When I was first told that I would be spending the next four months living in Wiang Hang, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I studied the tiny speck on the map and wondered what life would be like there, what stories the people had to tell, and what new adventures lay ahead. The past two weeks here have indeed been an adventure with no two days the same. But this is exactly the type of adventure I was hoping for. After living in Bangkok for 3 months, I was eager to move to a more rural area where I would have an opportunity to learn more about Thai culture and challenge myself to learn Thai.
The area I am in is actually comprised of multiple townships, each with its own distinct culture, language, and story to tell. Within a 15 minute car ride, you are able to visit a Karen village, a refugee camp that has an expansive solar-power project, and a village with Chinese roots (complete with traditional dress and red Chinese lanterns hanging from every home). The majority of the people in the region, however, are from the Shan State in Myanmar. In spite of the diversity in the area, the one aspect that is universal is the importance that Buddhism plays in each of their cultures. Every temple and pagoda is different – each one reflecting the stories and culture of its members.
I am currently living in Pleekwiwek Dhamma Center, along with thirty novice monks and three monks. Pleekwiwek serves multiple functions: it is a dhamma center and meditation retreat, the home and training center for the novices, a community center, and a model for self-sufficiency. The founder of the center and current director, Dr. Phra Ajarn Thanee, received a master’s degree in agriculture, a fact that very much shapes the way the center is run. The novices grow a majority of the vegetables and rice they eat right here at the center. In addition to learning about farming, they learn how to make bricks out of mud and cement and have built a number of the cabins on the grounds. Novices learn to value the homes they have built for themselves, the food they have grown for themselves, and even the cotton they have grown to make the robes they wear. Therefore, the boys who have lived here have not only had the opportunity to attend school and learn about Buddhism, but also learn valuable life skills that they can apply to future life endeavors.
In spite of my efforts, I still struggle to pronounce the name of the Center correctly (at least, the locals don’t seem to know what I’m saying), however, as soon as I say that I am teaching at Wat Kong Lom and am working with Dr. Thanee, everyone kindly reminds me of the correct pronunciation: Pli-wih-wehk. It’s clear from their reactions that Dr. Thanee and the work he does is an integral part of the community. This is also evidenced from the number of training camps that have taken place here in the past few weeks. The trip here started with an English camp which was followed by a weekend retreat with over one hundred students from the local government school learning about Buddhism and sufficiency economics, a few days later we had a flock of women working frantically to prepare decorations for blessing a new construction site, then we received a group of soldiers who helped plant numerous trees on the grounds, and then we hosted a large retreat for all of the students from Wat Kong Lom.
I am excited to be here and see all of the activity taking place around me. I never would have expected that that little dot on the map could be so full of life and yet so peaceful.
I have been working in the field of community organizing and event planning for many years, but I decided to come to Thailand to learn more about how community development takes place in developing nations. Pleekwiwek has been a great experience in teaching me more about sufficiency economics and the way that a community that is so diverse can come together as neighbors to help one another. In the short time that I have been here I have learned more about Thai culture, language, and Buddhism than I have in the previous 3 months living in Thailand!
I am eager to continue learning – learning about northern Thai culture and all of the diverse groups in the region. I have already learned three new ways of saying “hello,” I’ve been anointed with a Thai name, and have heard numerous folklore stories from the region. I am also excited to begin teaching English. The people in the region and the novices I am working with are just as eager to learn about me, my culture and my language as I begin to teach at Wat Kong Lom temple school.
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