ATMA SEVA – On site internship first weeks

It has only been a short time that I have been working with ATMA SEVA in Northern Thailand, but the past few weeks have been very eventful!  My internship started with a trip to Wat Doi Saket and then to a Lawa Village, called Ba Pae, in the mountains of Mae Hong Song.

At Wat Doi Saket I was able to meet the novice monks studying there and see them take part in an annual gift exchange ceremony.  I was given a tour of the monastery, including a beautiful new conference room used for retreats and ceremonies.  This large white building overlooks the valley below with breathtaking views.  It was built by a local businessman, working in Bangkok, who wanted to “make merit” and improve his Karma.

gift exchange

Gift exchange at Wat Doi Saket in new conference center

A few days later I found myself on a bus to the end of the line, where we would be met by my colleague’s cousin to help us on the final leg of the trip to the Lawa village.  We hopped into the back of his truck to make the last 3 hour leg of the journey into the hills, on the dirt tracks.  This was pretty rocky going and didn’t do much to help those suffering from travel sickness!

Road down to the Lawa village

When we finally arrived however we were given a very warm welcome from the host family, who were very kind and hospitable.  Their house is a large wooden building with plenty of room for us to sleep.  The fire was alight in the kitchen and we sat down for tea, some great homemade food, and of course some local whiskey!  The whiskey is brewed in the village and made from fermented rice balls. It is then heated in a large barrel with a fire beneath it until it is forced out of the container when it evaporates.  The vapors are forced down a tube attached to the barrel, and collected in bottles ready to drink.  Different families make different strengths, and local people in the village have their own particular favorites.

The point of our journey was to collect Katherine, another intern with ATMA SEVA, who had been teaching in Ba Pae for the last two months.  During this time she had learned a lot of Thai (practically nobody there speaks English) and made a lot of new friends.  The villagers seemed genuinely excited to have an English teacher and the kids especially were very sad to see her leave!

Entrance to the school in the village

Entrance to the school in the village

The local school is a nice collection of buildings with good sized classrooms and a big yard for sports and play time.  The equipment for teachers however is basic, and it does not always run to the schedule that you might expect in some less rural places.  It was great to see donated sports equipment (badminton sets and basketballs) being used even outside school hours.  They kids were certainly happy to have it! From what I could see the children were very respectful and polite, happy and eager to work with new volunteers.  They wanted to develop their language skills and seemed to be enthusiastic about their lessons, despite being a little shy to speak.  Onsite there is a room for visiting teachers and volunteers to stay in, with a big bed, bathroom, and kitchenette for their use.  Another teacher also stays in the school throughout the week, and returns to her family for the weekend.

While we were in the village we went to have a meeting with the “number one”, who is the elected head of the village.  There are 12 villages in the vicinity that all elect a leader, who runs for two years at a time.  From the 12 councilors a government representative is elected also.  He told us that the village was very happy to have volunteer English teachers and was excited about the prospect of having more soon.  I also had a tour, and met many of the local families and children. With 200 residents, Ba Pae is one of the biggest villages in the area, and one of the better off. The village of Ba Pae is one of the only villages in the mountain which has a basic health clinic, meaning sick villagers from the surrounding area are forced to walk there on poorly maintained trails for basic health care facilities.

kids show in villageAlthough we were visiting a week after Christmas, according to the Western calendar, we were there for the local Christmas celebrations, which were great fun! We visited the local church (built by missionaries) which was the center of the fun.  Despite the fact only a percentage of the locals have converted to Christianity the venue was packed and everyone was welcome to the social event and the party!  The children from the school put on a show, singing and dancing in traditional costumes, before more adult games took place.  These included blowing up balloons as fast as you could – the winner being the first to pop theirs – and having grown men racing to eat cookies and drink milk from a baby’s bottle!  There was also a selection of fairground games to be played, where adults and kids all won prizes donated from the church.  These included toiletry kits, Dettol sets, sun hats, sweets and cookies.  They proved very popular and it was highly amusing to watch the older villagers elbowing each other and pushing over the barriers to win as many prizes as they could.  The competition was fierce!!

One of the tasks which we accomplished while in the mountains was to distribute clothing to a remote Karen village near to Ba Pae.  ATMA SEVA learned about this village through a novice monk who is currently studying at Wat Saraphi.  It is his home and he informed us of some of the challenges that they face throughout the seasons.

Walking down to the Karen village

Walking down to the Karen village

Simply finding the village was a bit of a challenge for us.  It is tucked away down a small track which is hardly visible from the bigger track which substitutes a road!  Luckily our local driver managed to locate the correct spot, and we walked down the trail to the houses.

It can be very cold in this region at night, and warm clothing is necessary – the donation from ATMA SEVA was gratefully received.  While we were passing through we also took a look at their solar panels.  These were provided some time ago by another NGO who never followed up on them or sent anyone to repair them.  The government likewise has not followed up on promises to send someone to service them.  ATMA SEVA had been informed that they have not been working for some time and as such the village had no electricity at all.  We took the serial numbers and models for reference, and became apparent that it is possibly not the solar panel which is broken, but maybe just the light bulbs themselves.  ATMA SEVA will continue to assist and work with this Karen village.

Group shot!

Group shot!

We were planning to stay in Ba Pae until the 3rd January; however the trip was cut short by the fact that there were no bus seats free for our return!  Because a lot of students and adults who work in the city returned home for the Christmas celebration and New Year’s holiday season the seats were booked up long in advance.  Luckily for us a neighbor was traveling to Chiang Mai on the 1st January in a pickup truck, and kindly let us sling our bags, and ourselves, in the back.  It was considerably more comfortable than the bus and the ‘air con au natural’ was also very welcome, as well as the tanning session!  It showed how limited the local transportation services are however, even taking into account that buses only run as far as the town 2-3 hours down the trail.

Goodbye Ba Pae

Goodbye Ba Pae

‘Like’ ATMA SEVA on Facebook and subscribe to this blog to stay tuned and follow along on my upcoming adventures!

Alexis Taylor


Lawa Village – “Buddhist or Christian, Everybody Eats” Ringing in the Lawa New Year

The Lawa New Year was celebrated in early December after all the rice was harvested and the weather began to cool down. The date varies every year and is decided by the elders and community leaders when there is a rest between harvest and planting seasons. Instead of champagne, glitter and confetti, the Lawa celebrated with bamboo spirit houses, traditional clothing, chickens, pigs, and of course, rice whiskey. Spirits and ghosts are an important part of Buddhist beliefs, and even relate back to some hill-tribe Animists beliefs before the spread of Buddhism, and are taken very seriously as part of the Lawa culture. The ceremony is performed as an offering to the Mountain and River Ghosts to ensure a bountiful harvest, protect the village, and bring good luck to the people for the next year.

Lawa elder before the ceremony

Lawa elder before the ceremony

The day begins with each family cooking food as an offering for the day. The families prepared a meal of: a full boiled chicken, one boiled egg, white rice, ginger root, salt and pepper, all arranged on a platter of banana leaves.

Preparing the chicken

Preparing the chicken

While the food was cooking, the men gathered to make the spirit houses and clear the grounds for all the offerings. I asked if I could help to make the spirit houses but that was considered the “Men’s work” and it was important for them to prepare properly. The men chopped and stripped the bamboo, built 2 small houses, laid down the mats for the offerings and boiled a big pot of water to cook the pig in for the whole village. When the houses were completed, the men carried them up to the site on the mountainside and blessed them before putting them in the earth.

Part of the "men's work" was to build, bless and raise the spirit houses

Part of the “men’s work” was to build, bless and raise the spirit houses

One of the most beautiful parts of the day was seeing the people in full Lawa dress. The women wear black knee length skirts with red, pink or purple stripes, a loose white shirt with colored stitching, and orange, red and yellow beaded necklaces and earrings. The young girls wore the same but with black shirts. Even as the falang (foreigner) I got to dress in the Lawa clothes myself! The women insisted on the leg warmers because it is their cold season and adorned me with the full jewelry.

Traditional Lawa dress from women and girls

Traditional Lawa dress for women and girls

The men traditionally wear white linen pants with a white jacket that ties in the front, red or bright pink cloth around their head and tied in the back, and a string necklace tossed over the right shoulder. The men also have swords or machetes for chopping the bamboo and killing the animals, and they are also given to the younger boys to learn the “men’s work” or have fun with a pretend sword fight!

Boys in traditional dress walking to mountain site

Boys in traditional dress walking to mountain site

As part of the offering to the spirits, one live chicken and one pig from the village were blessed and tied to trees during the ceremony. Afterwards the animals were killed separately and a few pieces of meat were left for the mountain while the rest was eaten by the people that afternoon. Luckily that was also the men’s work and I did not get to see the ritual slaughter, which I was ok with…

Live chicken before the sacrifice

Live chicken before the sacrifice

Mountain Ceremony

New Year Mountain Ceremony

The main ceremony took place in a small clearing on the mountain side overlooking some of the village and the farms. About 40 families came in Lawa Dress with their fully prepared meal for the mountain spirits. Two chosen elders rubbed leaves on the chicken and pig, and poured two shots of whiskey to put with the spirit houses. They then removed one of the legs from each chicken to leave for the mountain and the rest we took back for lunch. The ritual was spoken mostly in Lavua (the Lawa dialect for the village) along with Buddhist blessings in Thai.


Elders leaving food for the mountain spirits

After the first ceremony on the mountainside, the elder women went down to a small clearing near the river to make the second offering. Similar to the mountain offerings, the women prepared plates of food with a mix of rice, potatoes, oranges, chilies, chicken, tea leaves, seeds and flowers; a mix of the successful harvest they had for the year and praying for the same bounty for the next year. Each plate is prepared with a small bowl of rice whiskey, which is poured over the food before given to the river.

Offering to the river

Offering to the river

Lawa women pouring rice whiskey on the food before leaving for the spirits

Lawa women pouring rice whiskey on the food before leaving for the spirits

After the food is blessed and the chicken and pig are sacrificed, families head back home to eat and celebrate. The main food is a dish called “Sap-bluahk” which is the blessed chickens chopped into small pieces (head, feet, bones and all) and mixed with fresh herbs and spices and eaten with rice.

"Sapbluahk" Lawa dish made with diced chicken and fresh herbs

“Sapbluahk” Lawa dish made with diced chicken and fresh herbs

Although not every family celebrated the occasion (some Christians have stripped their beliefs in spirits and ghosts) there was enough food for anybody who wanted no matter if they participated in the ceremony or not. When I asked what about the other families, one of the elders responded with “No matter Buddhist or Christian we are all the same family and everybody eats.” This absolutely amazed me. The village is split, half Buddhist and half Christian or Catholic, but religious differences aside it is more important to take care of each other and live peacefully together. This is just a small testament to the true community that is formed in the village and the respect and love that they have for all people. The rest of the day was reserved for time with family, friends and neighbors to eat and drink together. I was offered food and whiskey at every house I went to visit and was taken care of like one of their own.

This year the Thai calendar turned to 2556, following the Buddhist and Lunar calendars. So whether you rang in 2013 or 2556, and celebrated with a countdown or a spirit offering, I hope everyone has a very happy and healthy New Year!

Katherine Devine

Lawa Village English Camp 2012

ATMA SEVA hosted our first English camp in the Lawa village!  It was a two day event for sixty four of the children.  Over two days it was nine hours of English activities and games.

Our approach was to turn the camp into a competition by dividing up the sixty four students into six teams.  We then planned six separate stations that each team would rotate between while earning points.  Each station was a different English activity.

Ryszard Wierzbicki

Traffic light! Photo by Ryszard Wierzbicki

Friday morning came and we started with an opening ceremony of introducing all the volunteers and the basic set up for how the camp was going to run.  We then played an opening ice breaker game called ‘traffic light’.  This game has five commands and each one requires the kids to form a different shape with different amounts of kids.  For example, if we yelled ‘traffic jam’, three students had to get together and one would stand, then the next would kneel, and the third would sit, forming a traffic light.  Any students without a partner had to sit out.  They really enjoyed this game as they had to run around and try to find groups and not be eliminated.

After this game, we had each student choose a slip of paper from a bucket which had one of six different pizza toppings.  Once all the kids had a different topping, we had them find other students with the same topping.  This is how we formed our six groups.  Then each team had to make a team poster with 1) team name, 2) all team members names written in English, 3) an ASEAN country of their choice with a picture of the flag, and 4) a team picture.  Each team then presented their posters and had to introduce themselves in front of their peers.

Groups presenting their team posters

Next was when we started to rotate teams between our six stations.  Each station was about thirty to forty five minutes long.  Our six stations were;

1) Body English -> kids had to use their bodies to spell out various vocabulary words.

2) Balloon buster -> Children had to pop balloons without using their hands to get slips of paper inside and then arrange the words to uncover a riddle.

3) Baby if you love me, won’t you please smile? -> The kids had to try and make other students laugh by asking ‘Baby if love me, won’t you please smile?’.

4) A scavenger hunt -> The children had to go out around the school and village and either list, bring back, or take photos of various items.

5) Word grab song -> We had two simple English songs with twenty six vocab words from each song.  We played the song and kids had to ‘grab’ vocab words off the wall when they heard it in the song.

6) Steal the bacon -> We broke the kids into two teams and they had to race to the middle depending on the number called and pick up certain objects and race back to earn points.

Playing 'Baby if you love me, won't you please smile?'

Playing ‘Baby if you love me, won’t you please smile?’

We had a giant scoreboard and after each station we would record how many points each team earned.  Saturday morning after all the stations had been completed by all teams, we had a final relay race similar to ‘steal the bacon’ and it was the last chance for teams to earn points.  Some of the races the teams had to do were; spin around the bat, run with a balloon between their legs, three legged race, jump on one foot, etc.  It was funny though because of our translation the children were interpreting things very literally.  For example, each race was supposed to be a different action (jump on one foot, skip, run, etc) but for some reason the children started to combine actions from the previous race!  When we did the run with the balloon between your legs that went great, and the next race was run backwards.  Half of the kids put the balloon between their legs and ran backwards like that!  There is always room for improvement and next camp we need to think of our translations and how kids will interpret our instructions.

After this was over we awarded prizes to the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place teams.  Prizes consisted of school supplies and fun snacks.  We also gave a pencil, pencil sharpener, and candy to every kid.  The school then passed out certificates to all the children for their participation and they even gave all of the volunteers one too!

Handing out prizes and certificates

Handing out prizes and certificates

Aside from the English camp, ATMA SEVA in collaboration with Wat Doi Saket, Stu and the Kids (, and Wat Pra non ba get tee donated school supplies, gym equipment, and clothes for the school and village.  Part of this donation is also going to surrounding villages in need.

Donation of school supplies, gym equipment, and clothes

Donation of school supplies, gym equipment, and clothes

Huge thanks to Ryszard Wierzbicki who is a professional photographer for coming with us and helping with all the media.  Check out Ryszards website to view all of his work ->  Also thanks to Michael, Stu, Katherine, Natch, Phra Ake, and all the teachers for all of your help!

ATMA SEVA is looking forward to continuing our relationship with this village and excited to bring more volunteers and help to the best of our ability.

group jumping Ba Pae english camp

Group shot! Photo by Ryszard Wierzbicki

David Poppe

Photography corner – Faces of the Lawa Village




School children


Thai smile


At the farm


Shop owner


Traditional Lawa dress


At school


Playing Takraw


Drying rice


Enjoying candy


New bikes


Lawa elder


New generations

Photos by Katherine Devine

Wat Doi Saket project – An action packed month!

My arrival into Chiang Mai

When I arrived to the Chiang Mai airport, I had no idea that I would be seeing more in just one week than most people do in a month.  The beginning of my trip was full of daily activities, which consisted of touring local Wats around Chiang Mai, cruising through the countryside on the motorbikes and going to local artisan markets in the city.  Needless to say, I didn’t let the jet lag get in the way of having fun and exploring my new home.  I absolutely love Chiang Mai!  The vegetarian restaurants, the juice bars on every corner, the coffee shops… it’s like I landed in paradise!  Not to mention everyone is smiling—all the time!

Getting ready to leave for the village

My favorite part of the trip so far was going to Ba Pae, a Lawa hill tribe village, about six hours from Chiang Mai.  As we hopped in the bed of the pickup truck, I knew this was going to be quite the experience.  After climbing the swerving dirt roads into the jungle for a few hours, I was excited to see this village that I’ve heard so much about.  The people of Ba Pae are so friendly and welcoming.  What amazed me about this remote village in the jungles of Northern Thailand is how happy and connected they are to each other.  It’s like one giant family.  I learned how to make Lawa food, various handicrafts, I made a tiny basket out of bamboo, and even helped harvest rice!

Nid, Nina, and Katherine getting ready to help harvest rice

The dam near Wat Doi Saket

After being here for just one month, Doi Saket is starting to feel like home.  I’ve been driving the motorbike through the countryside everyday, passing rice patties, ponds and mountains.  Our favorite place to visit is the local dam, which is a beautiful location to watch the sunset.  I’m getting used to my routine living here at the Wat.  Every day I wake up to monks chanting and walk downstairs to say hello and make tea with the rest of the teachers.  Since I have the mornings off, I like to ride my motorbike to a nearby botanical garden and go for a swim in the salt-water pool.  After I make my way back to the Wat, I usually eat lunch with the teachers before class starts at 12:30.  I have six classes, the ages ranging from 11 to 17.  It’s really fun teaching the novices.  I’ve figured out they really like two things – playing games and candy!  So, I try to make class fun by playing games where they have to speak English and become engaged in dialogue.  And of course, the winner usually gets candy.  It’s working out well so far, and I’m eager to see how the rest of the semester turns out as we move into harder material.

Me with some of my students after class

Don’t forget to check out ATMA SEVA on Facebook to see more about my daily adventures!

By Nina Tedone

Photography Corner – Lawa village part 2

Here is part 2 from the most recent trip up to the Lawa village.  (Click here to see part 1)

The main highlight from the second part of the trip was the first day of teaching and English class!  The whole reason for this trip was to help Katherine (current intern) get set up and acclimated, as she will be living and teaching in the village for two months.  Thursday (November 1) was the day the school re-opened after winter break.  Katherine had the chance to introduce herself to the whole school and we had a meeting with all the teachers to introduce ourselves and sort out details.

The teaching was a blast and since we had four English speakers there that day we decided to prepare a special activity.  It is similar to ‘speed dating’ and we had the four English speakers at separate tables and the children had to sit with each person and practice a set of four introductory questions and also ask four questions.  This way the children got lots of repetition and also the chance to see and hear different accents.  The children had lots of fun with the activity.

We also started an English class for the adults in the evenings.  Thursday night was the first class and twelve adults came.  We believe more will come later, because currently this is the time of year when the village harvests rice, so everyone is working very hard.  We started with the very basics, going over the ABC’s and the numbers.  The adults had a great time trying to pronounce new sounds and practice basic conversation.

Stay tuned for Katherine’s next blog which will be all about her experiences in the village and school!

Photos by David Poppe

Photography Corner – Lawa village part 1

This photography corner is broken up into two parts.  Recently the ATMA SEVA team went to the Lawa village outside of Mae Sariang for one week.  The purpose of the trip was to help Katherine, our current on-stie intern, get set up as she will be living and teaching there for two months.

It was an action packed week and some of the highlights were hiking out to local farms and helping to harvest rice, visiting neighboring Karen villages, learning about Lawa culture, and seeing the auk pansaa ceremony.

Auk pansaa is the day when Buddhist lent ends and there was a ceremony at the local village Wat.  The first thirty minutes or so, was chanting in the temple.  Before coming to the Wat, everyone brought banana leaves with flowers, incense, and a candle wrapped up.  After the chanting everyone lit their incense and candle and proceeded to walk around the main temple three times.  The reason for walking around three times is to pay respect to 1 the Buddha, 2 the dhamma (Buddha’s teachings), and 3 the sangha (Buddhist community).  After three times of walking around and chanting, everyone left their flowers/candles/incense in front of the temple.  By attending this ceremony it is believed that you are making ‘merit’ and gaining positive karma.  Auk pansaa is also some what of a celebration and all of the children in the village had a blast shooting off fireworks!

The reason we went to neighboring Karen villages was to find the father of one of the monks whom Katherine taught.  After talking to the novice monk we found out his village was close to the Lawa village, and thought it would be nice to bring the father a picture of his son, whom he had not seen for many years.  It took us around three hours to find the village as it is extremely small and there are no direct roads, but driving in the lush jungle with rolling mountains is not a bad way to spend an afternoon!  After finally finding and meeting the father, he was extremely grateful for the picture and glad to hear his son was doing well.  The village was extremely poor and ATMA SEVA will be working and collaborating with other local NGO’s to help as best we can.  Stay tuned for details how you can help or visit ‘Our Work‘.

Stay tuned for part 2 which includes pictures from the first day of school and English class!!

Click here to see part 2

Photos by David Poppe