Respectful tourism in Luang Prabang: how to behave around a Buddhist monk in Laos

Laos is a friendly and welcoming country, and Luang Prabang is one of the most spiritual and laid-back cities in the world. Even if you are not Buddhist, you'll be enchanted with the beautiful temple and religious life in the holy city of Lao Buddhism.

You certainly don't have to be Buddhist to visit a temple in Laos, or even to participate in a Buddhist religious ceremony. Buddhism is an inclusive and welcoming religion, and foreign tourists are always welcome at the temples. Unfortunately, a lot of western tourists who visit Luang Prabang are beginning to give foreigners a bad name because of their inappropriate behavior. They don't behave badly out of malice, but rather out of ignorance of the proper way to behave at a Buddhist temple or around a Buddhist monk.

a sign informing travelers how to behave at a Buddhist temple in Luang Prabang, Laos
proper behavior at a Buddhist temple in Laos

How to behave at a Buddhist temple

Foreigners, even non-Buddhists, are always welcome to visit a Buddhist temple. Feel free to look around, take photos, and even light a candle or incense, or get a blessing from a monk. Just remember that a temple is a sacred place; as much a place of reverence and worship as a church or cathedral, and proper, respectful behavior is expected.

Dress appropriately and modestly. This means:

  • No sleveless shirts (men and women).
  • No shorts or short skirts (women).
  • No visible tattoos.
  • Remove hats, sunglasses, and shoes before entering a temple building.

Act appropriately. This means:

  • Do not distract or photograph monks or local people who are praying or meditating at a temple.
  • Some temples do not allow photography. Look around to see if there is a sign posted.
  • Remain quiet while at the temple.
  • Be silent inside the temple buildings.
  • Never turn your back to a statue of the Buddha, and never point your feet at a statue of the Buddha. Instead, kneel in front of the statue when you are inside the temple building, and back away rather than turning.
  • Do not take selfies or photographs with statues of the Buddha.
  • Show respect to Lao culture and the Buddhist religion. Remember, a temple is as much a place of worship as a church or cathedral.

How to behave around a Buddhist monk

Buddhist monks have to follow a series of 227 strict rules, or precepts, called the Patimokkha. These rules include regulations on how to behave, when to eat, and much much more. The precepts were designed to separate monks from the issues of the world. Among these are rules forbidding interaction with women. Women should be very careful not to touch a monk or his robes. Even accidentally touching a woman will cause the monk to have to undergo a strict period of penitence and cleansing. If a woman makes an offering to a monk, such as during the morning alms ceremony, she must place the offering into the monk's bowl, being careful not to make contact with the monk or his robes.

To a westerner, this practice may at first seem sexist or misogynistic, but that's not the purpose of these rules. Buddhism forbids sexual misconduct, a rule that is especially strict for monks. Buddhism also stresses mindfulness and deliberate action. Therefore, monks must actively avoid any action or behavior that could be considered inappropriate. It's not that women are considered to be "unclean", but rather that monks must separate themselves from the world. They are not allowed to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, or touch women. While this could certainly be interpreted as a rule against sexual activity, it's generally interpreted much more literally.
  • Women should not speak to, make eye contact with, or touch a Buddhist monk or his robes
  • Do not take photographs of a monk, especially when he is meditating
  • Show the proper respect towards monks. Never point the soles of your feet towards a monk or  an image of the Buddha
  • Act humbly and respectfully; monks have a very high place of honor in Lao society.

a sign informing tourists of how to behave during the morning alms giving ceremony in Luang Prabang, Laos
rules for the morning alms giving ceremony

Rules for the morning alms giving ceremony

Every morning, just before first light, hundreds of monks walk through the quiet streets of Luang Prabang during the daily Sai Bat, or Alms Giving Ceremony. The devout will arrive early, kneeling on woven mats on the side of the road as the barefooted and saffron-clad monks slowly and silently approach. Monks are forbidden from purchasing their own food, and therefore rely on donations from the Buddhist community. The Sai Bat Ceremony is a beautiful and reverential ceremony, and one of the spiritual highlights of visiting Luang Prabang. However, there are some rules that you should be aware of:
  • If you want to participate in the alms giving ceremony, arrive early. There ceremony takes place daily between 5 and 6 am.
  • Don't just join the ceremony for fun. You don’t have to be Buddhist to join the morning alms giving ceremony, but the monks request that you only participate if it is meaningful for you to do so.
  • If you want to give alms, you must be dressed appropriately - NO PAJAMAS, NO SLEVELESS SHIRTS, NO SHORTS OR SHORT SKIRTS. The alms round is not a performance for tourists, but a very important and reverent religious ceremony.
  • If you want to photograph the procession, the monks request that you please stand on the opposite side of the street, at least 3 meters (10 feet) away so as not to distract the participants.
  • Do not take selfies or photographs of the monks when you are participating in the ceremony. If you want to take pictures, refrain from participating in the alms giving ceremony.
  • Do not speak to, make eye contact with, or touch the monks.
  • Remove your shoes while participating in the ceremony. 
  • Do not speak during the alms giving ceremony as the alms giving ceremony should be conducted in silence.
See more: Morning Alms-Giving Ceremony in Luang Prabang
Some of these rules may seem strict or intimidating, but don't worry! Basically, just act properly, dress conservatively, and give monks and the temple the proper respect that they deserve, and you'll have a good experience.