We climbed the steps to Wat Ounalom, slipped off our sandals, and entered in the late afternoon. This, the most important Wat in Phnom Penh, struck us as very plain, stripped of the rich furnishings that decorate even the simplest wat we’d visited in Thailand. We assumed the events of the last 40 years have taken their toll on the wat.
Small stupas and statuary filled the back courtyard, including a sad memorial to a Japanese war correspondent.
A monk asked where we were from. Satisfied with our answer, he asked as he waved his arm toward the small central stupa, “Would you like to see inside?” Yes, thank you, we would.
An old monk took out a key and opened the door. Inside we saw a statue on the left and another to the right, both in alcoves. In front of us opened an archway less than 5 feet tall. We stooped to enter the small space just large enough for us to sit before a large black Buddha with squares of gold affixed to a shoulder. The glow of an LED halo behind Buddha’s head lit the small room. When the old monk said, “Eyebrow,” we recalled that Wat Ounalom was built in 1444 to house a relic eyebrow hair from Buddha that must be in this very room.
The monk handed us burning incense sticks to place in a pot before the Buddha. He took our palms and brushed them with water, and, using a circular motion of his hands over his face, he indicated we should rub our faces with our palms. The entire time he was chanting a prayer, a blessing.
After a few moments we thanked the monk, we left a donation on the Buddha’s lap, and were on our way.
All the months of planning and preparation for our long trip had not prepared us for unexpected moments such as this.