Little Temple on the Prairie

Hampton, Minnesota, population 756, has all the usual suspects of a southern Minnesota small town: aged family farms, an old-timey town hall, and a silver water tower perched above modest, snow-capped homes. But take a harder look at the horizon and you’ll spot something unexpected against the pale winter sky: the scarlet and gold flourishes of an ornate Buddhist temple.

This is Watt Munisotaram. One of the largest Cambodian Buddhist temples in the United States was named for its chilly tundra home. (Hear it? Munisotaram.) People come from as far as France and Canada to visit, but the temple is much more than a tourist destination. It’s a vital gathering spot for Minnesota’s Cambodian community and a labor of love more than 30 years in the making.

The wat—which means “temple”—was first founded in Minneapolis in 1983. But its founding organization, the Minnesota Cambodian Buddhist Society, got some complaints from neighbors about their festive events and gatherings. By 1988, a board member found a solution: a 40-acre plot of farmland in Hampton.

“This little house on the prairie—you know, the old typical red barn and farm home,” says Chanda Sour, when I catch him on the phone while he’s in Houston, Texas. Sour grew up going to the temple. These days, he volunteers as its PR guy.

“You have to feel there’s someone higher up to watch you. Otherwise, we couldn’t…make it out of that Cambodian war.”

– Chanda Sour

Back in the ’80s and ’90s, the society gathered in a small temporary temple space on the property. But as the community grew, so did its fundraising potential. The main temple began construction in 2002 and completed in 2007—the society contracted Yav Socchea, an acclaimed Cambodian architect, to design it and construct it. Since then, it has added shrines, a reflection pool beneath a towering statue of the Buddha, and a stupa with a carved roof dripping gold like a fine confection. The day I visit, Cambodian craftsmen are busy in the workshop, carving stone figures for a grand new arch to frame the driveway.

Venerable Moeng Sang is the head monk of Watt Munisotaram. He lives part of the year in Cambodia and part at the temple and is a prominent figure in an international Buddhist organization. Years ago, the temple was gifted a Buddha relic—a true honor—during Venerable Moeng Sang’s travels to Colombo, Sri Lanka. It now lives at the temple, helping cement Watt Munisotaram’s significance as a Buddhist site in the United States.

A handful of monks reside at Watt Munisotaram. They practice Theravada Buddhism and observe its stipulations: They eat an early breakfast and a lunch at 11 am and only consume liquids after that. They don’t hug or shake hands with women.

“They don’t go out and dance or anything like that,” Sour laughs. “It’s not what you see on social media, you know, with the robes.”

They lead events, meditations, and prayers at the temple, and they’re also very active in the community. They visit those who are sick, wash unwelcome spirits away from newly purchased homes, and steal out into the night to visit elders who are close to death.

The monks helped build the temple, in fact, back in the aughts. Socchea’s construction crew had the aid of a small army of volunteers, too—folks laying bricks, helping paint the temple’s glistening gold accents.

Sour’s grandparents’ generation started it all. Up until the mid-1970s, there were almost no Cambodian immigrants living in the U.S., let alone in Minnesota. But Cambodia’s takeover by the Khmer Rouge and the ensuing genocide drove millions of people out of the country. Between 1975 and 1979, the regime killed 1.7 million Cambodians. Sour arrived in the U.S. as a child, with his grandmother, mother, and three aunts—his father had been killed in the war. Many people at the temple, he says, feel that the Buddha guided Cambodians to the United States.

“You have to feel there’s someone higher up to watch you,” says Sour. “Otherwise, we couldn’t make it out of that refugee camp or make it out of that Cambodian war. We feel that there’s someone watching us, helping us. That’s how you’re able to walk through the jungle and get to the Thailand border.”

The temple remains a guiding light for Minnesota’s Cambodian community, gathering so many around the state for celebrations and events through the seasons. But it’s in a period of transition as many of its elders, the bedrock of the community, pass on. Leaders at the temple are working to engage the youngest generation—they’re adding a playground, hosting music and food trucks at events. Sour also wants to incorporate multicultural events, inviting Filipino, Thai, and other communities, and welcome more of the broader community into the temple’s happenings.

“At the end of the day, if we don’t have a strong community, that place is just an empty shell to go and look at the pretty architecture,” says Sour. “It’s the people that created that.” 

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