Laos, Part Two: Sai Bat in Luang Prabang

Yesterday, I posted Part 1 of my Laos trip. I had really no plans or expectations going in; most of the stuff we wanted to do was in Cambodia, and we mostly decided to go to Laos because it seemed less touristed than Thailand and Vietnam. Turns out, Luang Prabang was really special, and I’m not even sure I can explain why. I love places that seem easy to explore on foot, I love being surrounded by nature, and I love being surprised by beautiful things. Luang Prabang had all of this and more.

Thomas and I started our day at 5-something a.m, when we woke up to observe the Sai Bat, or morning alms. During this ritual, people offer food to a procession of monks.

I have a lot of thoughts, which I haven’t quite figured out how to articulate. Firstly, I’ve been thinking about different definitions of the word “observe.” One can observe something by seeing it with their eyes, and one can observe something by feeling it in their heart, right? To observe a religion means to dedicate yourself to it and practice it, but we can observe other people practicing their religion. I have mixed feelings about this, because on one hand, seeing is one step towards understanding, but on the other hand, watching other people’s sacred religious traditions feels strangely intrusive. Photographing it feels even more so.

I don’t know. I try very hard to be respectful of others, especially when I am an outsider looking in. Observing, photographing (without flash), and even participating in the Sai Bat is welcome, at least according to signs I saw posted around town. And like Angkor Wat, Luang Prabang benefits from tourism…but to what extent is our presence doing more harm than good? How do locals, monks, devout Buddhists feel about swarms of tourists encroaching on their sacred practices, observing without truly observing?

I’m trying to think of an example that may feel relevant to most Westerners, but somehow much of the behavior I assume is disrespectful doesn’t have much direct equivalent in my mind. Maybe I’m overthinking it, but it seems to me that most of these places were colonized, and then gained independence, and are now being reentered by privileged citizens of colonizing countries who want to be a part of things that shouldn’t involve them anymore. I feel like there’s a fine line between appreciation and appropriation, and I don’t always know where that is.

Anyway, the only example I can think of is non-Christians taking communion? But even that doesn’t seem as problematic to me as the way that we may “appreciate” non-Western cultures and religions.

For example, many temples will allow visitors to enter them. Thomas and I went to a nearby temple after sunset yesterday to see if we could get some photos (it’s seriously beautiful.) I walked around to get a photo of one temple (from a good distance, so I could capture the whole building and some sunset.) Anyway, I got one picture, and as I took it I noticed that there were monks gathered inside, sitting on the floor. Then a couple comes up in front of me, walks up the steps, and proceeds to stand in the doorway taking pictures. When I say in the doorway, I mean a medium gust of wind could’ve pushed them inside and into the monks.

Now, I’m not going to pretend to be any kind of expert, but this struck me as pretty disrespectful. I’m already pretty iffy on my own behavior, but gosh, I like to think that my presence at least wasn’t disruptive? I literally would never have dreamed of walking up the stairs, let alone sticking my head in the door while people were in there. To what extent does this sort of observation lead to deeper understanding?

I’m asking a lot of questions that I don’t have the answers to. I guess we just have to try to be respectful within the boundaries we’re given. For this trip that’s meant dress modestly, don’t disrupt the procession, no flash photography. Don’t climb on the ruins, take off your shoes when you enter the temple.

I was initially going to write about my whole day, but I went on a bit of a tangent, so I’ll split this post and continue it tomorrow. Full disclosure, I did take one photo from the morning alms, but I decided against posting it (for the record, it was pitch black and the photo is not great.) If you’re interested in a visual, search for alms giving Luang Prabang and there will be plenty of images from people who were either here at a sunnier time of year or used their camera flashes.

I’m super excited about tomorrow’s post. It’ll be full of photos and very few of my personal opinions.

I will end with a the photo I took before the tourists stood in the doorway. If you look closely you can see the orange-clad monks sitting inside.