A design concept for the planned Watt Samaki project in Westbrook. Contributed / Khmer Maine

Maine’s growing Cambodian community has launched a $1.5 million fundraising campaign for a cultural and community center and traditional Cambodian Buddhist temple on 30 acres of land in Westbrook.

Plans call for the $1 million construction of the community center and a monks’ residence to begin in the next one to three years off Cumberland Street, across from Willoughby Farm Road close to the Windham town line. Construction of the temple is estimated at $500,000 and would begin within the next three to five years. Builders and contractors who are part of the Cambodian community are donating their labor for the project.

The need for more space for worship and events at the current Watt Samaki Temple in Buxton became apparent during the pandemic, according to Marpheen Chann, founder and president of Khmer Maine, a support organization for Cambodians in the state that is partnering with Watt Samaki on the project.

“During COVID, Khmer Maine wanted to work with the temple, because they serve a lot of our seniors and elders, and that’s a population that we hoped to serve during that time,” Chann said. The group soon realized, though, that the temple was not large enough to accommodate health and safety regulations.

The Buxton temple also is too small to handle large gatherings for holidays such as Pchum Ben and the Kachin and Cambodian New Year, which could regularly attract 250 to 300 people, Chann said.

“In a rural area that size, it just showed us that the community had grown to an extent where this was not going to work going into the future,” he said. “In conversations with the temple over the years, we suggested maybe it’s time to find a new location and a new town to work with.”


They settled on Westbrook, partly because it “already has a good number of Cambodian families and households,” he said, and because the city welcomed the project and suggested potential sites. The temple made a down payment of $95,000 on the $475,000 parcel with $380,000 financed by CEI.

“It was really important for me, facilitating the connection between the temple and the city, for the city to offer an olive branch in that manner. That was really something important for the temple to hear because a city was willing to offer help in a sense. That gave the temple an indication that the city of Westbrook is a place they could work with,” Chann said.

Members of the Cambodian community in April held a gathering and parade at Riverbank Park in Westbrook in celebration of Khmer New Year. Holding the event in Westbrook communicated that “we’re here to bring culture, arts, diversity and food, which brings vibrancy and tourism to an area. The city being open to a temple there was huge,” Chann said.

The project holds deep significance for the Cambodian community, he said. About 2,000 Cambodians live in Maine.

Many Cambodian immigrants and refugees arrived in Maine in the late 1970s, fleeing the Khmer Rouge under leadership of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, which killed around 2 million people in a span of four years.

“You see folks arriving as refugees who survived the genocide, or survived and then spent years in the Thai refugee camp until they came to Maine,” Chann said. There is a particular trauma for those who were born in the Thai refugee camps and then brought to America, divorced from their roots and homeland, he said.


“Second and third generations experience the trauma of the genocide through things like domestic violence, substance abuse and mental health abuse,” he said, which is why a community and cultural space is important for coming together and healing. 

“The temple is visible and symbolic of the community’s journey from genocide to Maine, and is a place where our seniors and elders can find some peace, solace and respite,” he said. For younger generations, “it’s building a sense of shared culture and community. The proceeding generations can become isolated from each other if there’s nothing to draw them together.”

“The temple is honoring the past, and the culture and community center is dealing with what do we do in the present and go forward as a community,” he said.

The community center will be a space for arts, dancing, music, performance and education, and will also be welcoming to the broader community, he said. Existing trails on the site will remain accessible to the public.

“Khmer Maine will be able to facilitate access for other BIPOC communities to be able to enter land and walk forest trails that they know is owned by a community of color, rather than owned by the state,” Chann said. “Being in nature helps heal and offers space for meditation and prayer.”

The design of the project will incorporate nature.


“We are talking in our community and with partners about open and green space, botanical gardens, ponds and how we can bring together Buddhism with nature and education and learning,” Navan Leng, president of Watt Samaki Temple, said at a press conference last week announcing the project.

“In the next year or so, we look forward to talking with our neighbors and the surrounding community and Westbrook to help us envision how this can further benefit the region,” Leng said. “It is a project that will benefit the Cambodian community, yes, but it will also benefit Buddhist communities of all backgrounds, the city of Westbrook, the Greater Portland region and Maine, because it will serve as a celebration of our diversity, our communities, and will attract tourism and increase access to nature and local parks and trail systems.”

Temple officials and Khmer Maine are preparing their project for the Westbrook Planning Board approval process.

“As the city of Westbrook continues to diversify … the community center and the temple that will be here will be a tremendous benefit to the community,” said Mayor Michael Foley at the press conference. “It will be a unique economic development opportunity to bring people to Westbrook from all over New England to worship here, but also connection to trails and recreational opportunities.”

To donate to the project, visit wattsamaki.org/welcomehome.

Members of the Cambodian community and Westbrook Mayor Michael Foley, center, at the Cumberland Street site of the proposed project. Contributed / Khmer Maine

Comments are not available on this story.