Out of the corner of your eye as you round a curve on Yelm Highway S.E. just after it splits with State Route 510, you might notice what appear to be a pair of pink lotus-flower statues on either side of a concrete-block wall adjoined by a black, wrought-iron gate.
If you turn your head quickly enough, you’ll see through the fence several bright yellow wooden buildings that resemble typical single-family Yelm homes. You might also notice a legion of statues standing erect throughout the property and a glass-and-wood enclosed shrine a bit further back called a “stupa,” which houses the property’s main Buddha statue.
This is the Wat Prachum Raingsey Buddhist Association temple, a unique Yelm marvel that has been slowly but surely evolving throughout the years since it first broke ground in 2002. And it continues to evolve, though these days at a snail’s pace as COVID-19 ravages it as it has just about every other entity in town.
“It’s just broken the community apart,” said current Buddhist Association President Chheth Chuon, 61. “People don’t show up like they used to, and we have fewer donations.”
The double whammy has suppressed an already unpredictable situation for the non-profit association.
“We can’t always do what we want to do, because we rely on donations and don’t have the funds to do it,” said Chuon, who retired after working 32 years for the state Department of Enterprise Services. “We do a little at a time when we can, and that’s why building a temple takes forever.”
But despite the obstacles, traditions persist.
On a recent day inside the nearest of the temple grounds’ bright-yellow structures, Kosal Suon warily eyes a clock hanging on an adjacent wall. It says 11:35 a.m.
By long held tradition, Suon, a Cambodian Buddhist monk, is allowed two meals a day: the first early in the morning and the second before noon. Suon — his thin, angular frame attired in traditional Cambodian saffron robes — has spent the past two hours quietly chatting with several of his friends and a local newspaper reporter, but now he’s ready to eat.
“I’m sorry, but I must go,” he says, pointing to the clock. “I cannot eat past noon.”
Suon, 50, is one of two monks who live at the Wat Prachum Raingsey Buddhist Association temple. The Cambodian native has been in the United States since 2006. Bunthon Sok, also 50, is the second monk in the household. He also has been in this country since 2006.
The monks are responsible for maintaining the association’s 5-acre grounds and offering counseling, prayer and insight into the simple, disciplined teachings of the Buddha.
“The monks are a good example to the community of how to be good, peaceful people and bring the different ethnicities of the community together to learn about Buddhiast philosophy,” explained Sarun Sam, a Lacey resident who was the Wat Prachum Raingsey Buddhist Association president from 2002-2006 when the temple was first established in Yelm. The Cambodian native immigrated to the United States in 1984.
His life, like others in Thurston County’s Cambodian community, embraced the teachings of Buddha from an early age, and the knowledge has sustained him ever since.
“My father and mother and whole family are Buddhists, and I learned about the faith from them,” he said last week from the temple. “That upbringing prompted me to offer my time to the Buddhists in our community.”
Though it’s difficult to ascertain these days because of the effects of COVID-19, the temple at certain times of the year is a beehive of activity and a magnet for donations from people near and far.
In normal years, the temple celebrates three festivals: the Cambodian New Year in April, Cambodian Memorial Day in October, and the Robe Offering for the monks in November.
But not this year. Chuon doesn’t expect any of the festivals to take place.
The non-profit temple, which is wholly supported through donations of money, food and other necessities, requires about $15,000 a year to cover utilities, insurance and subsistence for Suon and Sok.
The association is composed of five Cambodian families — who own the 5-acre property together through the association — and is overseen by a board of directors that currently includes four men and one woman.
The board — which as a group decides how the temple will function — fluctuates between two and nine people depending on who is interested and has time to volunteer. Association presidents are elected to four-year terms by a community of Cambodian families who live nearby.
The temple initially took about six years to build after the families purchased the Yelm land in 2002, and is a constant work in progress. The Cambodian families bought the land intending to build the temple because at the time Cambodians in the area wishing to practice their Buddhist religion had no temple to attend.
In normal years, people from all over Thurston County and western Washington visit the temple to immerse themselves in Cambodian culture, Chuon said.
“People like the way the temple looks and how it feels like Cambodian culture. It’s nice and clean and peaceful with lots of statues.”
Thank you, Kosal Suon.
The Buddhist monk conceived the layout of the temple grounds and attempted to reconstruct it from Cambodian temples with which he was familiar.
“He brought the vision from Cambodia to here,” Sam said.
Added Suon: “We wanted the temple to look like a Buddhist temple you would typically see in Cambodia. In my life, I have great respect for the Buddha, and I believe the way the Buddha speaks, so for that reason I wanted to improve the temple for the community.”
Suon, who is considered the temple’s lay leader, learned from an early age what path his life was to take — and he has not strayed from it.
“I think being a Buddhist monk is a better life for me,” said Suon, who took his formal vows in 1985. “Because I have no wife and family, and I live alone I have a chance to learn a lot and teach. It is satisfying for me to teach the community here to understand the Cambodian Buddhist philosophy and for people to be good and friendly.”
Being good and friendly is not just a catchy slogan for serious Cambodian Buddhists, who must adhere to strict rules in their daily life. The rules are: 1.) no killing; 2.) no stealing; 3.) no adultery; 4.) no lying; and 5.) no drugs or alcohol.
For Cheng Sam, 62, who has been married to Sarun Sam since 1978, Buddhism is simply a natural way of life. She believes in the Buddha’s teaching, and with her extended family has lived within its precepts for many years. Sojourns to the temple bring her joy.
“I go to the temple, and I feel peaceful and happy with all the friends I have there,” she said last week. “I go there to pray to the Buddha for my family and friends and all the other people in the community.”
Cheng, who visits the temple about five times a year usually during special celebrations, feels right at home among both Buddhist men and women. Association members stress the importance of equality among all people who visit the temple.
“The temple is for everyone — all cultures, races, and ethnicities,” Chuon said. “Anyone can come join us.”
The Wat Prachum Raingsey Buddhist Association and its 5 acres of manicured grounds — which contain close to 150 outdoor Cambodian statues — is a temple in constant flux, a reflection of Cambodian Buddhism with a simple aim: to open hearts and minds to the teachings of Buddha.
And as it struggles against the COVID-19 pandemic, the association’s members focus on the future with assurance the temple will continue to grow and attract more visitors.
“Hopefully, we’ll create a better temple and bring more people and the community together,” Chuon said. “When people come here, we want them to feel peaceful like they are part of the Cambodian culture. I want people to come see what we do here.”
Editor’s Note: The Wat Prachum Raingsey Buddhist Association does not offer regular prayer services and is currently open by appointment. People interested in visiting the temple or to receive counseling and prayer with Kosal Suon may make an appointment with him by calling 360-790-8283 or by calling Chheth Chuon at 360-790-0373.