I have to acknowledge first that I was there to watch, too. I was there to witness a ritual about which I know only a little, a ritual that has no personal meaning for me, but one that is moving. The monks' morning alms round in Luang Prabang is a big thing - just google it and you'll see what I mean. Every morning the monks get up at 4am for prayers and their morning business, then they hit the streets. Every morning, Lao women get up and prepare rice and other food, and gather fruit, and bring their mats to the curb to wait for the monks to walk past, so they can earn merit by feeding the monks. It's one of the only ways women can earn merit. On their knees, they put a pinch of rice in each monk's bowl. It's not an unusual ritual, but in Luang Prabang, with 33 temples and all these monks, it's notable. In the early morning gray, the silent monks in orange robes parading past, collecting rice....well, I wanted to see it.
There are women along the path who want to sell you rice or other bits of food to give the monks. There's an urgency to it when they ask, and they say "the monks are coming!" with what sounds like excitement. I loved that, considering this is a 365-day/year activity.
Setting aside the lengthy set of rules that we found in our hotel room, there are just a few rules to follow regarding the monks, and they're easy to learn because they're posted anywhere you might find out about the monks' alms rounds: women do not touch the monks robes, and you stay lower than the monks. Really, that's it.
OK. Now for my disgust and rant. Marc and I got up very early, crossed the bridge in the dark, and made our way to a part of the main street opposite a number of Lao women on their mats, with their offerings arrayed in front of them. We sat on the curb. We saw a few tourists sitting among the Lao, with some kind of cloth draped diagonally across their bodies, and with their purchased offerings in front of them. I wouldn't do that myself, because I'd feel like I was co-opting a ritual just for the tourist sake of it. But at least they were participating in a way that honored the ritual. But the big crowds of old white-haired tourists -- camera-wielding, fanny-packed and tennis-shoed -- were so disgusting I got so mad I just wanted to leave. They walked up to the seated women and got in their faces, flashing flashing taking pictures, as if the women were in the zoo or something. Then, when the monks came, they stood in front of them, barring their way, so they could flash flash flash take pictures of them up close, 'doing their monk thing.' I do think they were Americans, too. (To which the cynic in me wants to add "of course.") There were individual tourists who were doing that too, men with enormous cameras stacked up with so many lenses, as if they were pretending to be war journalists or something, flash flash flash shooting the monks just inches away from them.
I also had my small video camera. I sat on the other side of the street, and did not use flash, and tried to unobtrusively take a short movie of the event -- which turned out to be a different event than I'd hoped.