How not to act around a monk in Laos

Tourists throng to photograph the Buddhist ceremonies of Luang Prabang. A Massachusetts native recently stepped in to give tourists guidelines for how to act appropriately.

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    A tourist takes photos of Luang Prabang monks.
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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Brittany Bisk understands why tourists throng to photograph the monks every morning in Luang Prabang.

Just after dawn, the monks appear in flowing orange robes and tread in long, orderly lines past pristine French colonial villas, shimmering Buddhist temples, and green mountain vistas. Kneeling along the road are local residents with sticky rice and fresh fruit, which they solemnly place in the passing monks’ collection bowls.

“It’s a very photogenic tradition that goes back 2,500 years to the Buddha himself,” says Ms. Bisk, a 20-something native of Massachusetts who is working to improve the detrimental effects of tourism on the monks’ ceremony. Bisk started this effort, which she calls the Sai Bat project (the name of the alms-giving ceremony), with a handful of other concerned, expatriate volunteers.

The daily almsgiving occupies a special place in the heart of this northern Laos town, where about 1,000 monks occupy nearly three dozen temples, and villagers rise each morning to participate in the ritual of giving them food. In the past several years, though, it has become a must-see item on visitors’ checklists. Now, hundreds of foreigners photograph, and sometimes even join in, the ceremony in ways that can degrade its sanctity, such as dressing immodestly, and standing in the way of the monks.

This spring, a coalition of government agencies, hoteliers, and volunteers distributed 20,000 posters and pamphlets to tourist establishments with instructions on how to act during the ritual. The town’s Department of Information and Culture met with rice vendors, who aggressively hawk rice for visitors to offer the monks, to set restrictions on locations and behavior.

Bisk herself has reached out to tour guides, guidebook writers, government officials, and others to try and inculcate respectful conduct. On many mornings, she simply heads outside at dawn to speak to tourists. “I try to be very polite and speak quietly, in the spirit of the ceremony,” she says.

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