Custom travel – Three week learning adventure

During June of 2012, ATMA SEVA hosted a custom trip for a father and son, Rajeev and Raghav.  The father, Rajeev, would be touring and meeting with various traditional healers and learning about traditional medicine in Northern Thailand.  The son, Raghav, who was seventeen, had his trip designed to learn about teenagers from three different backgrounds.  Novice monks, teenagers from a Lawa hill-tribe village, and youth from Shan state.  He lived one week at a Buddhist temple, one week in a remote Lawa hill-tribe village, and one week in Chiang Mai city.  Each week there were daily discussions and the goal was to compare and contrast cultures, history, interests, and what it is like to be a teenager from each perspective.

Below is a day-by-day breakdown written by Raghav about his experience.

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Arriving in Chiang Mai!

Wednesday June 7, 2012
When I arrived to Chiang Mai I was a little nervous to leave the baggage claim because it was going to be my first time meeting David, who I would be spending the rest of the three weeks with. He was waiting for me outside with his girlfriend Nid, and a Thai guy I would get to know well : Natch. They were holding a big ATMA SEVA banner. David already seemed like a nice guy, and so did the others, based on the way they greeted me and my dad. He handed us our homemade Lawa bags, which he had gotten from Nid’s village. Inside were our itineraries and phones.

After the airport greeting, we all got into Doi Saket’s special pickup truck. David and I started talking immediately. He asked me questions about myself and my family, India, what I do there and other things. Our first stop was the Rainforest Boutique hotel, where we would be staying that night.

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Everyone meeting at the night bazaar

After that we headed towards Chiang Mai’s famous night bazaar, where you can buy almost everything at a cheap price. Ellen and Ji, the two people my dad would be spending a lot of time with during his healing tours came to say hi to us.  I walked around with David and Natch, admiring the items like knives and t-shirts. We decided to have Thai food at the night bazaar. We stopped at a local, nice-looking restaurant. This was my first time having authentic Thai food. I found myself liking the coconut-milk soup, fried rice, and Pad Thai, pretty much almost everything. Thai food was great!

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First Thai dinner!

I was very tired after dinner, because of the long day in both Bangkok and Chiang Mai, so we decided to go crash at the hotel. David said he would meet me there and take me to Doi Saket. I fell asleep almost as soon as they left.

Thursday 8 June 2012
The day started with my father and I having breakfast at the hotel buffet. Natch came to get me after my breakfast. I packed my bags as I would be staying at Wat Doi Saket for the next five days while my dad would be at the hotel. I got in Natch’s old Suzuki and headed towards the Wat. This was my first one-on-one interaction with Natch, with many more to come. We had an interesting conversation about Thailand and India, Hinduism and Buddhism, poverty and riches. The main discussion was about how the poor work a lot and make nothing yet the rich barely work and make much more, all because of greed and corruption. The system is made so that only 2% are the ones prospering. I also learned a little bit about Natch’s background. He was a novice monk for eleven years of his life. Now, he wants the repay the Wat for teaching him by teaching the young novice monks (I had not learned the difference between a novice and a normal monk) for eleven years. So far, he has worked there for eight years. I assume that Natch’s years at the Wat have taught him this very Buddhist way of thinking of the system such as conquering anger and feeling that these little things do not really matter in the long run.

After arriving at the Wat, Natch showed me the room where I would be staying. Being used to air-conditioners, I was definitely apprehensive that there wasn’t one in the room, especially since it was Thai summer! Instead, there was a little fan which looked like it might not make it another three weeks. Aside from that, the bed and room itself looked pretty comfortable. Marcia was  also there waiting to see me along with David. Marcia was a volunteer who had been working with ATMA SEVA for around 6 months and was staying at the Wat with me, in the room across the hall.

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Views from Wat Doi Saket

David decided to show me around the Wat a little bit for an introduction to the place; so we cruised around the Wat with Marcia on a different bike. I had imagined the monastery to be a grim type of building (as old Christian churches appear to be in the movies). I saw, however, that Wat Doi Saket was more than just a building. It had its own district where people were living and working in places such as restaurants, garages and markets among many others. The Wat has its own grounds where there were various offices (Natch’s included), the temple itself, and numerous Buddhist statues. We started by going up the mountain where there were amazing views of the city. Up on the mountain, the grounds were amazing with Buddhist statues and lotus ponds. This was paradise.

We first saw a very interesting part of the Wat: they had their own animal zoo! Apparently, people donated many animals to the Wat to make merit, so they decided to make a little ecosystem to support them. The zoo has a variety of animals including peacocks, cats, dogs, chickens, pigs (wild and farm animals) tropical birds, and most surprisingly some crocodiles! After, we took a look at all the statues there. Here, I got a sense of the Thai culture based on the statues they kept at their Wat. Basically, Thai culture seemed like an intense blend of Indian and Chinese influence matured over hundreds of years. They had Ganesh statues, dragon statues, Hindu gods, Chinese myths, etc. I also felt that David was very interested in learning about me and my culture. As we walked around and cruised on the motorbike, we shared our first conversations about Hinduism: its ideals, its philosophy, and its influence on Buddhist culture. We walked farther to a place where the footprints of the Buddha were present. This was one of the holy sites of the area. David told me that many of the Wats claim to contain a piece of the Buddha’s body (finger, hair, etc). Although he did not seem to believe that this was reasonable, he seemed very respectful towards it, saying he takes it with a “grain of salt.”

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Awesome statues at Wat Doi Saket

We saw the rest of the grounds and then we decided to leave them as Marcia had to leave also and go see the school where another volunteer (Sapphire) worked. We met up with Nid, and she led us to the school as we followed on the motorbike.
When we arrived at the school, we were greeted by many smiling little students running after the bike. In the grounds they were preparing for some special ceremony. The elders offered us some food being prepared, but I did not want to try because it looked extremely spicy! We saw the kids studying with Sapphire playing a game in which they had a letter, and they had to come up with an object that started with that letter and make a picture of it. David and I joined in for a little bit of it. One thing that surprised me was the kids’ enthusiasm for learning. They also had respect for their elders and their teachers which they showed by folding their hands and bowing. It was amazing to see kids wanting to learn, as opposed to what I was used to in the US where going to school is the “worst” thing.

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Visiting an ATMA SEVA volunteer

After their class they said goodbye to us as we left for lunch. We started looking for random places to eat and eventually just settled on some noodles and rice. While we were driving around, we saw many gas stations and little family-owned shops selling food and other things. We stopped at one of them, and we saw some massive beehives and jack-fruit. We talked to the lady there with the little English she knew and the Thai that David knew (I had also picked up a miniscule bit by then). After talking to her about random things like where we were from (Thai people never talked about business for leisure as a rule!), she was kind enough to give us a humongous jack-fruit for free, and she told us to share it with the monks. This was one of the first tastes I got of Thai people’s extreme kindness. This was one of the things that struck me the most about Thailand, and I was getting a feel for it already: people were selfless, giving, and kinder than I had ever experienced.

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Cutting open the huge jack-fruit

After our little adventure on the motorbike, we started our main activity for the day. It was the first day we would be talking to the monks. As we arrived David went to the office to get something, and I was there alone with the monks. It was awkward there because they were as shy as I was hesitant. Fortunately, the monk with the best English, Milan, approached me and started asking me questions about myself. I was surprised by his courage to talk to me and his ability to speak English very well. I learned from him that he, before becoming a monk for educational purposes, was from Nepal. Therefore, he spoke a little bit of Hindi, my native language. In fact, he loved Indian music and movies as well. His favorite movie songs were some of mine (specifically Emraan Hashmi and Jannat)! He was one of the monks who struck me as very educated. He was the main novice talking about Buddhism at a high level (the most probably didn’t because of the language barrier).

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First discussion with the novice monks

The discussion consisted mostly of icebreakers. For me, it was very hard to learn everyone’s names so I gave them names based on their interests (for example, there was NBA monk, NFL monk, Sunny, etc). I learned a little about them and their way of life on this first day. They would open up to me more on the following days.

After our discussion with the novices, we met up with my dad and had dinner at the lake/pond. It was truly a most beautiful picnic spot. Our dinner consisted of random things David and I had bought from the market.

After our dinner, we (Me, David, Nid, Dad, and Natch) were scheduled to talk to the highest monks of the area (the abbots and others) and have tea with them. We were greeted warmly. Everyone started talking to each other about life in general (again, no work!). I was surprised to see Milan among these high monks, realizing how knowledgeable he really was talking and conversing among the highest of monks. Phra maha Kom Jon prepared many glasses of tea for us. Seeing his tea set and style of making and serving the tea, we could tell he was a true tea aficionado. I was also offered many different sweet fruits, which I was trying for the first time. They were really good!

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Group shot after our evening discussion with the monks

After taking a few pictures it was time to go even though everyone wanted to talk further. As soon as David and Natch dropped me for my first night at the Wat, I fell asleep. I was so tired I didn’t even feel the absence of an air conditioner for my first night!

Saturday 9 June 2012
By the third day, I woke up surprisingly early. I got all my things and brushed my teeth and went to take a shower. At first, I was extremely hesitant because the bathrooms here were very, very different from the ones I was used to, and this was one of the things I had a hard time getting used to. Thankfully, I got through it alright.

When I got out, Marcia was waiting for me. She told me the cookers from the Wat or Natch had left breakfast on the table, so we both dug in (in Thailand, they eat regular food such as rice and soups for breakfast). After a little chatm David showed up and it was time for our second monk chat. This time, the monks were much more open and having fun at the same time. I had more interesting conversations with them. The main idea of today’s discussion was comparing and contrasting America and Thailand in their and my own eyes. We topped all the deeper discussion with a fun game similar to telephone.

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America vs Thailand impressions

After our discussion with the monks, David, Natch and I decided to go have a market lunch and see the pond and another school ATMA SEVA is working with.

First, we had lunch and then we went to the pond where we had had dinner at the previous day, except a little further down the way. There were many people selling food to feed the fish. We decided to buy some and feed the fish. As we started throwing food, the seemingly quiet waters started rumbling and huge fish started fighting for the food.

Near us a couple had a whole humongous bag of fish food, and they were feeding it all to the fish. I asked Natch why they would spend money on a whole bag to feed the fish. He told me that in Thailand the fish is a holy animal, and after one gets married or any other auspicious time, they feed many fish near temples because it calls for good luck or ‘making merit’. The pond had many kinds of fish, mainly catfish. While we were feeding the fish some of the stray dogs came to have some food also. These strays were very nice and tame-looking: no one could guess they were stray dogs. My reaction was something like “wow, even the dogs are nicer here!”

When we were done feeding the fish, we all decided to see the school where ATMA SEVA was preparing to expand their English project. We visited the school and the second-in-command of the near-by temple. We then set out to explore the grounds and ventured off. We walked through flat rice crops and landed up in someone’s farm. The view from there was amazing. It was one of the most beautiful sites I have ever seen. It was flat grassland, with majestic mountains in view, with ponds, little canoes, lotuses and houses that just blended in. We walked through various plants (keeping an eye for snakes!) and saw many different Thai fruits and vegetables being grown in the fields. Natch, who I thought was an expert after this, would pick up random things and tell us what they were and tell us whether they were “delicious” or not.

After we ventured through the fields, we saw a pond with a canoe. Without thinking we started to get in the canoe for a little ride, and we got yelled at by some people from the house. Apparently, they were the housekeepers. They told us that the house was owned by an old, rich foreigner who married a young Thai girl and settled here. I thought it was weird that he married a young woman. However, David told me that it was very typical for this to happen here as many foreigners come to Thailand with the intentions of settling down and finding a partner. The housekeeper started leaving with a pack of buffalo (tied to a rope through their nose). Out of curiosity, we decided to follow him. He led them to a pond, and they went in to have a bath! It was interesting and funny seeing them bathing because some of them were giving us threatening looks. We took some pictures with the buffalo and then headed back towards the motorbikes.

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Water buffalo’s!

When we got back, we saw many young monks (maybe as young as 7) watching movies on a computer. Seeing this solidified some thoughts I had been having about the monks I was interacting with. Being in the United States, the idea of a monk was so ‘mysterious’, because we don’t have anything similar to it here. When we think of monks, we picture serious people who are meditating all the time. I was beginning to realize the humanity of monks: the fact that they like the same things we do (movies, music, etc.) and are just humans in a different situation in life.

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Checking out the detailed painting process

After stopping at the Wat, our plan was to visit a ceramics factory. We arrived there after picking up Nid to go with us. We started by seeing the whole process of making the shape out of clay and the things they do to it to get the finished product. The whole time I was thinking of the concentration required to pull this off: one mistake and it would be all for nothing. It looked hard! We then saw all of the finished products including clay work, paintings, and furniture. I was extremely scared to break anything. Besides the work itself, the architecture of the building was beautiful. Also, for the first time I got to pet a wild rabbit (I guess they weren’t terrified of humans because the people were kind to the rabbits). After we were done with our tour, our extremely nice tour guide gave us a little elephant. This was the second item I had received out of kindness here. After thanking her, we left for our next activity, the last for the day!

We headed from the Wat to Nid’s friend Dang and her husband Tar’s house for dinner. We first went to the market and bought the vegetables that we would cook. My dad met us there. When we arrived at the house, they both greeted us very warmly. These people were probably the nicest people I had met yet. David and I went to the backyard while everyone else prepared food. They had the most varied fruit trees I had ever seen! Mangoes, Leechi, bananas, and other exotic fruit grew from the branches and vines in their backyard. We then went back and helped a little bit with the food (I crushed some peppers). After dinner, we took some pictures with the family and Dang surprised me with a warm hug and request to come back to their home again. We shared goodbyes and left.

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My Dad and I with Dang and Tar after dinner!

On our way, we dropped my dad off at his hotel. David and I sat at the back of the truck and had a random discussion. I heard his views and found them similar to mine: about how much disparity there is between the rich and poor. The battle between rich and poor is so “in your face.” People in the States are shielded from it all and are in desperate need of perspective of what’s going on in the world and even in their nation. We also talked about how political and corporate powers can sometimes be corrupt to either make more money or remain in power.

Click here to read part II

written by: Raghav Agarwal


5 thoughts on “Custom travel – Three week learning adventure

  1. Pingback: Custom travel – Three week learning adventure Part II | ATMA SEVA

  2. Pingback: Custom travel – Three week learning adventure part III | ATMA SEVA

  3. Pingback: Custom travel – Three week learning adventure Part IV | ATMA SEVA

  4. Pingback: Custom travel – Three week learning adventure Part V | ATMA SEVA

  5. Pingback: Custom travel – Three week learning adventure Part VI | ATMA SEVA

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