In April 2019, I accompanied my wife to Luang Prabang, Laos for work. Observing Laos on the global map reveals its diminutive stature, rendering it even more inconspicuous. At that time, I perceived the name Luang Prabang as unfamiliar and intricate, thus when queried about my destination, I simply responded with Laos.
Luang Prabang, also recognized as “Luang Phra Bang,” presently serves as the capital of Luang Prabang Province in Laos. Situated at the confluence of the Mekong River and the Nam Khan River, this city assumes the shape of an “L” shaped peninsula. As early as the 13th-14th centuries, it stood as the capital of the Lancang Kingdom. Legend has it that in the 14th century, King Faang received a 1.3-meter-tall Brabant Golden Buddha as a gift from the king of the Khmer Empire of Cambodia, bestowing upon it the status of a cherished town treasure. Consequently, the city was renamed Luang Prabang, signifying “Prabang,” the capital of Buddha. This tale appears to imply an inseparable connection between the city and Buddha.
The initial impression of Luang Prabang revolves around its profusion of temples and pagodas. It is said that the urban area alone boasts over 30 temples. Adjacent to our residence at that time, a Buddhist academy was erected on the hillside. In the early morning hours, the young monks residing nearby would venture to the academy to study individually or in groups. During traditional Buddhist festivities, monks from around the world would congregate here. I resided in Luang Prabang for four years, coinciding with the outbreak of the epidemic, which granted me a deeper comprehension of this city. The most distinctive Buddhist ritual in this city is the early morning almsgiving ceremony.
Embarking upon the morning: Reaping what you relinquish
Every morning in Luang Prabang commences with the hushed footsteps of barefoot monks. Clad in their yellow cassocks, older and younger monks, either in groups or in a serpentine line, gracefully traverse the streets and alleys of the city. Their presence emits a resplendent golden light that captivates onlookers. This ceremonial rite entails almsgiving, an age-old tradition perpetuated by Laotians who adhere to Theravada Buddhism.
Before daybreak, people gather spontaneously along the roads and streets. Women and girls adorn themselves with tube skirts and traditional shawls, each in a distinct hue. Men drape plain shawls over their upper bodies and placidly lay out their mats, adorned with bowls brimming with freshly steamed glutinous rice and plastic baskets containing delectable treats like biscuits. Occasionally, one may spot fruits or small denominations of Laotian currency encased in plastic pouches. These offerings are presented to the monks. Children and adults alike slip off their shoes and assume a cross-legged position on the mats, their feet unadorned. Prior to bestowing alms, they cleanse their hands with water they have brought along and patiently await the procession. After a while, a procession of monks, draped in yellow cassocks, emerges, their alms bowls or cloth bags diagonally poised across their bodies, their feet unshod. At this juncture, the kneeling men, women, and children, with bowls cradled in their left hands and rice or food grasped in their right hands, raise their offerings above their heads and respectfully deposit them into the monks’ bowls. This gesture signifies the supremacy of the Buddha above all else and concurrently conveys heartfelt regards to departed loved ones. The atmosphere becomes silent and orderly as everyone holds their breath, engrossed in the act of self-sacrifice. The monks proceed past one after another, while the hearts of the givers brim with reverence and contentment. Such fulfillment springs forth from the act of relinquishment. Although the almsgiving ceremony lasts but a few minutes or perhaps ten, it imparts a profound sense of satisfaction and beauty to the donor. Occasionally, the receiving monks pause to recite a scripture specifically dedicated to the well-being of the donor. At such moments, people clasp their hands together and bow their heads in acceptance.
Almsgiving is reciprocal. In certain locations on the alms mats, where older individuals or children are present, an empty basket is placed. The receiving monk will also distribute the food received to these young children and the elderly. I once accompanied a friend to partake in a charitable event and received a bag of food donated by a monk. It contained a coconut cake crafted by a local elder, wrapped in banana leaves. Its soft and glutinous texture, coupled with its fragrant and sweet flavor, has remained etched in my memory to this day.
Within Luang Prabang, the tradition of early morning almsgiving persists not only withinthe local community but also attracts tourists from around the world. Visitors are welcome to participate in the ceremony, but it is important to approach it with respect and cultural sensitivity. Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind if you wish to join the almsgiving ceremony in Luang Prabang:
1. Dress modestly: When attending the almsgiving ceremony, it is important to dress appropriately. Both men and women should ensure their shoulders and knees are covered. Avoid wearing revealing or tight-fitting clothing.
2. Remain silent and observe: The almsgiving ceremony is a solemn and sacred ritual. It is important to maintain a respectful demeanor and refrain from making noise or causing disruptions. Keep your voice low and avoid using flash photography.
3. Purchase offerings in advance: If you wish to participate in the almsgiving ceremony, you can purchase offerings such as sticky rice, fruits, or other packaged food items from local markets. These offerings should be placed in a clean container or wrapped in a clean cloth.
4. Observe from a respectful distance: Find a spot along the route where the monks will pass by and sit or stand a respectful distance away. Avoid blocking their path or getting too close to them. It is customary to sit on a mat or a low stool, but if these are not available, you can sit on the ground.
5. Follow the locals’ lead: Pay attention to the locals and follow their actions during the ceremony. They will demonstrate the proper way to present the offerings to the monks. Typically, you would hold the offering with both hands, raise it above your head, and place it gently in the monk’s alms bowl.
6. Do not touch the monks: It is considered disrespectful to touch the monks, especially without their consent. Maintain a respectful distance and avoid physical contact.
7. Avoid using plastic or disposable items: In recent years, there has been a movement to reduce the use of plastic and disposable items during the almsgiving ceremony. If possible, opt for reusable containers or traditional materials like banana leaves to wrap your offerings.
8. Be mindful of cultural sensitivities: Remember that the almsgiving ceremony is a religious practice deeply rooted in the local culture. Be respectful of the traditions and beliefs associated with the ceremony. If you have any doubts or questions, it is best to observe and learn from the locals.
By following these guidelines, you can participate in the almsgiving ceremony in Luang Prabang respectfully and contribute to the local traditions. Remember that cultural exchange is a two-way street, and it is important to approach it with an open mind and a willingness to learn and respect the customs of the local community.
After worshiping at the top of the mountain, follow the way down the mountain. Surprisingly, after going down a few steps or turning a few turns, one or several Buddha statues will appear in front of you. Some are in the open air, some are in temples, and the temples are also open. It is built along the mountain. The Buddha statues are lying or sitting cross-legged, one or several sitting together. It is said that there is an ancient story behind each Buddha statue. Laotian friends will take off their shoes wherever they go, kneel down and place tributes. Generally speaking, they pray to prevent disasters and ensure safety, and pray for good health, smooth work, family harmony, and many children and blessings. The strange thing is that if you are born on a different Sunday, there are also special blessing gods that you can kneel down and worship. There is also a device where you can pour the mineral water you brought in from one end, as if baptizing the Buddha, perhaps to pray to the Buddha for good weather in the coming year.
Later I learned that the Zongsi Pagoda on Phousi Mountain is a landmark building in Luang Prabang. The tower is equipped with night lighting. Its shiny golden roof can be seen from all over the city no matter day or night. , extremely conspicuous in the entire city. It can not only protect the faithful men and women of Luang Prabang day and night, but also point out the direction to people arriving in Luang Prabang. It is also the spiritual holy tower in the hearts of the Laotian people.
In Luang Prabang, in addition to the ancient streets and temples, a particularly ritualistic thing in people’s daily lives is the thread-tying ceremony.
Thread tying ceremony: to eliminate disaster and bring good fortune
In the powder shops or souvenir shops on Luang Prabang Street, you often find Laotian people with their wrists tied with cotton threads. Sometimes they look very thick. In such a hot place, adding so many threads is puzzling. . It took a long time to find out that these people had recently participated in the “Baxi” ceremony. “Paxi” means tying a thread in Laotian, and it is a traditional ceremony to express blessings. Whenever guests come to visit, relatives and friends travel far away, or when there is a wedding, a new house is completed, or a baby is born, Laotians will hold a thread-tying ceremony.
I witnessed this ritual once when a friend’s baby was one month old. The whole family, both men and women, dressed in traditional attire, came to the center of the house covered with mats and sat on the floor. In the middle of the mats was a pagoda-shaped altar made of banana leaves and royal longevity chrysanthemums. It looked both environmentally friendly and solemn. Flower towers were placed around it. Some cooked pork, plantains and other foods were given as tribute. First, the child’s grandfather and grandmother sent blessings to the child and his father and mother. The older man sitting further back kept giving the rope in his hand to the people in the front row. The elder who got the rope said Reciting a congratulatory message – generally wishing the child healthy growth and a bright future, he tied the white thread on the left wrist of the mother holding the child and the father next to him. Of course, since the child was too young, he would give a brief gesture, and the child’s parents would Raise your right hand to your chest and nod in greeting. The people around are holding the elbows of those who are tied, expressing their happiness and good luck with them. We guests were also tied, and of course the cords were tied to the children and their parents.
Zongxi Pagoda is the highest point of the entire Puxi Mountain. The body of the tower is square, with a budding lotus sculpture on the upper part, and the top of the tower is all gold-plated. The top platform next to the tower is an excellent place to overlook the ancient city.
The child receives everyone’s blessings during the thread-tying ceremony. Whenever guests come to visit, relatives and friends travel far away, or when there is a wedding, a new house is completed, or a baby is born, Laotians will hold a thread-tying ceremony.
In Laos, tying the thread means “tying the soul”. The Lao people believe that the human soul can easily leave the body and wander freely. If the soul leaves the body, the person will suffer disasters. If the soul is attached to the body, the person will be healthy and happy.
Therefore, people often tie white threads around their wrists in the hope of tying their souls and ward off disasters and bring good fortune. After tying the line, the person being tied puts his hands together, raises them to his forehead, and whispers: “Satu” (meaning “I hope so”). After the thread-tying ceremony, people will have a meal together. During the dinner, everyone will sing, dance, talk and laugh, creating a joyful atmosphere. The white thread tied to the wrist can only be removed after 3 or 7 days. When there is a funeral, Laotians also hold a thread-tying ceremony, but instead of using white threads they use black threads to express their condolences to the deceased.
Buddhist culture accompanies people’s daily life and is deeply rooted in people’s hearts. Moreover, Buddhism has been designated as the common belief of all people in Laos, and people follow the ancient tradition and pass it down to this day without being broken. In 2021, with the opening of the China-Laos railway, the history of no railway between Laos and China has ended, and people have added another way to get close to her. Luang Prabang still welcomes everyone who comes here with Buddhist rituals such as giving alms, and is determined and pious. Everyone who has been here will be more or less impressed by this quiet and peaceful Buddhist capital.