Luang Prabang’s traditional monk procession, if you think about it, is a very odd practice, if it weren’t for the very cool photogenic sight of all the orange robes queued up. Essentially, they walk out each morning, receiving blessings and food offerings from the villagers. Then they take the offerings- sticky rice- back to their wats and break fast. All in silence. Sounds awfully alike trolling for food to me.
That struck me are the four- well, five including my type- categories of actors in this play when I watched.
Me- Get the easy one out of the way. I was one of a significant chunk of tourists there to watch from afar. If you call across the street ‘afar’ (you’ll see why I say it is in a minute). We don’t contribute. We generally don’t talk much, other than occasional low-tone exchanges to each other. Our biggest noise maker are our cameras. We are spectators. Oglers to those may not welcome our presence.
The Monks- the central figures to the whole tradition. They walk silently down, queued up by wat. They create a physical space between different lines, letting the logjam ahead of them clear out a little before proceeding. They receive the offerings from the villagers. And occasionally give them back. For the Buddhists, giving, especially to the monks, brings better karma. And the monks receive.
Villagers- There were fewer from our vantage point of view, an indication the tradition has gradually given way to the tourism industry. Yet, we had a direct view of a woman, dressed in her fine lace blouse and traditional wrap skit. With an air of grace, she would wai (a clasped flat palm gesture that indicates respect) and cup fistfuls of rice into the caskets of the monks.
The beggars- Mostly kids, sent out by their parents. They are a ragtag group that placed empty basket and bags, and sat between the villagers. They are counting on the generosity, the same karma point collection mentality, of the monks to give back some rice. And many do. The more intrusive ones literally doggedly stay at the heels of a band of monks, holding out their bags. Those tend to be less successful.
The tourists- the UNESCO status is both a blessing and a curse. Busloads of tourists, usually Asian, line up with pre-set baskets of rice to join in the experience. Only they tend to do it in halfs. One half will sit on the sidewalk, ready to make the offerings. The other half will hover on both sides of the processing, taking photos. Since the monks cannot interact much, some tourists will simply throw an arm around a monk’s shoulder while another snapped a shot, all without requesting for permission. Others literally thrust the cameras in the monks’ faces as they walk by. As a fellow tourists, I was horrified and embarrassed.