Less than thirty miles south from St. Paul, Minnesota, rests the nation’s largest Cambodian temple. But if you didn’t know it was there, you would miss it altogether.
Wat Munisotaram is set back from a main highway in Hampton, Minnesota, surrounded by farmland as far as the eye can see. The name of the temple, or ‘wat’, means where a sage ‘Muni’ comes to pray ‘sotaram’. Its color-blocked gateway and gold-hued pagoda rooftops appear as a kind of Southeast Asian mirage amid the cornfields. But for about a decade, it’s served as the spiritual hub for Minnesota’s Cambodian community – about 10,000 people – and beyond.
“You don’t have to spend $1,500-2000 to go to Asia,” said Chanda Sour, a board member of Wat Munisotaram. “Just come here with 10 bucks in gas. That’s the beauty of it.”
The temple pagoda and surrounding structures are set on 40 acres of land. Most Cambodians in Minnesota came as war refugees in the 1970s. They began the process of rebuilding their lives here. Central to that was establishing a spiritual center. In 1982, the Minnesota Cambodian Buddhist Society was birthed at a rented apartment building in Minneapolis. Over the years, the organization would relocate three more times before finding a permanent home in Hampton in 1988, funded entirely by donations by worshippers and visitors.
The $1.5 million main temple and meditation hall adorned with snake motifs is spectacular to see. But the Venerable Moeng Sang, the leader of six full-time monks in residence, says the campus is only partially finished. Moeng has plans to build a school and complete the construction of a stupa (where small relics of Buddha are purchased and stored). The monastery depends on seven major events in the Buddhist calendar to pay for its operations.
A time to go and see what the temple is all about will be in mid-April. That’s when the temple will welcome thousands of people from around the country to celebrate the Cambodian New Year.
This story was published February 26, 2018.