Sustainability at Plekwiwaek Dhamma Center

I studied Agroecology in graduate school, and have been working in organic food certification for nearly a decade.  For the last couple of years I held a comfortable management position at a mid-sized nonprofit in Oregon, USA, but I still felt that At Mae Joe ag fairsomething was missing.  I needed anadventure!  An acquantaince of mine was interning for ATMA SEVA and I learned about sustainability ventures at Plekwiwaek Dhamma Center in the far north of Thailand along the border with Burma.  I have now been at Plekwiwaek since October and will be here for six months.

Plekwiwaek was founded seven years ago on the principle of experiential learning, or what they call “learning by doing.”  Many of the novices at the center are from theThreshing rice Shan ethnic group in Burma and left that area due to the armed conflict between the Shan, ethnic Burmese and other groups in the region.  As such, many of the novices have a nebulous legal status in Thailand and the future of Shan State in Burma is unclear.  Only a small percentage of the novices will become monks, so it is a goal at the center to equip the boys with life skills that may help provide them with a future livelihood.

Hauling dirt at construction siteSustainability is a major focus at the center.  They farm organically and the novices are trained in composting and sustainable farming techniques.  Early construction also utilized locally renewable materials.  Novices made handmade bricks from a mixture of mud and rice hulls.  They assembled the buildings themselves, including learning electrical and plumbing skills.  Currently a large dorm is being constructed, with much of the labor provided by the novices themselves.

Recently Plekwiwaek entered a partnership with Mae Joe University, an institution outside the city of Chiang Mai, that has installed some renewable energy sources at the Dhamma Center.  The project is actually funded by a large Thai energy company.  To date, we have several solar lights, a small wind turbine, and a large solar dryer for food preservation.  A donor recently gifted reusable plastic bottles to the novices to cut down on waste.  We were fortunate to attended an agricultural fair at Mae Joe University this month that feature several sustainability exibits.  The Plekwiwaek director, Dr. phra achjarn Thanee Jongjen, received an award for his pioneering work in this area.

Novices at Mae Jo ag fair

Plekwiwaek also performs extension work.  The Center has trained some of the Rice harvest with reusable bottlessurrounded community on organic farming and sustainable building techniques.  We regularly host groups (often from other countries) that are interested in learning about these topics and community development in general.  Just a few weeks ago, a group of nearly 90 schoolchildren from a nearby village came to the center for a day to learn about sustainability and its relationship to Buddhist principles.  The future of sustainability in Northern Thailand is looking bright!

Corinne Kolm

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Ever Since I Heard of Bhutan….

Dragons, Dzongs and Divine Mad Men!

Ever since I heard of Bhutan, I have wanted to visit. It was 2009 and I was studying for my Masters of Intenational Health when I came across a paper mentioning Bhutan’s development measure of Gross National Happiness. I was intrigued. Then over the years I became more fascinated by Bhutanese ideas, culture and development. Bhutan was declared the first country to be 100% organic in 2012, declared to maintain 60% forestation across the nation and a rich Buddhist tradition spanning thousands of years.

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It was by chance that I was fortunate to be able to visit in December this year. I had already planned a substantial overseas adventure with a cycling trek from China into Myanmar and beaching in Thailand, I was all set. A work colleague and friend from another town happened to be visiting when I was just firming up my plans and mentioned that she would be in Thailand at a similar time to the end of my trip and really wanted to organise a tour in Bhutan, but had no-one to go with…..Wow!

What was I going to do? My leave was already approved and I didn’t have enough holidays banked up to take any extra time, not to mention the additional cost on top of my already pricey trip! It seemed like too good an opportunity to forget about though. An ATMA SEVA tour with a slant on traditional medicines in Bhutan, na-hu, no way was I going to miss this! Untitled

Thankfully I have a very understanding boss who was more than happy to extend out my leave for another 9 days at half pay so Stef and I could gallivant amongst the clouds, drinking tea and smelling lemongrass and ginger all the way.

We met in Bangkok the evening before our flight into Paro. Both of us were exhausted from our respective travels to that point. I’d been on busses and ferries for the previous 10 hours and Stef had just arrived from a boozy family wedding weekend in Phuket (beats the ferry anyway)! Words cannot describe the anticipation. I was psyched! I had already been to Myanmar earlier in the trip, another bucket list dream that ended on a slightly sour note.  So I was determined that this would top it. And it did!

Stef and I were blown away by how accommodating the ATMA SEVA team (Sonam, UntitledGyembo and Sangay) were. I certainly wasn’t used to travelling in this style, with this much genuine interest in what I desired to do each day. I feel like anything I have to say, or any photos I share will not do justice to the fabulous job each of these 3 did in sharing the Bhutanese culture with us.

We were met at the airport terminal by the whole team and whisked over the mountains and through the valleys to the capital Thimpu. There was never a moment of silence from the second we arrived. So many questions, so much information and people so willing to share their culture and personal thoughts and feelings! After having travelled in China and Burma earlier in the month it was refreshing to not have to ‘read between the lines’.

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A visit to the National Institute of Traditional Medicine was a special treat as our guide Sonam was an old friend of a professor of botany there so we were able to Untitledexplore every aspect, even the pharmaceutical unit. Stef and I were like children in a candy store in the library. I could’ve spent the entire day reading, touching, smelling the books!

Stef was a bit worried about how the altitude would affect us. I had been as well as I hadn’t coped well initially in China. The excitement of being in the mountains was too much though. I wanted to throw myself into every experience, even if it meant freezing my nose off at the Dochu-la pass overlookingUntitled1 the Himalayas, puffing my way up to the Tigers Nest or immersing myself into the steaming hot stone bath. I was captivated!I was more concerned that I wouldn’t fit into my wardrobe anymore. Bhutanese food is amazeballs! Rich and cheesy, buttery and chilly-ee… In the words of my dear friend George, every morsel was like ‘Jesus rubbing your belly’. Ahem…. Perhaps I should rephrase that the say Buddha rubbing your belly. Except perhaps for the dried yak cheese…. Not big on that one!

It’s so hard to discern a highlight for this aspect of my trip. Every day was unique Untitledand held its own delights and challenges (physical and personal).Stef dubbed Bhutan ‘the land of surprises’.  Each day held an auspicious moment that told us that we were exactly where we were meant to be every moment. From brief glimpses at the King and Queen, sightings of other Royalty, to blessings from young reincarnates of enlightened monks years gone by. I was mesmerised by the mountains, the architecture and nature. The culture, peace and serenity with which people conducted themselves….. I think I was drunk on “Gross National Happiness’!

Danielle

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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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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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Photography Corner: Elephant Nature Park

Chiang Mai is one of the most beautiful cities in Thailand. Being surrounded by nature, it offers an amazing amount of outdoor activities that one can partake in. One of the most common activities that people do in Chiang Mai is taking an elephant riding tour. Many people take up these tour opportunities without doing proper research on the company they are going with – this is exactly what I did when I first visited Chiang Mai three years ago.

What many people do not realize is that many of these tour operators do not treat their elephants with proper care and respect. They are used as an object for tourism purposes only, with the expense being taken out on the elephants. While riding an elephant can be an amazing experience, it is extremely important to make sure the tour company you are going with treats their elephants properly.

This is where the Elephant Nature Park comes in. The park is an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center for those elephants that have been abused. The elephants are free to roam in a natural environment on their own, surrounded by a river, and beautiful mountainous landscapes. Most are extremely accommodating to the many visitors that help out at the park.

While it is a completely different experience than taking a general riding elephant tour, you get so much more out of it. Not only are you there to volunteer and help, you get educated on the problem of abused elephants in Northern Thailand. I participated in a one-day volunteer visit. This included feeding the elephants by hand twice throughout the day, bathing them ourselves in the river, and ending the day with a documentary on this issue (for example, I learned that there are only 30,000 Asian elephants left on the planet, – on their website they put it in the perspective of under a third of a sports stadium crowd. Also, lunch was included and it was an amazing vegetarian feast.)

There are many different ways in which you can visit and volunteer at the park. Besides a one day visit that I did (where they pick you up and drop you off at your guesthouse), you can also partake in being an Elephant Volunteer for 7 to 14 days, or even be an Elephant Helper Overnight for 2 days and 1 night.

The organization is doing great things, and you have an opportunity to give back and gain knowledge that perhaps you did not know before. You can find all of the information, background, and volunteer offerings on their website: www.elephantnaturepark.org, and usually your guesthouse will have information on the park as well and set everything up for you.

Enjoy the pictures!

Katie Davos, research intern

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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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Custom travel – Three week learning adventure Part VI

Below is part VI and the last entry of Raghav’s custom learning adventure from 2012! If you missed it, here is Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, & Part V.

23 July 2012 

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Comparing ID cards

Today was a pretty simple day, with my conversations with the group from Shan State being the highlight. We had a very interesting conversation today, comparing cultures. They got an American – Indian perspective of my life and I got a Thai outsider perspective from them. We compared each other’s problems and challenges in life. Compared to them, mine seemed very insignificant. Most of their comments ranged from how to find work, finding and relocating their families from Burma, living with segregation, and more. This conversation was definitely an eye-opener for me to appreciate the opportunities and privileges my background offers, and the challenges that others face in their daily lives.

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Group discussion!

24 Saturday 2012

Today, on the whole, was a very cultural day. I started the day off with a lesson in the National sport of Thailand: Muay Thai. David and I had two guys teach us some different techniques of the sport such as kicks, punches, and blocks. It was really fun learning the sport that I had seen people here watching so often, even in the remote hill tribes.

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David and I with our Muay Thai teachers

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The whole group getting ready for food!

After our lesson, David and I headed over for our next discussion to the Best Friend’s Library. A lot of people didn’t show up today, so I was able to have a much more intimate conversation with the ones who were there. Today, each person brought their favorite dish from their origins. One girl was so excited, she brought three full dishes of food! The food was very similar to Thai, just with a little more meat and seemed a lot spicier to me! It was really fun trying all their types of food and hearing that they all love pizza and pasta, most said they could it every day! In addition to the food, we continued our comparison of perspectives of each other’s countries. This conversation seemed to be, universally, the most interesting for me and for everyone else.

With our discussion coming to a close, we all decided to go out to dinner as it had been awhile since we had gone anywhere as a big group. We decided to go for Mexican. It was a fun dinner with everyone!  After dinner, Natch and his girlfriend Im dropped me to my hotel. We shared some local fruit and talked a little. Then it was time to go to sleep!

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David, Nid, Marcia, me, Ji, Natch, and Im ready for Mexican food!

25 July 2012

Today would be my last full day in Chiang Mai. It is amazing how quickly three weeks flew by! I started off the day with a cooking class. When I first heard the idea of cooking, I wasn’t too excited about doing it, but I tried it anyway. A guy came to pick me up in a car and took me to the restaurant I would be learning at. A nice lady greeted me there, and we both went to a small open market very close to her restaurant. We bought all the things we would need to cook with and brought them back. It took me about three hours, but in the end, I was able to learn how to make three different curries, papaya salad, mango dessert, and much more! I was glad that I took the chance at doing something I hadn’t tried before!

After they dropped me back to my hotel, it was time for my last discussion at the library. Today was a pretty short discussion because most of the people had to leave early for work and other things. We had a very informal conversation with everyone about their lives, parents, romantic interests, and very simple conversations. At this point, only about 5 were coming to the discussions, but I felt very connected and comfortable with each one of them, more so than I probably would have been if it had been a large group. We did some closing activities and took pictures there with Garrett. As always, it was kind of a melancholy goodbye as we had gotten to know one another.

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Last group shot with Garret at the Best Friends Library!

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Nid and I wearing traditional Thai outfits!

Everyone was pretty tired from going out to a late dinner from the previous day, so we decided to end the day early because I also would have my long flight back tomorrow. We did however first go to Nid’s costume shop and tried on some of her elegant costumes. After, I went to the hotel and fell asleep for the big day back the next day!

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written by: Raghav Agarwal

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