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Driving up to the Watt is a religious experience itself. One passes miles and miles of typical midwestern farmland before suddenly spotting, on the top of a hill, an ornate temple with its beautiful golds, reds, and whites contrasting with the greens and browns of the countryside around it.
Our pace slows down as we walk up the hill towards the Watt Munisotaram for the first time. It’s not that the hill is particularly steep or that we’re particularly tired, we’re active young men, it’s just that the time has finally arrived and we are a bit afraid. More specifically we were afraid of the unknown. We have stepped out of the classroom, out of the comfort of hypotheticals and ethnography theory, and into the real world of field research where anything could happen, where thinking must be done on toes and heads must be on swivels. Instead of immediately going inside, we decide to peruse the campus grounds first. As we approach the courtyard in front of the main temple, we see a family of three Asian tourists looking inquisitively at the five mounds of sand, punctuated by colorful flags, flowers, and incense sticks. They asked a woman dressed in white, her necklaces shimmering in the sun, about the upcoming Cambodian New Year’s celebration. We listen. The five mounds of sand are indeed for Khmer New Years. The Khmer people are the predominant ethnic group in Cambodia (many are also in Vietnam, Thailand, and of course the U.S.) and Khmer is also the name of the language spoken there. The sand represents sin, people scoop up sand with their hands or a cup to ask for forgiveness. Over the course of the five-day celebration, a woman stationed at the mounds give lighted incense candles (donations encouraged) to whomever. People place the incense sticks in the sand and make wishes for the New Year.
After our brief learning experience, we gather up the courage to enter the main temple. Upon entering, we take off our shoes and walk down a narrow corridor filled with posters about the festivals for the year, pictures of previous events, and general rules and mission statement for the Watt. Leaving the corridor we enter the large sanctuary area. Kids do cartwheels on the collage of plush, colorful rugs arranged on the floor while men and women prepare decorations for the New Year. On our left, a man sits on a chair contentedly watching the scene and over the gift shop selling carved Buddhas (PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH), shirts, candles, tea, books, and more. In the far left corner, a group of women chant in a circle. The sounds of their melodies projected through the PA system, ringing off the walls, seeming to affect no one except us. It seems like a group lesson since one lady is giving tips to the other group members. Our eyes are drawn to the multi-colored, circular LED display behind the statue of the Buddha. We are told later it represents the state of enlightenment. To me however, it seems out of place and slightly tacky, but what do I know?
The woman dressed in white enters the room. This time we decide to go talk to her. She is a docent of the temple and her husband is the vice-president. She is very friendly and tells us that she and her husband have spent 30 years in Minnesota and joined this temple when it was in a person’s house in the Twin Cities before the neighbors got mad during festivals and the temple moved to Eagan before finally coming to rest in Hampton. She visits Cambodia about once a year in the winter months when it’s not too hot there and brings backs gifts for everyone on her return. She recounts all the main holidays practiced at the Watt, comparing them to Christian holidays (Buddha’s birth/death--Easter, follow teachings from the Buddhist Bible).
We walk around some more, snapping pictures and jotting down notes before noticing we'd been at the Watt four hours. We have to return our rental car. It was time to pack up and go home.