Foreigners are always welcome in Buddhist temples, with caveats. Follow these next simple etiquette tips for visiting temples in Laos.
Don’t eat or drink on temple grounds
Save your snack for once you leave the temple grounds. Monks don’t eat past noon. Most monks in city temples eat two meals per day, one very early in the morning and one around 11 a.m. All of the food monks eat are offered in donations as Buddhist scripture forbids the growing, storing, cooking or picking of food by monks.
Talk with the monks
Many of the Monks (Kubah) and novices who live in monasteries are studying English and are happy to speak with you. Novices are boys who are studying the sutras and may become ordained in time, or may be temporarily dedicated to the monastic order to earn merit for themselves and their family. Offer them a high nop (palms pressed together thumbs to the forehead) for respect. The nop will not likely be returned by the monk since it’s a symbol to show respect from a lower social class to a higher person. Women especially should keep a respectful distance from monks when interacting. Women may not touch monks or their robes. They also may not hand anything to the monk directly, with the exception of placing alms the the Monk’s bowl during morning alms rounds. Wat Sokpaluang in Vientiane has a “Monk Talk” and meditation session Saturday afternoons.
Don’t take photos of people praying
Taking photos of the outsides of buildings in a temple complex is fine. Remember that while you may consider it a tourist attraction, a temple is a place of worship. Monks aren’t zoo animals and vying to get the best shot is uncomfortable for them and any lay Buddhists in the temple coming to pray or pay respects. Some temples have a no-camera policy for the inside of sanctuaries. For those that don’t, use your best judgement. It’s not polite to take photos of people praying without their permission.
Pray or give offerings
The streets outside many temples are lined with stalls selling incense, candles and intricately folded palm leaf and marigold offerings. It’s fine, and encouraged even to buy these items and make an offering at an alter or in front of a Buddha effigy. If you take a candle or light incense from the temple, make a monetary donation as well. Temples run on donations. When you set the offering down, kneel with your feet to one side away from the Buddha and offer three of your highest nops: one for your commitment to virtue, one for the realization of truth and a third for the monastic order. Bring your palms together, thumbs to your third eye and bow down to the ground. When in doubt, glance around and follow suit.
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