering barefoot through the streets collecting food from the local devotees, who reverentially place their offerings into the proffered bowls.

As Buddhist monks traditionally eschew all possessions, the giving of alms provides for their daily nourishment and is crucial to the continuance of their practice, a centuries-old tradition from which the donating locals perceive benefit in the form of blessings and spiritual guidance in their lives, not least in the notion that good Karma is accrued through these acts.

UNESCO declared the city a World Heritage site in 1995, in recognition of its architectural and cultural importance, a status that has enshrined its preservation and value to Laotian society.

Since tourism came to Laos, it is understandable that the city’s remarkable architectural legacy and the timeless alms procession have become a major draw for visitors, but many problems have resulted from such popularity.

The most culturally important of its many fine temples, the beautiful Wat Xiang Thong, is the focus of so much tourism that the quiet reverential and solemn practices which gave rise to its being are becoming increasingly impossible to maintain, and the site has become something closer to a living museum rather than a thriving historical seat of Buddhist learning and practice.

Likewise the alms ceremony now takes place against a backdrop of tourist cameras, jostling for a good shot, and inevitably impacts upon the procession and its traditional value to Laotian society.

To make matters worse, some local traders are eager to supply ready-made offerings for visitors wishing to participate in the ceremony, but the unscrupulous nature of some of these ‘entrepreneurs’ has led to cases of food poisoning, a corrosion of influence to such an extent that many monks now view the whole procession in a quite different light from that of tradition.

Tourism is of profound economic importance to Laos, and so, despite the growing reluctance of the monks to continue their long held ritual, it is unlikely to be in immediate danger. It is important for its continuance, however, that visitors understand that this is an authentic way of life and not a theatrical performance put on for their benefit, and showing proper respect will ensure it never becomes so.

If all the tourists who visited Luang Prabang were possessed of a genuine regard for the cultural nuances of Buddhism and its place in Laotian society, and emulated the respect of the locals, the authenticity of this ancient ritual might yet survive intact, but unfortunately, some visitors have exhibited careless and insulting behaviour, including obstructing the procession, and even mocking and insulting the monks, locals and their traditional values.

While in many modern societies there is a widespread rejection, and to some extent even healthy cynicism of tradition, social mores and religion, when visiting another land, a thoughtful and caring visitor will accept and value the cultural differences.

If you are observing the ritual procession in the early light of Luang Prabang, it is best to do so discreetly and in silence, keeping your distance.

If on the other hand, you wish to participate, which you are perfectly welcome to do, you should do so only with reverence and meaning, and follow the protocol of the locals, removing your shoes, attending in quietude, dressing conservatively and buying an offering of sticky rice from the local market rather than from a tourist vendor.

Irksome as it may be to the modern woman, the women of Laos traditionally kneel when making offerings, and it is never the practice, particularly for women, to ever touch a monk. Even men will often kneel and it is always regarded as rude to place yourself in a position above the monks.