Photography Corner: One year in Thailand

Katherine Devine was an on-site intern with ATMA SEVA from August 2012 – 2013. Below are photos from her year in Northern Thailand!

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Photography by: Katherine Devine

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Kathin ceremony at Plekwiwek Dhamma Center

Chula Kathin is a yearly ceremony held at Plekwiwek Dhamma Center featuring the handmade production of monk robes directly from raw cotton.  Local women from Karen and Lisu tribes turn cotton bunches into dyed and sewn robes in under 24 hours!  Six ATMA SEVA staff members and volunteers were fortunate to go to Wiang Haeng district to participate in the event, held each fall.

The roots of the ceremony go back centuries.  Historically, monks were itinerant, traveling nine months out of the year.  During their travels, they would collect scraps of cloth for their robes from charnel grounds (locations where people are layed after death).  During the three months of the rainy season, however, they stayed at a temple and did not travel.  Thus, they were unable to collect cloth during this period.  To supply them with fresh robes and gain merit, local villagers would make them new robes at the end of each rainy season.  At present, most robes are mass produced and purchased, making the ceremony where a handful of robes are still handmade at Plekweiwek Dhamma Center very special.

Step one: Pick the cotton

Most of the raw cotton came from Myanmar, however several bushes grow at Plekweiwek. Attendees honored these bushes through a flower and incense offering that celebrated their bounty and then picked the cotton.

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Offerings under the cotton tree

Step two: Readying the cotton for spinning

Impurities and seeds were removed from the cotton bunches by hand.

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Preparing the cotton

Step three: Spinning the cotton into yarn

Cotton was fluffed and fed slowly onto a spinning wheel (it sticks together like the pull-apart Halloween spider web decorations).

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Stringing the cotton

Step four: Weaving the yarn

Cotton yarn was threaded onto a simple loom and then woven together, creating long pieces of cloth.

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Taking the cotton from the wheel

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Weaving stations preparing the cloth

Step five: Dyeing the cloth

The cloth was dyed overnight for twelve hours using the center bark from a local tree that was steeped in a vat of hot water.

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The center part of the tree is used for the orange dye

Step six: Preparing the robes

The fabric was dried and sewn together into saffron robes.

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Weaving and sewing the robes

Step seven: Presenting the robes

Robes were presented in a special ceremony. The festival attracted visitors who flew in from as far away as Bangkok.

Below are pictures from the ceremony!

Corinne Kolm, on-site intern

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Photography Corner: Day Trip to Fang District

Prior to wrapping up my on-site internship in Wiang Haeng, I had the opportunity to take a short day trip with a fellow teacher and some students from grade M. 4 (the equivalent of 10th grade in the United States) to the neighboring province of Fang. It was an interesting time to travel as the rainy season was in full swing, threatening to keep us confined to the indoors. We left early in the morning and, due to my tendency to get very car sick, I spent a great deal of the three hour drive in a Dramamine-induced sleep. But as I began to fight off the drowsiness I realized that the rain had stopped and the landscape had transformed into a vibrant sea of green. While the rainy season can be draining, with its lack of sunlight and grey skies, it also creates some spectacular sights. As soon as the rain stops, the fresh planted rice turns technicolor green, the sky a radiant blue, and the mountains in the distance covered with a misty haze. As the views unfolded in front of me, I quickly reached for my camera and tried to capture the beauty of northern Thailand with its expansive rice fields and surrounding mountains.

Our first stop was Wat Thaton, a large temple filled with Buddha relics from around the world. The novices and I enjoyed exploring the hundreds of statues and the variety of designs – some were very modern looking, while others were very old and traditional. Afterwards, we walked up the naga-style ramp to the top level of the temple where we paid respect to an ancient, and very well respected, Buddha relic. The views from the top of the hill were amazing as we looked over the town of Thaton and neighboring hill tribe villages and the Maekok River. By this time, the sky had fully transformed from grey to brilliant blue and the air felt crisp and fresh.From there we headed to the Fang hot springs where we marveled at the park’s geysers and beautifully maintained park. The park had ancient trees with raised, knotted roots that added to the mysterious beauty of the park.

I think the students enjoyed the trip as much as I did – it was great to get a change of scenery and explore different landscapes. I had no idea Fang district had so many outdoor activities to explore. I hope to return in the near future to explore the area further and all it has to offer!

Maria Moreno

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My experience volunteering with ATMA SEVA

I was preparing to embark into a 3-month trip through Southeast Asia and could not ignore the “calling” to do some volunteering work during this time. I had been thinking about that for a long time, but never had the opportunity to do so. Since I am very interested in the field of Education, it was only natural to look for positions where I could spend my time teaching (and learning!) – and that’s where ATMA SEVA came into my life. Having planned to start my trip in the South of Thailand, the prospect of living in Chiang Mai for a while was a very inviting idea.

I found ATMA SEVA through a Google search, contacted David (programs director) and got very excited about the program. He was incredibly patient to answer my endless questions and put me in contact with two previous volunteers, Hunaid and Jamie. They were both very helpful and from their descriptions I could picture the experience ahead of me. Well, sort of. You can never be entirely prepared for it: surprises and unexpected situations will happen. And that’s not too bad after all!

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Maekhue Wittaya School

I was assigned to teach English at Maekhue Wittaya School in a village located approximately 40 minutes from Chiang Mai. Although I did not have much experience in teaching, Katherine, ATMA SEVA’s volunteer coordinator, gave me a lot of support and provided guides and books that immensely helped me during the classes. What I encountered at the school was much beyond my expectations: extremely respectful students, curious and open-minded teachers, and friendly staff.

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Mrs. Rattana and Mrs. Kru Nam at the Art Room

My host at the school, Ms. Rattana, was a sweetheart, and did everything she could to make me feel comfortable: from bringing local (and delicious) breakfast to making sure that a vegetarian lunch was cooked for me everyday. Students surprised me with their engagement at school activities (they helped clean and organize the space for events), as well as for their English knowledge. Pronunciation, I figured, was the main problem – they were often too shy to speak and as a result, most of them had a lot of room for development. Thus, I tried to engage them in several activities that would foster communication. From videos to presentations to games, my main objective was to let them feel comfortable with both my presence and the language, so that their voices could be heard.

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Public speaking practice

The main challenge I faced was not being able to speak the local language – sometimes it was difficult to explain simple things. However, it also made the experience more exciting and fun – I would often convey my message through gestures, drawings (that most of the time made them laugh) and examples. It is so interesting to understand another culture and have the opportunity to witness genuine events – I was lucky enough to see presentations for the Thai Language Day, Sport’s Day, ASEAN Day and also Mother’s Day. Each of them was unique and showed me a little bit of the habits and beliefs of the Thai culture.

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Sports day!

Another highlight of my experience was living with a Thai family. My expectations were again surpassed, and I was gifted with a loving, big family that received me as one of their own. From strolls at local markets – with personal guides that gave me detailed explanations of every fruit, vegetable or delicacy presented at the booths – to visiting family members who lived two hours away – where I could experience Thai life in the countryside –, it was definitely unforgettable. I received local gifts, blessings (from senior family members), tried different foods and drinks, and learned a bit more about Buddhism, which I reckoned is not only a religion, but also a fascinating way of living.

The moment I had to say good-bye was bittersweet, as I felt time went by so fast and there was so much more I wanted to do to help those incredible people. All in all, I took home not only pictures, but also special moments that will last in my memory for a lifetime. I am grateful to ATMA SEVA for making this happen, and to Thai people for teaching me their wonderful and special way of seeing the world.

written by: Daiana Stolf

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Buddhist temple adventure in Chiang Mai!

If Chiang Mai, Thailand lacks for anything, it is not Buddhist temples. They’re sort of like the Seven-Elevens here – everywhere. There are over three hundred temples in the Chiang Mai region!

My personal favorite (which, you should note, the internet list did not include) is an isolated temple called Wat Palad that is hidden away in the lush, mountainous forest surrounding the city. It is, without any competition, the most beautiful place I have ever experienced in Thailand. Think about the wildest, most exotic secret temple in Indiana Jones, multiply it’s beauty tenfold, and you can probably understand what Wat Palad is like. I recently went on a hike with my friends Katherine and Maria, ATMA SEVA interns here in Chiang Mai, and we ended up in this mystical, serene place. It was also extremely quiet and empty – a plus, as it is genuinely non-touristy, and thus is probably closer to its original state and more well-preserved than most of Chiang Mai’s temples. Unlike in Chiang Mai’s most famous temple, Wat Doi Suthep, no hawkers selling food and trinkets could be found in Wat Palad. In fact, no other people could be found there either, other than one young Thai couple who were exploring the place with us, and a few monks.

This place was just…indescribable. I could have sat in one of its several meditation areas for hours, simply soaking in its beauty. The temple is situated on the side of a mountain, like many of the temples surrounding Chiang Mai, and it had incredible bird’s-eye views of the city, as well as of the surrounding forest. A large mountain brook runs through the monastery’s main complex, broken up into a few gorgeous waterfalls and meditation pools. For me, the most breathtaking thing about Wat Palad was its art and traditional Thai architecture. Stunned into silence, I had the opportunity to feast my geeky eyes on prime pieces of old, traditional, elaborate Thai Buddhist sculpture, as well as on a myriad of ornately carved shrines and pagodas. I stared for at least three minutes at one larger-than-life golden statue of the Buddha, nestled within the dim, candle-lit recesses of a shrine, awash with the flickering red light reflected from the walls. I felt as though I had stumbled upon an undiscovered piece of Thailand, as if I were the first westerner to set eyes on some secret gem of the East. That feeling of discovery and adventure was a gift, and I know it will stay with me for the rest of my life. For that, I want to thank my amazing friend and ATMA SEVA intern Katherine Devine, who lived in this city for an entire year, and took the time to show me this unbelievable place (and many others). She recently left Chiang Mai, ending her stay here for now, but I’m really grateful I got to spend time with her while she was still living here. Thanks Katherine!

We left the temple using an overgrown and little-used path down the mountainside, which wound through acres of pristine forest, all protected by Doi Suthep national park (which the monastery is tucked right inside of). In accordance with Thai tradition, many of the trees were wrapped in sashes, cut by the monks from the orange fabric of their robes. Thai people wrap sashes around trees as a sign of love and respect for the tree and the spirit(s) that reside within the tree. It is done to ensure that no one will harm or chop down the tree. Walking through parts of Chiang Mai, it is common to see large, old trees wrapped in years of multicolored sashes, tied onto thick trunks by generations of Thai people. I think it’s a beautiful tradition.

All-in-all, journeying to Wat Palad was an unforgettable experience. Out of the many temples and monasteries I have seen in Thailand, this one was the most beautiful, and the most devoid of tourists. Strolling among Wat Palad’s labyrinth of dusky shrines and arresting statues, the sound of running water trickling through my ears, I realized how much I will miss Thailand. This country is a land of rawness and chaos, existing side-by-side with instances of breathtaking beauty and quiet tranquility. Strangely, these two drastically different aspects of Thailand don’t seem to contradict each other. Instead, they fit together perfectly, making Thailand what it is today – a place that I, and many others before me, have gained a great deal from. Although in two short weeks I will leave Thailand in search of life’s next adventure, I know that a little bit of Thailand will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Brady started his gap year abroad in Chiang Mai with ATMA SEVA but to follow along for the rest of his adventures, check out his blog!

written by: Brady Gilliam

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What Else Could I Ask For?

Experiencing different aspects of ATMA SEVA’s programs, especially teaching and interacting with monks, is an amazing part of my experience here in Chiang Mai. However, my working experience at Doi Saket could not have been amazing without the improvisation from a colorful life style that any intern may live in during their time at Wat Doi Saket.

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Me at Wat Doi Saket!

Doi Saket temple is very beautiful and enriched with amazing decorating styles. The paintings on the walls of the Vihan, the entrance to the temple, and the statues all truly reflect the long, glorious and vibrating culture and history. Every day at Doi Saket is a happy day for me. For each day, I spend at least 20 to 30 minutes for an easy walk or a hike around the mountain and the temple with my music. There are a lot of quick ‘hi’ back and forth between myself and the people around the temple, as well as those who pass by. Starting my day by waking up early for a quick chat and breakfast in the Wat’s kitchen has become my favorite habit at the temple. It reminds me of a lot of my childhood when my mom would wake me up early in the morning of a normal school day for a quick breakfast and rush to school. The kitchen ladies, like my mom, basically want to feed me to death every morning.

I feel so fortunate that ATMA SEVA put me to work with a group of teachers in the same office at the temple. Though I felt like a new comer to their place, in just a short while I was made used to the place and made to feel at home. They are like brothers and sisters to me. Being caring and concerned about your well-being is how they are. I foresaw myself very homesick after having been there for a long while. But no, I was just right there at a place I could call home. The friendliness, hospitality and emotional support they gave to me are immeasurable. Every lunch time, there are always jokes around the lunch table. We talked, and we made jokes. Even though there were a lot of language barriers in our communication at first, we always tried so hard to learn and get to know more about each other. This is a really unique chance for me to get to know more about Thailand in terms of its culture and the commonalities between Cambodia and Thailand. I taught them Khmer, they taught me Thai. As time went by, our cross-cultural communication skills improved quite significantly.

Downtown is within a walking distance from my work place. You have access to almost any kind of necessities you may need. It’s a small beautiful town, full of friendly people. I made friends with so many people in the market, in the stores and in the small restaurants. When you look like a stranger to them, sure you’ll catch their eyes. All you need to do is to say a simple ‘Sa Watt Dee, Krup’ to them. They will sure greet you back, and with an additional smiling face. In the evening, one could always find cheap and fast foods to eat on both sides of the street. The social environment is just perfect for those who are tired from work and looking for a spot to seat and relax with amazing Thai food. I was very lucky to get to know a very friendly Thai family who has their shop nearby the market. I got invited for a visit to their garden family and for a cooking session.

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Me with my new friends in Doi Saket!

What’s most fortunate of all, they have a Muay Thai training camp that I could have free access to training with boxers and a trainer. There, I got to practice a lot of Muay Thai, my most favorite martial art/cultural sport, with other interns from ATMA SEVA as an evening exercise. Just five minutes away from town, there is a beautiful fish pond where I spent a lot of time at. It is a great place for refreshing one’s mind with fresh air. You can go for a quiet walk or a run around the pond; and it is also a great place for reading.

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Muay Thai training!!!!

This is what an intern’s life would look like in their off duty time at Doi Saket. Of course, there are still so many other places and more activities to be explored and get involved in, depending on one’s personal interest. The point is: no matter what life style one may be used to before coming to Doi Saket, experiencing a different way of life in Doi Saket during one’s internship is truly a worthwhile one. In addition to getting involved with interesting and enjoyable education programs, the internship truly gave me a chance to be surrounded by amazing people, colorful natural and social environments, and delicious Thai food. So what else could I ask for?

Click here for more information about internship opportunities with ATMA SEVA!

written by: Kimhean Hok

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The Size of My Shoes and the Eiffel Tower: A Thank You to ATMA SEVA and My Monks

*Brady is an ATMA SEVA volunteer who has been living and teaching at a Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai for one and a half months*

The ATMA SEVA team picking me up at the Chiang Mai airport!

The ATMA SEVA team picking me up at the Chiang Mai airport!

Talking to my Thai friends – most of whom are my students, who are all novice monks – I find there are many things I don’t understand about the world of a Thai person. By the same token, there is much that these novice monks do not quite get about the Western World. As a result, lots of our discussions with each other are centered around the exchange of cultural and geographic knowledge, which I absolutely love. However, we sometimes hit snags in the conversation when a topic is especially difficult for one of us to grasp. I have recently encountered two such topics that shocked my monk friends to the core: the size of my shoes and the size of the Eiffel Tower.

During my first week here one of my favorite dogs – I call him Lucius – ate my shoes (scene: “Lucius, No! Lucius what are you doing? What did you do? Oh my god. Oh no. You ate them, didn’t you? Why, Lucius? Why would you do that?” *falls to his knees and shakes his fists at the sky*). It was a traumatic experience, especially to have so soon after arriving in Thailand, but my parents sent me some new hiking boots, and within a few weeks, a brand-new shoe box was sitting in my room, waiting to be opened. As my friends in orange robes crowded around me, curious as ever, I procured my new pair of shoes. Silence fell among them. They looked at the shoes, then at my feet. “I think they are wrong size,” one muttered. “Too big,” said another.

“No,” I replied, “right size for me. Size thirteen.”
“No,” said another monk. “Wrong size.” I shook my head.

What ensued was a solid thirty minutes of them inserting their feet into my shoes, which they began to call boats, and making shocked exclamations about their vastness. Eyes widened, mouths opened, and every pair of feet in the room were placed next to mine in comparison – some more than once – which resulted without fail in a round of gasps, whispers and statements of utter disbelief.

A similar reaction, minus the foot comparison, was elicited by explaining to the novices the size of the Eiffel Tower. Of course, they know all about Paris and France, but none of them have ever had the opportunity to travel there. In their minds, the Eiffel Tower is a medium-sized statue/monument, not the enormous metal monster it really is. So, when I showed them pictures of the crowds of people standing beneath its four humongous legs, their shock was palpable. “Same size Wat Srisoda?” one novice asked me in a cautious voice.
“Same size as many Wat Srisoda,” I answered.
“Oh I don’t believe you!” laughed my friend Chert.

What really stuck with me was how similar their reactions to my shoes were to their reactions to the Eiffel Tower. It’s funny what you learn about perspective when you live in another country, especially when you get to spend time with some locals. As much as you have the potential to expand their schema for understanding the world, they can do the same and more for you. What had always seemed fairly normal to me – giant buildings and even bigger shoes (or is it other way around) – turned out to be completely extraordinary for my friends. When you learn to think within the frames of other cultural contexts, it can allow you to see the world with more amazement. From now on, when I lace up my…boats, or look at a massive piece of art like the Eiffel Tower, I hope that I will be able to channel some of the shock I saw in my monk friends, and allow myself to better appreciate just how extraordinary and incredible things in this world really are.

Me with the head English teacher at the temple!

Me with the head English teacher at the temple!

Learning to see the world in new ways is one huge benefit I’ve gained from living in Thailand. I’ve been able to experience a ton of new and exciting things that I never thought I would be able to. However, I would never have gotten to have so many incredible experiences, or develop such close friendships with Thai Buddhist monks, without the opportunities provided by an incredible organization for which I am extremely grateful. That’s why I’d like to end this post with a huge thank you to the NGO I’m working with here in Chiang Mai, ATMA SEVA. ATMA SEVA, which means “selfless service for the soul” in Sanskrit, truly embodies the concept expressed in their name by promoting valuable service, as well as the development of meaningful relationships with people here in Thailand. Without the opportunities they have given me, I would never have been able to experience Thailand and Thai culture as deeply as I have. I have become very close with a group of monks, who come to my room to hang out and practice English outside the classroom nearly every night. My experience working with ATMA SEVA was summed up in a few words by my friend, Choo, when he said to me last night, “Before I met you, I didn’t dare to speak English.” Cultural exchange, English teaching, and friendship. That is what ATMA SEVA is all about.

Visiting a local cave with other ATMA SEVA volunteers!

Visiting a local cave with other ATMA SEVA volunteers!

In the spirit if gratitude, this post is dedicated to my monk friends Choo, Chert, Winachat, and Gee, who have taught me way more than I could ever teach them; as well as to David Poppe, ATMA SEVA’s Program Director, who has been around to support me and provide a constant stream of amazing opportunities and exciting new experiences since I’ve joined the ATMA SEVA community. Thanks guys!

You can see me teaching in the classroom at 1:55 in the newest ATMA SEVA video!

*Brady has just began a gap year abroad! To read more about his adventures, check out his personal blog!

written by: Brady Gilliam

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org