You can't complain when you're part of the problem

It's still dark this early in the morning - pitch-dark. What gives, monks? I know you're hungry but couldn't it wait until later? You guys never heard of a lazy brunch?

Still, there's no telling a holy man what constitutes a reasonable hour to collect the day's only food. The monks have probably barely touched a grain of rice in the past 12 hours or so.

Plus, they've been doing it this way for centuries. It's best to be a good tourist and just take it all in.

The streets are quiet in Luang Prabang save for the ghostly shapes of a few locals shuffling through the gloom of a cool morning. There are no tuk-tuks beeping past, no bicycles tinging their bells. That will come later. For now all is quiet; the street carts are deserted, the restaurants shut.

It feels as though it's just us as we ease the hotel door shut and pad down the pavement, making our way to the main street.

We're not really taking part in an ancient tradition here - more just observing it. Every morning for centuries the Buddhist monks have walked the streets of this holy Laotian city, swinging their brass pots and collecting offerings from the equally devout residents.

It's the only food the monks eat. Most people, we're told, just give them packages of the traditional sticky rice, although some will include a few hunks of meat, or something sweet.

It seems a little rude to watch a ritual like this and not have anything to give, so the owner of our hotel has loaded us up with rice, showing us how much to dole out to each monk when our time comes. Be respectful, she warned. Always sit, keeping yourself lower than the monks. Don't take photos with a flash.

As we get closer to the main street we're armed with all the essentials for morning monk viewing: rice for alms and cameras for posterity.


A few more people can be seen on Luang Prabang's cracked streets now, walking through the grounds of the many temples, moving silently in and out of houses, some clutching huge woven baskets of cooked rice. There's still not a ray of sunshine; there's no hint of the day that lies ahead.

Finally, we round a corner and arrive on the main street - a good thoroughfare to see the monks, we've been told - and come across an incredible sight. Both sides of the road are packed with people but they're not the locals we'd expected to find. They're tourists. Westerners, like us.

It's hard not to be a little disappointed. This is one of those experiences that have made Laos such a popular destination, one we'd all been looking forward to. But what was once a cultural rite witnessed by a lucky few feels like a planned performance for the masses.

You have to appreciate the irony. Our quaint, unique experience is being tainted by people just like us, people who were hoping for the same thing as us: to be alone as outsiders observing a distinctly local custom.

That's the paradox of modern tourism. Popularity spells inevitable change. At its worst, it's the destruction of what was so attractive in the first place.

But complaining about those other tourists kneeling on the streets of Luang Prabang is pointless. It's like complaining about the Jeeps carrying people across the Serengeti - those cars that fight each other for the best vantage point like lions battling for power.

It's like whingeing about all those people crowded around the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. Or moaning about the queue to get into the Colosseum in Rome.

You can't complain when you're part of the problem. You just have to make the best of it, try to see what it was that made the experience so special in the first place.

So that's what we do in Luang Prabang, taking our spot on the pavement next to people just like us and prepare to offer alms to monks who probably can't believe their good fortune - more people, after all, must mean more food.

Eventually they appear, a long line of them rounding a corner in the dawn light, their orange robes bright against the dull colours of an early morning in a small town in Laos. They file past and we dole out our portions of sticky rice, being careful to stay low, trying to be respectful while trying to take photos without ruining the occasion (it's impossible).

The monks disappear around the corner and we get up and file back to our hotels, not for breakfast like the monks but to go back to bed and wait for a more reasonable hour.

All I'm left with now are the photos I took, the same as all those other tourists - the tourists you can see in the background of my shots. I'm working on Photoshopping them all out.

Do large crowds of tourists annoy you? Or do you accept them as part of the experience while travelling?