So far, I have been privileged to have many new experiences with Buddhist traditions and prayers while on Cambodia SST. Although I’m not even close to knowing the in’s and out’s of Buddhism, I am learning new things each time I practice prayer and meditation.

I was initially introduced to Buddhism my first night in Cambodia. My sister practices religiously and prays every night, and I have had the privilege of joining her most nights to pray. The prayer starts (for me) by sitting on a thin bamboo mat, bowing three times with my hands, putting my hands together and closing my eyes. For my sister, the ritual starts with opening the door to our balcony, lighting incense and saying a few words in Khmer. After doing all of this, she sits, legs to the side with her feet pointing behind her, and enters into prayer by bowing three times to the ground. She then speaks out loud in Khmer. I don’t know what she is saying, so I often listen to her soft voice or use this time to pray to God. It is a wonderful time for me to reflect and give thanks for my days here.

Besides prayer in the house, I have been able to experience Buddhist practices with the monks as well. My sister travels to Wat Moha Montrei every Saturday after her English class. The Wat is close to our house, so she walks. The first Saturday I traveled with her. At this point everything was still so new to me, and I soon found out I didn’t know what I was doing.

As we arrived at the Wat and began to enter the temple, we both took off our shoes and walked in. I was struck by the beauty inside. Bright colors immediately grabbed my attention, and I stared in awe. Soon I realized I looked silly just standing there and followed my sister to the mat. I sat next to her but didn’t know what to do next. A monk soon joined us, and my sister told me to help her offer food to the monk. I quickly picked up my free hand, my left hand, and put it on the food plate. After the blessing, the monk stared at me and said, “Two hands.” I was mortified. I later realized another critical mistake: I had used only my left hand, or in Cambodia, my “unclean” hand. I was determined to make my next experience with a monk less embarrassing and more respectful.

Fortunately, I got a chance to redeem myself this past Sunday. My sister invited me to go to the mountains with her and a co-worker, Nop, and I said yes. We left at eight o’clock Sunday morning and drove an hour and a half to the Kampong Speu Province. We stopped at a few houses and then I saw the mountains. They were not like the mountains I am used to, but were a welcome sight nonetheless. We walked up many, many stairs and when we reached the top, there were several pagodas and temples. We found a monk and proceeded to offer food; I remembered to use both hands this time. He blessed the food and then said a prayer. After the blessing, my sister, Nop and I went to sit down.

There was one temple in particular that drew my attention. I asked my sister if I could take pictures, and she said if I asked for respect, I could. I walked up the three steps, took off my sandals, walked in a few steps and sat down. I bowed three times and took some pictures. My sister and Nop soon joined me, and we prayed together. I held the incense for the first time while I prayed. It was calming to pray in nature without the constant sounds of the city.

I hope to learn a lot more about the Buddhist religion. I have a feeling I am still doing some things wrong, but I am learning new traditions each time I try something new.

Sara Toews is a junior social work major. She is currently in Cambodia on SST.