Feeding frenzy in Luang Prabang
It is one of the quintessential sights in all of Asia, yet the early morning tak bat ceremony in Luang Prabang, Laos, in which Buddhist monks collect their daily alms, has become more a feeding frenzy for the hungry 21st century tourism industry. Despite the annoyance of a throng of iPhone and iPad-wielding tourists intent on grabbing their photo no matter what, it is still possible to come away with memorable images.
What I found I needed to achieve the image I had in my mind of the morning alms round is some time, patience, a long lens and a bit of lateral thinking.
I bought the Canon 70-200mm f2.8 lens with the Luang Prabang tak bat specifically in mind. I also bought a 28mm prime lens, with the idea that I could stand behind the alms givers and get a nice wide-angle view of the Monks receiving their alms. However, when I arrived in Luang Prabang I picked up a pamphlet with a list of requests detailing how tourists could protect the ceremony. One was not to stand close to the alms givers as it is a ceremony as important to them as it is to the monks. No problem, I thought, I’ll stick to the 70-200mm. The pamphlet also mentioned other requests, including keeping an appropriate distance, not getting in the way of the monks, not using flash photography and not following the procession. All these factors help protect a centuries-old spiritual tradition while allowing travellers an opportunity to witness the event and even participate if they so choose. You can read more on how Luang Prabang requests people to respect the ceremony here.
Imagine my dismay, then, when a light show of flash photography heralded the first monks to emerge from one of the wats in the pre-dawn darkness on my first morning in Luang Prabang, and a surge of tourists jostling for a view … just metres from the monks.
When you want to capture an image of an ancient Buddhist ceremony, with a line of monks walking through a UNESCO world heritage street, collecting their daily alms from town locals paying their respects and hoping to earn merit, the last thing you want in the photo is a Chinese tourist in a bright tracksuit taking a photo of the scene with an iPad.
I was so shocked and angered by the situation I even made a short film on my iPhone of the poor behaviour, which you can see on my YouTube site here.
What perhaps made the experience worse for me is that I was in Luang Prabang during Chinese new year holidays, which meant the town was incredibly busy. But Luang Prabang will always be a popular place, so be prepared. What is important is to not give in and join the pack, thus disturbing the ceremony further.
As a traveller and photographer, I can’t see the point of taking a photograph of a scene or experience if your action in taking that photo detracts from or contributes to the destruction of that very experience.
You are there to get a feel for and document that experience, not ruin it. It’s like big game hunters shooting a lion or a bear so they can mount the animal’s head as a trophy on their wall at home. The price of their trophy is the contribution to the animal’s extinction.
Here, then, are my tips on how you can achieve photographs that both preserve the ritual and do justice to its beauty:
- Don’t try to get all your shots too early. Tak bat is a dawn ritual, with the actual timing varying depending on the time of year. But generally, the first monks appear at sunrise, when it’s still dark. You don’t want to use a flash (in fact, it’s requested you don’t as it disturbs the monks and alms givers). But if you wait even 10 or 15 minutes, the light increases dramatically and you will be able to use a faster shutter speed (reducing risks of motion blur) and lower ISO. You might also find that some tourists lose interest after a short while and move on, leaving you to get photos of the monks emerging from the wats later than their colleagues.
- Use a long lens. This allows you to keep a distance so that you’re not interrupting the proceedings but can still zoom in to capture things such as facial expressions. I found my 70-200mm lens was ideal as far as this was concerned.
- Wait in the back streets. Once you have been in Luang Prabang for a while you can plot the itinerary of the monks. The main street of historic Luang Prabang is Sakarine Road. Monks in the wats along this road start walking down this road on their way towards the centre/markets area, but then they have to do a circuit and walk back to the wats. They tend to do this on Sotikoumman Road and Kounxao Road. If you wait here you will have better light by the time the monks are in this area and, hopefully, fewer tourists who might not have worked this out or have lost interest and returned to their hotels for their breakfast. Buy a town map and plot your positioning. Also, if you wait down a side street you can get a nice photo from behind some alms givers as they give their food to the monks, capturing the monks’ faces.
- Think further afield, not just the historic centre. On my last day in Luang Prabang I walked across the bamboo bridge over the Nam Khan to the area called Ban Phan Luang. (Luang Prabang is made up of a series of little villages, or “bans”.) There are two wats in this area. One, Wat Phan Luang, is quite large and I was amazed to be able to capture a long line of monks from this wat emerging and queueing at the first alms givers, with not a tourist in sight. In fact, I think I was regarded as a novelty to the monks. Please note that the one annoying thing in this area is the number of dogs lingering in the streets, getting in the photos, and barking quite menacingly. Keep an eye on these dogs. If one approaches too close, threaten it with your camera and it will back away.
- Have patience. This is perhaps the most important piece of advice. If you don’t allow enough time in the town you may be unlucky with the number of tourists ruining your shots, or you may not be happy with your photos, be in composition or motion blur, or high ISO. Planning to spend more time in Luang Prabang means you can have disappointing days but also some good moments as well that produce some memorable photos. I spent six days in town to make sure I had photographs that I was happy with. The tak bat is certainly worth the time and effort.
The tak bat ceremony is a must see for the travelling photographer. Don’t be put off by the other tourists and travellers behaving poorly and getting in the way of your photography. Don’t follow their lead, have patience, think through your approach, give yourself plenty of time in the town and you will have some great photographs and happy memories.
– Chris Mannolini
For more of my photographs of my trip to Luang Prabang and Laos, check out my Flickr site here.
Have you been to Luang Prabang and captured the tak bat? Did you have a similar experience, or do you have any other suggestions? I would love to hear your comments.