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Wat Khmer Austin Aims to Expand, Bring Cambodian Monks to Central Texas

Along a backroad near Coupland, among dilapidated farmhouses, cattle, tractors and cotton fields, stands a sign welcoming people to the “Wat Khmer Austin”. On the property of this Cambodian Buddhist Wat, sits a modest farmhouse-style building with a silver siding and a red roof, which currently receives visitors for community events and religious services. There is little on the property but an equipment shed. It might not look like much yet, but the Cambodian community of Central Texas has plans to further transform the land into a sanctuary for the community.











The entrance to the Wat


Sokkhon Ou is the president of the Wat Khmer Austin. He was born in Cambodia and graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in engineering. A resident of Round Rock, he used his professional education to draw blueprints for the temple and obtain building permits from Travis County. Over the past four-and-a-half years since he bought the property, his organization has raised over $450,000, he said.


The wat, which opened in 2018, currently serves a a hub for around 100 Cambodian families who previously had to travel to Houston or Dallas to attend events. Ou plans to expand the wat and bring monks from Cambodia to live in a monastery. However, he faces obstacles such as funding new buildings and sponsoring religious visas. 




“The temple will never be finished. We will keep adding onto it,” Ou said. He said they need at least three buildings at this point:  one for the monks to live in, and another for the monks to learn and teach Cambodian Buddhism. The building that currently stands has a kitchen and a shrine room where monks meet with the community. The building relies on rainwater. He said he will build the remaining two once he has a plumbing permit.







The Wat’s reception building


The temple is sponsoring religious visas for monks to come to Texas from Cambodia, Ou said. Although it would be easier to bring monks who already are in the United States, he said the temple is seeking monks who teach “the purest form of Cambodian Buddhism,” and that American monks combine other forms of the religion and Hinduism.


Jo Ti Dhamma, a Cambodian monk at a temple in Dallas, said the process of bringing a monk from abroad can be complex. For him, it took over two years before the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services approved his visa. Immigration officials interviewed him, asking him questions such as whether he would be receiving a salary.


Ou said U.S. immigration officials will inspect the Austin temple in January and he expects a response in the spring to the temple’s petition to sponsor a religious visa for a Cambodian monk.


The Cambodian community gathered at the Wat on Sep. 18th to celebrate Pchum Benh, a ceremony that honors their ancestors. It’s tradition is to present offerings such as rice to one’s deceased relatives. As Buddhists believe in reincarnation, and that it’s possible that the people who attend the celebration are their ancestors. After an elaborate ceremony led by monks who visited the temple from Houston, the community ate papaya salad, khmer noodle, and fried rice. 


    Over 100 Cambodian families have called central Texas home for decades, according to San Kim, a member of the Wat. Many members of the community? work in the electronics manufacturing industry at AMD in Austin and at other companies. Since many are full-time employees, they have never found the time to dedicate to building a temple, according to Kim. However, during the past five years, more Cambodian-American families have moved to the area making it possible for the community to raise donations, said Kim. 


The Cambodian community has rallied to further develop the Wat by volunteering their money and time. In August, a group of eight volunteers built a storage shed on the property. One family gifted the temple a handcrafted statue of the Buddha as a gift, which weighs 12,500 lbs including the pedestal. It took several months for it to travel by air, sea and land from Cambodia. 










The Wat’s Buddhist altar (Photo courtesy of Wat Khmer Austin)


Kim, in his fifties, the member of the Wat, grew up in Battambang, Cambodia where his grandparents took him to Buddhist temples. A survivor of the Cambodian Genocide in the 1970s, soldiers forced him to work on a farm, he said. He arrived in the United States in 1980 as a refugee and now has a job and family in Austin.  Each time he comes to the Wat, he prays for his ancestors. Speaking of his children, he said, “I wish when I was younger we’d had a Wat to bring them to learn our culture.” 


Kim said over 100 Cambodian families have called Central Texas home for decades. Many relatives work in the electronics manufacturing industry at companies like AMD. Since many are full-time employees, they have never found the resources to dedicate to building a temple. However, during the past five years, more Cambodian-American families have moved to the area making it possible for the community to raise donations.


Reporting by Dylan Rasbridge

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