It has been almost a month since I returned from my sojourn in Chiang Mai. I am finding it surprisingly difficult to talk about my time in Thailand as there was no one place, person or experience that seems to take center stage. Each person, place and experience was so memorable that I can recount every moment of it. My two months were full of life experiences that will always stay with me and all this is due to my chance encounter with the ATMA SEVA website and meeting Programs Director David Poppe via skype!
My first 3 days were spent at Wat Doi Ku and I could not have asked for a more welcoming place. Ajahn Sirichai is a young, dynamic abbot of a small temple about 36 km NE of Chiang Mai. I was invited to join Sirichai for alms, or the collection of food by the monks that occurs daily around dawn. Giving alms is one of the many ways in which Buddhists can make merit, along with living life according to religious precepts and praying. When Buddhist monks make their alms rounds, laypeople prepare food and water and wait for the monks to approach them with their alms bowl. Once food and water are placed inside the bowl, the monk will place the lid on top of his bowl and recite a prayer blessing to the donor after which the merit-making is considered complete. Phra Sirichai allowed me to make some merit by carrying the alms for him. He also gave me a Thai name, ‘Kaa ja-om’ which has brought many smiles on Thai faces. It refers to the person who helps the monks on their daily alms rounds. It was a delightful experience as I met many welcoming villagers.
Ajahn Sirichai also invited the villagers to come to the temple as he now had an English tutor. That afternoon, three very eager boys came to the temple and we set up class for them in the basement. No sooner had they left, a young woman came to pick up a quick lesson – she was in Real Estate in Chiang Mai and most eager to work with farangs (a Sanskrit word meaning foreigner). While I was in “session”, Sirichai was able to recruit a few members of the local Thai military who were stationed nearby and eager to pick up a few words!
I would have enjoyed staying in Doi Ku and getting to know the villagers, but not knowing how to ride a motorbike and being a bit out of the way, I knew that this temple would be logistically difficult to manage. David had already made arrangements for me to stay in Doi Saket, just 7 km SW and a little closer to Chiang Mai with songtaews (shared taxis) leaving for the city every 15-20 minutes (and costing just 20 Baht!)
My first stop in Doi Saket was a week teaching at a local Gov’t school. I had never taught English before but the ATMA SEVA team helped put together lesson plans for each class and it was just a matter of following the guide book. Before I came, I had found several online sites that gave valuable tips on how to teach English as a foreign language. It was challenging as I did not speak Thai – Ad, the English teacher at the school, was very gracious in joining me for the initial classes, which was an enormous help. The young students were adorable; many of them live here during the school year and go home to their villages during the summer. What touched me the most was to see how disciplined and gracious the children were as they stood in line for their bowl of rice, got their own water from a water tank and washed their cups and utensils when the lunch was over. That week in itself was worth the price of my airline ticket. The experience was also a reminder of how it is possible to instill in our children the value of responsibility at a very young age instead of inundating them with electronic gadgets for constant amusement.
I ate lunch daily with the teachers who were a jovial group; unfortunately, most of them spoke no English and all humor had to be translated by Ad. After the school was over, I would teach a class to the teachers. They too were an eager bunch – one must understand that many of the local English teachers do not speak enough English to be able to teach a conversational class. In one assignment, I had them give me directions on how to go from Doi Saket to Chiang Mai, a very real situation they might encounter with a farang. Before the class, they would just wave in the direction where they think the city lies!
After my week teaching at the government school, I spent a couple of weeks doing a meditation retreat at Wat Rampoeng, an experience I’d be glad to share if anyone is interested. (I did have another 10 days at a meditation center in Bangkok just before I returned home to Atlanta in April.) In between, there were trips to a Lawa & Karen village, Mae Sariang, and more, some of which are well described by on-site intern Jamie Shannon here and volunteer Dan here.
My second teaching stint was at Wat Doi Saket where I lived in the volunteer room reserved for ATMA SEVA volunteers. It was another two blissful weeks and an incredible way to learn about life in a monastery where novice monks live and are schooled along with senior monks. The Principal, Phra maha Insorn, has managed the school and the teachers for many years and is very engaged in various community and NGO projects. Because the semester had ended, I did not have an opportunity to teach a regular class along with my friend Natch Tankarp, the Director of the English program at Wat Doi Saket. Instead, I tutored two monks, a layperson who would come from the village and a novice monk who was there from Laos. Michael, a graduate student doing his doctoral research, was the primary tutor and it was a very rewarding experience to work with such motivated students. Because these students speak English, I could teach them arithmetic, geography and other subjects in English that would allow them to utilize the language in daily tasks.
I would be amiss if I did not write a bit about daily life at Wat Doi Saket. Without having lived at the wat, I would not have had such a rich experience. Most of all, I would have probably never learned what it takes to go from a novice monk to an ordained monk and what it is like to live as a monk. I did not need an alarm clock as I was woken up each morning at 5am from the sounds of the monks praying and chanting in Pali. Most often, I would go to the mondop so I could feel the energy of the prayers. The wat is located on a hill and there are two ways to access it: via a winding road or by 304 steps straight up that I counted several times. There was always someone making a trip up or down the hill, but I typically opted to take the steps as I knew I would not have the privilege of being forced into such a good fitness program once I was in suburban America driving my 2000 pound SUV to the grocery store ten minutes away to buy a gallon of milk.
Thailand is very warm in March and April. There is not much AC around and you learn to appreciate the fans that are all over the place. Evenings are wonderful- things cool down a bit and people are out and about. It’s not uncommon to see a scooter with two adults, a child in the middle and a child in front holding the handle bar – it is uplifting to be in a Libertarian country at such times. There is only one bar in Doi Saket and it actually has the best food that I found in the village; the owner is also the chef and she wants to come to America to open up a Thai restaurant. Her bar has a pool table and a TV showing some soccer games at all times.
I quickly fell in love with Doi Saket village, which is quite small. There is a market where I got my daily fresh coconut drink and fresh fruit fix, along with several roadside cafes. For 30-40 Baht, one can have a very healthy Thai meal. The 7-11 is the 24-hour store and seems to be the center of all activity in the village – a little expensive but not too bad as they have to compete with the street vendors and local markets. There is a pharmacy and the pharmacist and I quickly became good friends, as I would stop there almost every day to have my blood pressure checked. Pharmacists pretty much replace physicians for all routine stuff out here. Luxuries like a barbershop shave or an hour-long foot massage that are expensive back home can be found here for very reasonable prices.
I chose to share my experiences in the hopes of helping those who have never lived in Thailand to learn more about the day to day life here. Doi Saket is no different from other small towns and Doi Ku is not that different from other villages in Northern Thailand. On weekends, one can take a songtaew from the village to Chiang Mai and participate in festivals and the many activities that are there. Chiang Mai has some of the finest hospitals in the world should one need to go there and the local pharmacies there are well stocked. To save money, I even had a checkup done at a fraction of a cost of what it would have cost me at home and without a long wait or hassle that I am used to!
ATMA SEVA provided not only teaching opportunities, but also the chance to experience a new culture like a native despite not knowing the language. Other than David Poppe, I was very fortunate to make friends with Natch, the English teacher at Doi Saket. When Natch was in town, we would go out for dinner and I never felt alone. He also introduced me to his family and friends, and without his friendship, I may not have felt at home as much as I did. One has to visit and spend some time in Thailand to really know the Buddhist culture and feel the warm welcome that they seem to have for visitors. There is very little crime in small towns and villages and I never had the feeling that I was getting ripped off. This was my 4th trip to Thailand and 2nd to Chiang Mai and so it was not a surprise and I pray that it does not change despite the onslaught of westerners that now come to Chiang Mai. I am very appreciative to all who made this a very memorable trip and I am looking to make this my annual pilgrimage.
If anyone has any specific questions about my experiences, teaching, living abroad, meditation retreats or anything else discussed here, please leave a comment below!