Building Wat Lao Denver

by Emmy Thammasine

Thornton, CO (USA)

For more about the rebuild project, visit

Ask me where home is and I’ll tell you Colorado, only because after forty-one years, I’m finally too tired to move anymore and my life is happily stable. Ask me where my hometown is, and I’ll struggle to give you a straight answer. I’m 100% Lao but was born in 1977 in the Ubon Refugee Camp and within two years, became a permanent US resident. Mobile, Alabama was our family’s landing spot, but it was short-lived. It seemed for the next three and half decades I lived a nomad lifestyle, roaming the land and calling Louisiana, Texas, Colorado, California and New Mexico home. I wasn’t homeless. I was doing the American thing, living the American Dream, because growing up with very little made me hungry and motivated to not waste away the opportunities that my parents tirelessly worked so hard to give us.

My childhood was one that I would love to just erase from my memory, but then I’d have no history and nothing to build a future on. I wasn’t proud to be Lao, and felt embarrassed by it all through pre-kindergarten, elementary and junior high school years. I identified as an American, not Lao-American, and fully assimilated. Even then, I stuck out like sore thumb in a high school in rural Colorado where over 95% of the students were Caucasian. It was demoralizing to know that I wasn’t as “white” as I thought I was, and it put me in my place. It was at this point in my life that I realized I’d been living with a false sense of identity. As I neared graduation, I spent more quality time with my father and we’d talk about my youth and his past.

One day in the summer of 1994, he took his youngest child on a fishing trip and it was the first time in my life he reminisced about war-torn Laos and our family’s exile from the motherland. It was that very day that for the very first time I felt proud and empowered by the rich history of my ethnicity. I was proud to be his son, the son of a high-ranking officer of the Royal Lao Government military. I was, and am, proud to be Lao! Whether he intended it or not, he’d set a high standard and expectations. I focused to achieve and exceed those expectations. It gave me a new fresh look on life, and nothing would get in my way. As with so many stereotypical Asian parents, he’d wanted me to go to school to become a doctor or a lawyer. We bickered over that because I had other ideas. I’m artsy-fartsy, but he was absolutely against me becoming an artist. However, I fought intently to go to school for a degree that would allow me to express my creativity, and after all the arguments, I decided to enroll in engineering school and received my acceptance to the University of Colorado in 1995.

How quickly my mind changed after one semester of engineering school. I was bored and there weren’t a lot of ways to exude creativity. I couldn’t see myself happy with a career as an Engineer. After a little bit of soul-searching, and more bickering with my father, I found an architecture school and transferred into CU’s Architecture program. It was love immediately. It was a field that I could have success with and be happy roaming free with my creative mind. In 1999, with my Architecture degree in hand, I was ready to take on the world! Then in 2003, all came to a halt when my father passed away.

Life stood still for a while, but thinking back to our times together, I had to move on, and I used the legacy he left behind to carry me forward. I became very active with the Lao community and it was the beginning of a long list of humanitarian efforts to help people in the community. It was something my father always did in his spare time, assisting with immigration paperwork or serving as a role model for higher education for the Lao youths. Then in December 2011, just months after I moved back to Colorado after eleven years, I took on the biggest humanitarian effort after the Lao Buddhist Temple of Denver was reduced to ashes in a fire. Without hesitation, I stepped in front of the community and all of the executive board members and vowed to design a new temple and get it built. In heart, the Temple is the heart and soul of the Lao community. Without it, there is no community. As our fathers and mothers did when they first immigrated to America, they found togetherness through building a life through the temple. I took the weight on my shoulders to re-build what our parents built for us: our community. This was the ultimate giving back to the community that gave so much to me. This was a chance for me to narrate the story of Buddhism and the Laotian culture through architecture. This project inspired me to visit the motherland for the first time since arriving in the US in 1979 to research Wats in Laos and learn more about our culture and traditions, and to experience it first hand was invaluable to my design of the temple. Everything about the design revolves around the people, the community, and the culture. During my visit in Laos, I went all the way back to my roots, my father’s home, in a remote village about an hour outside of Savannakhet. There I sat in the house he was born in. There I sat just thinking about him. There I sat in the place where it all began. There I sat at HOME. And now, at almost 70% completion, I’ve brought Laos back with me to Colorado with the vision I had for the temple. This is forever home away from home. I am Lao.