By Shawn Chitnis

WESTMINSTER, Colo. (CBS4) – Construction on a new Lao Buddhist Temple continues almost 10 years after a fire destroyed the place of worship a community relied on to gather for cultural traditions and celebrations.

(file photo credit: CBS)

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and Lao families in Colorado are one of many AAPI communities proud to call this state home as they work to rebuild their campus.

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“Laos is a country where we’re very not so much well known,” said Emmy Thammasine, the lead designer for the temple at 10685 North Dover Street in Westminster. “We want it to be a place where people can come and learn about who we are, who the Lao people are, and really just showcase our beautiful culture.”

A country with a population of just over 7 million people, it is located in Southeast Asia, near Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Thammasine explains that the country often gets lost as a smaller nation next to larger neighbors. He has lived in the U.S. most of his life, and moved back to Colorado just months before the old temple caught fire. He remembers the whole community learning quickly on Dec. 5, 2011 that this fixture in the community was gone.

(credit: CBS)

“There it was, and my heart just sank and I would say that was the same thing for anybody in the community when they saw the news,” he told CBS4 outside the new construction site on Wednesday. “Without the temple, there’s no Lao community.”

A campaign to raise money for multiple buildings on the campus and volunteers working on Fridays and weekends keep the project going almost a decade since the fire. The COVID-19 pandemic slowed down their progress but the structure of the main temple is taking shape and near completion. This month the crew is finishing drywalling that 15,000 square feet structure. It includes a basement for events, below a central hall that will be home to large Buddha statues.
“We’re going to have to rebuild. If we don’t, there’s no future for our Lao community here in Colorado,” Thammasine recalls saying to other members. He is an architect by trade, and offers his time outside of work to supervise the project. “It’s a community effort — it’s taken a village to build this temple and to get it to where it is right now, and we’re just hoping to get it done soon.”

Not only does the temple host traditional ceremonies and celebrate holidays, the birth of a child and the announcement of a marriage are all events that bring the community together here. They celebrate the new year with the rest of the country at the temple and their own Lao New Year in April, which they hope to celebrate in the new temple next year.

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(credit: CBS)

“It’s not easy, it’s been rough, but it’s also made us really persevere,” he said. “This will get built, we just have to be patient and we just have to fight through it together.”

During a month when all AAPI communities celebrate their heritage and show solidarity — at a time of increased anti-Asian hate crimes — Thammasine says this temple reconstruction project could not be possible without the support of others, including the Hmong American and Lao-Lue communities in Colorado, who have offered their support for the project. That gesture is in keeping with the teachings of the temple and its members, who say all are welcome and their doors are always open.

(credit: CBS)

“Just to be in the presence of the temple is just a very relaxing and very calming atmosphere. That’s what I look forward to the most,” he said.

“I see Buddhism overall actually as a teaching, as a philosophy more than as a religion, and that’s what I think is really beautiful about it.”
Thammasine describes the community as a very proud and happy people, who have embraced their new home while maintaining the culture they brought with them to the United States. The Lao community cheers on the Broncos each week — and love their views of the Rocky Mountains from the temple, a feature that will be showcased even more under the new design. Exposed wood is another western accent the temple showcases, making it truly unique to Colorado.

“You come, you don’t have to immerse yourself in the whole religion but just to open your heart and learn and hear about the teachings of Buddha and really the teachings about life,” he said. “It’s a blessing to be here in this great state and this great city.”

While the fire destroyed the entire temple, some relics were saved and remain in storage. The total cost for the project is $1.5 million, including two other buildings on the campus. The community recently returned to the site to gather again for the first time since the pandemic, using a tent to come together just a few feet away from the outline of the original temple, which remains visible on the property.

“The Lao people love it here and that’s why they stay and they want to be here,” Thammasine said. “It makes us stronger, it makes us more proud to know that we’re not big in number but big in heart.”

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If you’d like to help with the construction of the new Lao Buddhist Temple, visit watlaodenver.com.

Shawn Chitnis