In the early hours of every morning, even before the break of dawn, monks can be seen walking along roads on their alms round. They do this throughout the year whatever the weather. No matter if there is torrential rain or it is bitterly cold. Officially, they are only allowed to leave the temple once they can see the hairs on the back of their hand. But many leave long before sunrise in order to avoid the affects of the scorching sun. It is not easy being a monk. They have to walk barefoot along public roads and down unpaved lanes strewn with sharp stones and other unnatural objects. When they leave the temple, the monks have to wear their full robes with both shoulders covered. Only the novice monks, whether they be children or adults, go on the alms round with one shoulder bear.
Some Westerners look at the monks as going begging when they are out on their alms round. But, they are not. They are only showing humility and detachment from worldly goods. A good monk never goes seeking for alms. He walks slowly and with purpose and only stops if he is beckoned or called. Then he stands there quietly, with the lid of his bowl open, while the local Buddhists give him rice. Small plastic bags of curries and desserts are often put in a shoulder bag. Sometimes they are given flowers or a plain envelope containing some money. The Buddhist community are happy to do all of this so that the monks don’t need to support themselves. In return, the monks bless them and wish them a long and fruitful life.
The procedure for a lay person to give alms is always much the same. They will call the monk softly to ask them to receive an offering. They then spoon the rice into the alms bowl and give them curries. These should never be leftovers and should have been prepared or bought specifically for the monks. Next, they will then crouch down, with their hands together in a prayer like gesture, in order to receive the blessing from the monk. As the monks are walking barefoot, it is very important that lay people also remove their shoes when giving alms. However, you will often see them standing on top of their shoes if they don’t want to get their feet dirty.
Sometimes monks go out alone and other times there might be two or three of them. At some temples in areas with few neighbours, the monks will all follow the same route in one long line. If they do this, then the most senior monk, though not necessarily the oldest, will take the lead. The novices will take up the rear. Seniority is calculated by how many times you have been a monk during the annual Rains Retreat, sometimes referred to as the Buddhist Lent. A monk who has broken a precept or was caught playing with himself, is often sent to the back of the line. The locals know this and often snicker if they see an adult at the back.
I have seen monks go out alone, though often they go accompanied by a “dek wat” which is a temple boy. One of the most famous temple boys was Chuan Leekpai who was once prime minister of Thailand. Temple boys often come from poor families. They help out at the temple early in the morning before school. In return they can eat the food left over by the monks. If they don’t have a home or any family, they are often allowed to sleep at the temple. Sometimes you will see an older teenager or a man walking with the monk. This person is his “luksit” which can be translated as a “disciple”. I like to see them as their “executive secretary”. There are many things the monks are not allowed to do, like handle money matters, so their “luksit” often deals with this.
Not all monks are diligent of course though they all should go on the morning alms round. If they need to be absent then they need permission from the abbot. Either because they are ill or they need to attend a function at a the house of a layman. The lazy monks go out on their alms round on a samlor or a motorcycle taxi. Instead of walking a beat, they will seek out favourite spots and wait for lay people to come to them. Popular locations include outside convenience stores like 7-Eleven and at the market. Some monks have their own turf which they can be seen protecting rigoursly if a monk from a neighbouring temple trespasses. Lay people from certain areas are more likely to give a sizable donation in an envelope on their birthdays.
It may seem greedy for the monk not to return back to his temple as soon as his bowl is full. After all, they are only allowed two meals per day and the last once has to start before noon. However, a monk can never refuse a lay person if they wish to make merit. They have to accept everything that is given to them even if it makes them uncomfortable to carry such heavy weights on their shoulders. On popular routes, the dek wat can often be seen pushing a cart to help carry all the extra food. Hardly any of this is wasted. On their return, the monk will choose particular items for himself and the rest is left in the communal kitchen. The food here is then for monks who weren’t able to go on alms rounds and also the nuns and other temple staff. Many temples also allow local poor people to come to the temple to eat a meal. Any food left over is then given to the cats and stray dogs in the temple compound.
I have been out on at least half a dozen alms rounds over the years. I have even acted as a “dek wat” and helped carried some of the spoils of the alms round. If you want to go with a monk on his alms round then this is often possible to do. However, you should make friends with him beforehand. Visit a temple near where you are staying and make conversation with the young monks. Often they might want to practice their English with you. Then ask if it would be alright to go with them on their alms round. They will probably say yes. However, you will most likely need to be at the temple before six when it is still dark. But, in Thailand, like many sub tropical countries, it does suddenly become light around 6.30 a.m. Certainly light enough to take pictures if you so wish.
If you don’t want to go on an alms round, but want to take some pictures, then you should go to the local market before 6.30 a.m. You will find many monks around here. Try and use a long lens so that you don’t disturb them or turn their morning duties into a circus show. This is what has happened now in Luang Prabang in Laos. If you are walking around, you can usually spot places where monks will go. Householders often set up a small table outside their house if they intend to give alms. If you see this, then you can safely be assured that if you wait there, then a monk will come soon. The householders often don’t mind as long as you are respectful to both them and the monks.