Monday, December 1, 2008


To those who know me, it's no secret I'm an idolater of Anthony Bourdain and his show, No Reservations. I caught an episode tonight I hadn't seen before - Laos. A rarely visited Southeast Asian paradise, tucked between Thailand and Vietnam, Laos is unindustrialised, unWesternised, and practically untouched.
Young Lao boys often enter the monastery, where they may stay only a few months, or their entire lifetime. The local, communal tradition of giving alms involves a daily earning of "merit," a Buddhist custom to build ones karma and feed the holy men.
The monks' only meal comes from the early morning alms, handfuls of rice given by locals, family members, and now more frequently, tourists.

Tony made an interesting point in this episode, regarding the nature of travel television. Of course, the idea is encourage travel to foreign locales, and preferably those closest to the hearts of the host. But perhaps, the introduction of hordes of camera bearing, Hawaiian shirted Westerners could serve only to hasten the decline of local tradition and customary ways of life. Thankfully, there are no McDonalds or KFCs in Laos... yet.

But one has to wonder, for a group of dedicated and revered young men - at what point do they start to feel like goats in a petting zoo, handed pellets of food purchased for a quarter by gawking visitors? Do they care, as long as they're nourished? Are the digital camera-snapping interlopers in any way less meritorious than those who rise, every day just after dawn, to share what little rice they have?

In a way, it seems like reverse communion, the giving of sustenance instead of transubstantiation, and I for one wouldn't feel comfortable partaking in either ceremony unless my heart was in the right place. Perhaps I'd be more willing to hand over a fistful of sticky rice than accept a bland wafer and sour wine, if I thought it would be any benefit to my soul.

If you're interested to learn more, here's a link to a travel blog from a foreign participant in the giving of alms.

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