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Khampheng Manirath of Des Moines, Iowa, is a traditional storyteller originally from Laos. Manirath is also an elected officer of the Wat Lao Buddhavas (Lao Buddhist Temple) in Des Moines.
In 1981, the Lao Buddhist community established the Wat Lao Buddhavas. Six years after the land was purchased, the mortgage was paid off. Since its founding, the Wat has grown from a small house to a complex of buildings that includes a small temple, a community hall for large events, and a house for the monks.
The monks serve not only the people in Des Moines, but Buddhists throughout Iowa and neighboring states. Major holidays, which commemorate stages of the Buddha’s life, are a big draw, and the community hall is packed during worship and the social events that always follow. Congregants bring traditional food to share with family and friends as well as offerings for the monks.
The community hall has an altar area on the north side, and a mural depicting the life of Buddha adorns the western and southern walls. Outside the large building are carvings and sculptures of the Buddha as well as the animals sacred to the religion including the naga (seven-headed snake that sheltered the Buddha during a storm) and elephants.
An ESL tutor and teacher for the Des Moines Public Schools since 1975, he is a graduate of Grandview College with an ESL endorsement from the University of Iowa. Manirath learned his stories from his grandparents and his mother. His grandfather would gather everyone by the fire in the evenings and tell ghost stories, French contes, Chinese folk tales (his father’s side), and Lao folk tales.
Today, Manirath uses animal figures, miniature houses, and other objects, as well as his own hand-drawn book, to illustrate his stories, showing non-Asians some of the ways people live in Laos—and reminding Asian American students of their heritage. Encouraged by a fellow teacher, he began to illustrate the stories, putting together two bilingual books.
The recipient of the 2000 Teacher of the Year Award from the Iowa Language & Cultural Concerns Conference, Khampheng Manirath has performed at the Iowa Folklife Institute’s Culture Café in 2000, at the 25th Anniversary of Freedom for the Peoples of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam that same year, at the 2001 Festival of Iowa Folklife in Waterloo.
Contact: Khampheng Manirath, 515.263.1654,