Wat Doi Saket project – Finding a ‘new normal’

I was first drawn to Thailand for its deep-rooted culture, natural beauty and easy way of life, and while I have traveled before, I underestimated some of the difficulties of living in a new country and just how different it would be.  However, after almost three months in Chiang Mai, the culture shock is finally fading and I am beginning to feel more comfortable living in another country, starting to find a ‘new normal’.  As a popular holiday tourist spot, Thailand can be very accommodating and it is not hard to find some of the same comforts as home, but living outside of the tourist spots and trying to adjust to the language, food and culture while teaching, working, and living in a Buddhist temple has been a very unique experience.

For the month of October I have been living at Wat Doi Saket, the main temple for volunteers with the Wat Doi Saket project, in a district North of Chiang Mai.  The town is relatively small but the community is strong and the culture is vibrant.  Some of the cultural differences are small, things to eventually incorporate into daily life, and others are the major definitions between American and Thai culture.

Here are some of biggest cultural differences that I have (mostly) adjusted to:

Paying Respect

Thailand is officially a Buddhist Kingdom, so respect for the Buddha and the King are a must.  Images of the King and Buddha statues are in every government building, school, store, and most peoples homes.  The King’s song plays every evening at 6 pm (TV, radio, loudspeakers, etc.) and in public you stop what you are doing to stand and pay your respect.

To the Buddha statues you Wai (bow) three times and sometimes tuk tuk drivers and people on motorbikes “Wai” to Wat’s and various Buddhist statues as they drive past.  Monks are always highly respected in the community and often people from town will come and bring a gift to the monks and the Wat to “make merit” for themselves or a loved one and receive a blessing from the monk.

This is just a small part of a larger cultural standard regarding the importance of family, community structure, and social roles.  Younger people respect those older than them, including teachers.  Even when I am just walking around the school the students Wai to me and say “hello teacher”. This still makes me smile everyday!

Please Remove your Shoes 

This one is very simple but ties into a strong part of Thai culture.  In Thailand feet are considered the dirtiest part of your body and, out of respect, you must remove your shoes before entering school buildings, someone’s house, and of course the Wat’s.  When you are in a Wat you must not point your feet towards the Buddha or the Monks, and it is impolite to point with your feet in a store or street market.  At first I couldn’t think of any possible situation when I would point with my feet until I was at a market, drinking a coconut with one hand and carrying my camera in the other, and wanted to show something at the stall.  I unintentionally pointed with my foot and the women at the stall stopped talking and stared at me and I understood how rude it was.

DO talk to strangers

Although this is the complete opposite of everything you were told as a kid, talking to local people is the best way to understand a new place and get adjusted quickly.  The locals are eager to talk to you and will often go out of their way to help you.  This genuine kindness was surprising at first when people in town would see me walking and stop on the side of the road to offer me rides on the back of their motorbikes, even if it was just up the hill or down the road.  When I refused and got strange looks, I realized that people actually want to help you get wherever you are going.  I was even offered a ride home by the masseuse after a massage because I had to wait a few minutes for her to finish with another client.

Restaurants and shop owners are excited to see “farang” (foreigners) and almost always do their best to make conversation and get to know you.  For dinner one night I went to a roadside barbeque stand for grilled chicken, but the women working said she was out and would have more tomorrow.  I came back the next day, not sure if she would remember me, and when I walked up she said “you’re late!”  There was only one piece of chicken left on the grill that she said she was saving for me because I said I would come back.

Mai? Mai. Mai! mai. Maii.

Thai language is made up of 5 tones (high, low, rising, falling, & mid-tone) and one word can be said 5 ways with 5 different meanings.  A word that sounded simple at first, Mai, which I just understood as “No”, also means “new”, “fine”, “silk” or “yes-no?”.  I am far from understanding how to pronounce the different tones and language is still one of my biggest challenges, but just trying goes along way and most people will correct my Thai with a smile.

Spicy, sour, bitter and sweet with rice.

Just like the language, traditional Thai food is complex and full of many flavors at once. Most dishes are based around rice or noodles, and can be spicy or ‘Thai spicy’.  At restaurants they offer chilies, fish sauce, sugar, and salt to amp up the flavor.  Even something as common as pad thai can be prepared more than ten different ways, with different spices, meats, and vegetables.  I am still getting used to the tangy fish sauce and just how much spice I can handle.  Meals are also eaten communally, where each person has their own bowl of rice, the dishes are shared and you take one spoonful at a time. Most meals are pretty informal and the communal feel is relaxed and enjoyable.

Motorbikes rule the road

Learning to ride a motorbike has been one of my favorite things about living in Thailand. The freedom to explore other districts and small towns is addicting and driving on the highway is exhilarating.  In America I would see a handful of motorcycles on the roads and thought of motorbikes for racing or on country back roads.  But here motorbikes are the main mode of transportation and it is not uncommon to see whole families on one bike at a time.  I hate to admit that since my first blog I have had more than one burn and a scratch or two, but this is one aspect I am fully enjoying!

Squat toilets, bucket showers, & bug netting

Since being in Thailand I have moved around quite a bit, from a hotel, to a technical college, a Buddhist temple, and now a rural hill tribe village, with weekend trips in between.  Before Thailand, I had never used a squat toilet, taken a bucket shower or slept with a bug net before, but with everything else, after a few times (and some funny mishaps) I am used to them.  Each place has had varying living conditions, most are without bug netting, a stand up shower and flush toilet, but at least the “how the heck do I use this?!” moments are over and I am not surprised to see a hose instead of toilet paper anymore.

Whenever I start to really get comfortable I have moments when it hits me that I am actually living in Thailand and I have something new to adjust to.  I will not be fluent in Thai anytime soon and I still gasp when I see parents holding their babies on the motorbike on the superhighway, but travel is necessary to help you understand that things are constantly changing and you can find new comforts when you are open to new experiences.  It is also important to know that you can move to a new country, or even just a new city and still find your rhythm and routine with a new way of life.

Subscribe to this blog to read more about life abroad, Thai culture, Buddhism, and the Wat Doi Saket Project.

By Katherine Devine




Photography corner – Wat Ku Tao (Chiang Mai, Thailand)

Wat Ku Tao is a temple located near Chiang Mai municipal stadium, close to Chang Phuak road.  It is most famous for its Chedi which is shaped like ‘melons’ or ‘alms bowls’ stacked on top of each other.  It is rumored that there are ashes of Burmese royalty (Prince Saravadi) buried inside of the Chedi.

This temple also hosts many Shan State events, including the Shan New Year.  Shan is an ethnic group within Burma.  In Thailand Shan people are refereed to as ‘thai yai’.

The temple is located in a quiet Thai neighborhood with lots of small ‘mom and pop’ shops.  It is worth a visit to see the unusual Chedi and to absorb the quaint surroundings.  Shan state new year falls around the middle of November (based on lunar calendar) and if you are in Chiang Mai, it is a festival you do not want to miss!


Photos by David Poppe



Wat Doi Saket project – Ordaining novices

I live on the grounds of Wat Doi Saket temple. My room is inside a building originally used for an HIV education program. The bedroom is spacious, with a glass door and pink curtains. It has two windows and one of them with a nice view of the woods….or what I call woods anyway. At night I can hear a huge “gecko” right outside; one day I hope to be able to also see it.

I really like staying here and being able to participate in all different kinds of Buddhist activities. Last week I witnessed a very special one: young kids ordaining as Buddhist monks.

I was in my room chatting with friends in Mexico and heard lots of music and cheering right outside my room. I didn’t know what has happening so I grabbed my camera and headed out to investigate. I was immensely surprised to see a lot of kids dressed in white robes walking around the temple followed by cheerful adults and a band. “What is this?” …. I decided to follow them to find out. They all went to the “Akan See Su Pa Ak Son” (new building for ceremonies which is named after the donor). As I was taking video of all this,  I saw my good friend and Buddhist teacher Phra Maha Ake. He explained to me what was going on: ’Novice Ordination’: 60 young kids from a school in Chiang Mai called Montfort were ordaining as monks.

Montfort (‘fortress in the mountain’) is a Catholic school.  Montfort is managed and supported by the St. Gabriel Foundation in Thailand, which follows the moral principals and spirituality of St. Louis of Montfort. Montfort is the name of a district in France where Louis Marie was born;  he became a priest in 1700.  In 1932 Montfort College was founded in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The schools logo is ‘God alone’.  Kids from this school come from a high socioeconomic status. This is interesting because most of the young Buddhist novices enrolled in Buddhist high schools come from lower socioeconomic status in search of an opportunity for education. The school these kids go to is Catholic and yet they all ordain as monks to learn about their religion and gain merit.

The young boys ordained for 7 days and lived like monks. The week before the ceremony, monks from Doi Saket went to their school to teach them about ordaining.

They must purify themselves before ordaining so they came to the ceremony dressed in white robes which means purity. During the ceremony they acknowledge their parents, asking for their forgiveness for any wrong doing. The kids also recognize what their mothers have done for them from the moment of their conception until the day they are being ordained, and they do this by paying respect with three consecutive bows. They do not ‘out’ words expressing this. The head teacher leads them through it. When I saw them crying I originally thought they were saying good-bye to their parents and I was very sad. Later, I learned that they were crying due to the emotional aspect of the ceremony which also involves asking their parents permission to freely ordain and parents giving them their blessing, telling them not to worry about anything and granting their forgiveness.

Aside from this sad moment, I was impressed by the joyful atmosphere of the ceremony and all the feelings involved. They chanted together requesting the Monks’ Leader to be ordained as monks. You could see some serious faces, the older ones, and some mischievousness in the little ones.

The parents give their children the orange robes, a lotus flower, and an alms bowl. The lotus flower in Buddhism is associated with purity, faithfulness, and religious awakening. The flower is considered pure because it grows in muddy waters and remains impeccable through all the mud and dirt of its environment. It represents the journey through darkness into light and knowledge.

Once they have been accepted by the Abbot to ordain, they proceed to change into their new orange robes. Older novices, and monks help and teach the ‘novices-to-be’ how to wear the robes and how to put them on. One can see the emotion and happiness in the parents’ faces, taking video, photos, and smiling from ear to ear at the sight of their sons.

After putting on the orange robes they go back inside to proceed with the ceremony. They are now officially novices and they chant the 10 precepts that will be undertaken during their life as novices.

Every morning around 6:30 am all of them go down for alms. Their parents await by the stairway entrance to give them food. When novices and monks go for alms they do it barefoot. It was very cute to see the young ones having a hard time walking without shoes, tip-toeing. When the alms round is finished, they all chant a blessing to their parents and walk back up to the Wat for breakfast.

When I followed all of the ceremonies, activities, and events during those 7 days, I came to think of it as a Buddhist version of a western summer camp. Sure, they were all novices and wear the orange robe, people respect them for doing this, but they are all kids nevertheless, I saw them playing, laughing, and running around. It was an incredible experience. And in April, 120 young kids and men will be ordaining, some for a week some for the whole month.

Check out this video to see the ceremony (switch to 1080p for maximum viewing enjoyment!)

Marcia Somellera



Wat Doi Saket project – “Giving (Dhana)” by Phra maha Ake

The ‘Wat Doi Saket project’ is proud to announce that Phra maha Ake will be contributing to the ATMA SEVA blog on a regular basis.  Phra is the title given to monks and maha is the title given to monks that pass level three of Pali language.  (phra+maha+ name)  Phra maha Ake is 26 years old and lives in Wat Doi Saket temple.  He recently completed his Bachelor of Humanities in English.  He has been very active and involved with the ‘Wat Doi Saket project’ and has been a tremendous help with our ‘monk chat’ program.  Phra maha Ake is an outstanding person with lots of wisdom and knowledge about Buddhism.

I hope that everyone enjoys his writings and that it may bring new perspectives and insights.

From ATMA SEVA, the ‘Wat Doi Saket project’, and me (David) – THANK YOU VERY MUCH PHRA MAHA AKE FOR ALL YOUR HELP!

Giving (Dhana)

Thai people have just been enjoying holidays over the Christmas and New Year season. Many people gave gifts and many received gifts. In Buddhism we believe that it is better give than to receive.

About giving, Buddha said to monks many many years ago, there are three factors for a giver. Here is a translation from the early writings:

Three factors of a giver? First, before giving, the giver is a glad one. Second, while making the giving, the giver is an admired man. Third, after giving, the giver is a happy one.

But we should not be too narrow in our interpretation of what should be given. Giving doesn’t necessarily refer to material ‘things’ like food or new mobile phone or fresh flowers or warm clothing for mountain children in the cold season. Of course, there is nothing wrong about giving such gifts when there is a need.

What is important, though, is not to ignore the importance of other ways of giving.

Giving can also be a smile to someone who appears worried or sad; and offer to help an elderly man cross a busy street; giving our time to visit a sick friend who is in the hospital; giving an invitation to a lonely person to come to have tea and a biscuit; picking up a dog that has been struck by a car and bringing that dog to a clinic.

There are so many ways we can give – not only to our loved ones, or to those who are in need,, but to our friends and to our community – indeed, to our Mother Earth.

Something to remember: When we give we also receive. We receive almost immediately some good and positive feelings – and also a sense of having made a difference. As the Lord Buddha taught, ‘The giver is the glad one; the giver is the admired one; the giver is the happy one’. Gladness, admiration, and happiness are in themselves gifts.

Phra maha Ake

PS) Phra maha Ake is on Facebook and loves to make new friends.  Add him to chat and follow along!