ABOARD AMADARA-Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s capitol now but from 1618 to 1865 that honor belonged to Oudong, about 22 miles to the north. Its hundreds buildings, temples and royal stupas (repositories for cremation ashes) were destroyed by bombings in the early ‘70s and it is now a small town with the country’s largest Buddhist center.
The center encompasses a large temple, housing for monks and nuns, dining hall, a school and pleasant gardens. Our morning began there after a short bus ride from AmaDara.
After climbing the steps to the temple forecourt it was off with shoes, hats and sunglasses, women’s shoulders and knees modestly covered, for the monks’ blessing. Sitting on colorful matting, hands formed in prayer and careful not to point feet toward the line of seated, orange robe-clad monks, we listened to their chant.
After a response to accept and give thank for the blessing we could look about at leisure. The Buddha statue is quite imposing but more interestingly, the walls are covered in murals depicting the Buddha’s life just as early Christian churches had to teach of dam and Eve and the story of Jesus.
In small groups we headed out to see the complex. It was well-timed as the monks were coming from their quarters for the daily gathering of food. They do this each day and waste no time at it for they must gather, say prayers and eat before noon. No food after that until very early the next morning. Running late means a long hungry spell.
In a line, bowls in hand, they proceed across the grounds to where the nuns live in tiny one-woman structures. They gather bits of food from the villagers and cook it and rice to feed the monks. The monks in orange, the nuns in white, all with shaved heads, makes quite an image.
There were two women in my group and we were both invited to join the nuns in feeding the monks. What an experience. Again, shoes off.
I was given a bowl of rice and a sizeable spoon. I began giving each monk a spoonful until the nun to my left leaned over, reached across to my bowl and said, “Tit, tit, tit.”
Huh? There was no one to interpret but I watched the nun to my right give just token amounts of rice and caught on. I realized afterwards that each nun must be able to give to each monk in order to accept and benefit from the monks’ blessing that comes at the conclusion of the ceremony.
I chuckled at the cats along the line on the nuns’ side. Each had its own territory and as a grain or two of rice spilled, they would run out between our feet and eat it up.
When all was done, a tiny, very old nun approached and said, “Bonjour, madam,” I immediately replied in French, greeting her and asking how she was – I do know en peu – but she did not or could not respond. I do suspect she learned that bit of French during her country’s occupation of Cambodia.
I crossed the path to my fellow travelers, eager to regain my shoes and sunglasses. I had missed a grand photo opp but had a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
It wasn’t over, though. Another, younger and livelier nun came up to me most distressed and rattled something off. I called over Sofia, our guide, and asked for translation.
The nun was concerned that I had not responded when they had and unless I said the magic words, I would not receive the blessing benefit. Coached by Sofia, I did so. The nun and I both beamed.
You cannot beat international understanding.