Photography Corner: Shan Cultural Festival

Northern Thailand hosts amazing cultural diversity. I find the Shan people to be of particular interest because all of the novices at Plekwiwek Dhamma Center where I am living are Shan. Most Shan reside within the borders of Myanmar (formerly called Burma) in Shan State. Myanmar has experienced decades of ethnic and political strife. Many Shan people seek independence from Myanmar in recognition of their unique cultural and language identify from the Burmese ethnic group. Although recent years have found relatively stability in Myanmar, the area where I am living continues to host many refugees who fled the violence between the different ethnic groups in the region.

In early November I was privileged to attend a Shan cultural festival that was located at a nearby temple, Wat Phra Wiang Inn. This temple is literally on the border with Myanmar. During an armed conflict in 2002, the temple grounds were divided between Thai and Burmese control. Today a fence runs through the traditional temple compound with various buildings located on separate sides. There are now Thai and Burmese army bases on opposite sides of the fence. For the past decade the temple has also hosted a refuge camp for Shan people who fled the war in their home state. The future of Shan State and the Shan people living in Myanmar and Thailand, including many of the novices who came to the Center directly from Myanmar, is unclear.

Corinne Kolm, on-site intern

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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 – Tshechu: Festival of Mask Dances

Once there lived a boy, who had enormous faith in the gods because he spent most of his time praying. Another part of his daily routine was to sit beside his father, a painter. The boy watched his father jabbing the paint brush into his mouth every now and then, while painting different forms of art that resembles the mask dances that we see at different Tshechu (a festival of mask dances). However, the boy died a premature death in few years. There is a Bhutanese vernacular, “tshe ma zou lay metshe zo”, which means unfortunate death without completing his destined life. His spirit wandered in Bardo (according to Buddhism, the spirit of the deceased goes through a process lasting forty-nine days called ‘Bardo’ whereupon  the departed spirit either enters nirvana or returns to Earth for rebirth) where he witnessed all the characters in the mask dances. The only difference was that they were real ones. They displayed their dreadfulness in their demeanor; yet, the boy didn’t feel a moment of being afraid. Instead he watched them with great enthusiasm with their familiarity coaxing him. This is because while he was alive he saw his father draw their faces countless times. “They are just characters that my father used to draw with his spittle brush”, thought the boy.  It is said that this very incident led the wandering soul of the boy to find his way to the path of heaven.

This story highlights the importance of having the festival of tshechu in every part of the country. Tshechu are held in dzongs and monasteries annually. This is one of the most colorful festivals in the country where people from all walks of life don’t want to miss it. It is often seen as an opportunity for the people to gear themselves up with their best dresses, usually the bright, colorful and expensive ones. Apart from that the event also propels the people to have a great time to get together, socialize with one another.

Wangduephodrang Tshechu attracted thousands of people in its three days (12th-14th September) period. The unfortunate fire in 24th June burned the entire Wangduephodrang dzong to ashes, since then the annual tshechu has been held in the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) ground which is located a few kilometers away from the town. However, the open ground provided more space for the people to watch the mask dances than the courtyard in the dzong did. One of the most important and interesting features of the mask dances here is the Raksha langgu chham. It was first introduced in the 16th century by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. The myth has it that while constructing a cantilever bridge across the tshangchhu river during the day time, the people tried laying foundation for the bridge while the mermaid destroyed them at night. Thus, Raksha Langgu chham was introduced in order to distract her. It has been said that the mermaid disguised as an ordinary citizen went to witness the dance. She was mesmerized by the chham that she totally forgot about the on-going construction of the bridge. Meanwhile, people hurried their work and erected the bridge in her absence.

It is not just what people see these days that attracts them to come and watch the mask dances but the background stories and myths that each of them carries like Raksha Langgu chham, giving a very meaningful purpose of their existence. Similarly, every masked dance is introduced with a consequential message. Most of them deal with what happens after death to wandering souls. While some mimic the dances which are found in the paradise, one of such chhams is, Pa chham. Pema lingpa, a very renowned treasure discoverer in the 15th century was said to have visited Zangtopelri (paradise) in his dream. He saw a dance performed by yogis there. He then introduced the same dance here what is known today as Pa chham.

Enjoy the photos and for more details about ATMA SEVA’s travel options in Bhutan, please click here.

Jigme Namgyel, research intern

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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

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The Power and Grace of Thailand

I joined ATMA SEVA in July to stay in Chiang Mai for two months, to teach English to novice monks at Wat Phra Non Pa Ketthi, and I’ve now been here two months.  I have happily decided to stay longer!

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Two of my students

I have built many bonds with the novice monks, some of whom I’ll visit at their temples during days off school for casual English lessons. Many wonderful characters, and when I am not at the school, it feels slightly odd not seeing them! A number of students are from hilltribes, so Thai is their second language, and English their third! They try to teach me some words in their local langauge, but I’m still trying to learn Thai! I try to make lessons fun for the novices, including activities and competitions, which they really enjoy, especially when I split the class into teams!

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My classroom!

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Me with some of my students

A few weeks ago myself and other volunteers had a mini English camp weekend in Wiang Haeng, further north towards the border of Myanmar, where we had lessons and activities for the novices there. It was an incredible experience and I gained so much respect for all of them, after we were shown a presentation by the novices, where we learned they grow their own rice, tomatoes and sweet potatoes as well as mango and papaya trees. Furthermore they build their own rooms and huts from the local mud mixed with cement and grass. The novices were wonderful and eager to learn English and take part in the activities, I like to think we all taught each other something.

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English camp at Wiang Haeng

After the presentation, they chanted as we sat at the back and listened before taking part in meditation. They then surprised us with lanterns, one for each of the volunteers, which we set off up into the night sky. In the morning, the novices made waffles for our breakfast, I watched them as they eagerly showed me their culinary skills!
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My new friend with the card he made me

When we said goodbye I was presented a handmade card by one of the novices, which made me get tears in my eyes, so sweet and unexpected.

Living in Chiang Mai is amazing, I have fallen into the way of life here, I have fallen in love with Thailand. Sometimes when I go around Chiang Mai city, I like to let myself get lost and walk around, absorbing everything, from the markets to the temples. So many temples to see, all so uniquely beautiful with great history. Some have lots of visitors and some are wonderfully peaceful, one in particular called Wat Muen Larn, was so peaceful I found myself ready to meditate, and so I did. I spent the rest of the afternoon visiting temples.

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Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai

I am so glad there is an organization like ATMA SEVA and the incredible work they do, it is the best move I have ever made, and I feel so happy and privileged to be working with novices and helping them.

Victoria Castro

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Custom travel – Three week learning adventure Part II

This is part II of Raghav’s custom learning adventure from 2012! If you missed it, here is part I.

Stayed tuned for part III coming soon!

10 June 2012 

Today, waking up I was very tired from the activities of the previous day. Shortly, it was time for our daily monk chats. Milan and a few other monks came to say hi and pick me up from where I was staying, a two minute walk away from where we talked.

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Notes from our discussions

Today’s discussions went deeper than the previous day. Today, we started off with a scavenger hunt. The monks and I had to find a certain number of things they use in daily monk life (in two teams). After finding the things, we later talked about them. One of these included the robe of a monk, and we even learnt how to put it on. After, our discussion went into deep analysis of Hinduism and Buddhism. We talked about the roots and most importantly the concept of time as a linear and circular concept, tying in dharma and dhamma. Also, we talked about some of the questions I had about monks. I wanted to know why many of them decided to be a monk. I was surprised to learn that most of them had done it for the free education. Also, disrobing was a concept I had not heard of (a monk can choose to stop being a monk any time he wishes, I thought that they were monks for life). I wanted to know whether they wanted to stay or disrobe. I learned that most of them wanted to disrobe after their education: in fact, only two wanted to remain a monk. Today the discussion seemed to go really fast and before we knew it, it was time for them to go for lunch (some of them seemed to want to stay and talk more).

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Milan and I talking about Buddhism

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At the dam!

After our monk discussion, David, Natch, Marcia, and I decided to have lunch out at the dam. We went to the dam on our bikes. On the way, I even got to drive the bike! The dam was extremely beautiful (as most of things have been). We had lunch at a restaurant right on the side of the river. Seeing the river and many boats, we all felt like going boating. We talked to the restaurant guy, and he led us to go to his boat. We went on the river, and it felt like bliss. It was one of the most beautiful things I had seen so far in Thailand.

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View from the boat!

We then decided to go to other districts just to see and cruise around. I got to drive with Natch on the back. We saw beautiful scenery. We even fell into a rice paddy after stopping to take a look at it! We then stopped at a local shop and got drinks and snacks. Then, we had to take the route back. I drove the bike up till the highway, where Natch took the wheel.

Coming back to the Wat, I was scheduled to meet one of the wisest monks there, Phra Ake at the main temple. There, I talked to him for about an hour about Buddhism and the paintings on the walls on the ceiling. I learned a lot from him and started respecting him a lot. I could almost sense the spirituality flowing from him. Unfortunately, we had to cut it a little bit short to go along with the schedule.

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Learning about Buddhism from Phra Ake

We (sans Marcia) headed out to Nid’s costume shop for dinner. Nid sold all types of costumes for everyone. David told me about the concept of a ladyboy in Thailand. They were men born feeling they were supposed to be women and dress and like women. Some take it far such as hormonal implants and some just occasionally dressed up as women on the weekends. Nid got a lot of ladyboy clients because she sold costumes (clothes) for them.

My dad showed up in a while and immediately left to get his first Thai massage next door. We waited for him for dinner and eventually started eating. Nid was an amazing cook! After dinner everyone decided to go to the night bazaar. Anchille, Nid’s niece who was staying with them for college, also came with us. Natch and I roamed the market while everyone else made their way slowly. We eventually found some nice Thai shirts for me that we bought. My dad bought my sister many things.

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Sunday walking street

12 June 2012

After we finished breakfast at the hotel, David, Nid, and many monks came to pick us up in an open van vehicle. David said that Natch would be meeting us at the foot of the mountain we were going to with most of the novices that were also coming. We got in the car and soon reached the foot of the mountain in about 30 minutes. During this time, it was nice to stick my head out from the car because it was beautiful weather and beautiful scenery.

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At the waterfall

After reaching the foot of the mountain, Natch was yet to show up so we decided to walk around and see the waterfall we were at. En route the waterfall, we saw many shops. For the first time, I saw a bunch of cooked bugs that people were buying. It seemed absolutely disgusting to me, but Nid said some tasted alright and were similar to chicken.

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Snack anyone?

We started trekking up a little where the waterfall was. We arrived, and I started climbing the rocks immediately. My dad joined me after a minute (although he didn’t even get close to how far I got!) and even David came up a little ways to dip feet in. I learned that the wet part of the rock is much more slippery than it looks as I almost slipped! One of the novice monks came with us, but he decided to stay and take pictures (so many people in Thailand who I had met were interested in photography).

We headed back after Natch gave us a call that he had arrived. We greeted him and split into groups again. I decided to go with Natch and Marcia and more of the novices because the pickup truck was much more open, and we could sit outside (enjoying the beauty!).

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On the way to Wat Doi Suthep

This trip in the car was probably the most I was able to bond with the monks. Milan started the conversation with politics. We discussed the democratic republic of America, communism of China, and the constitutional monarchy of Thailand. All of these names for everything seemed meaningless when it all boiled down to the same thing. On lighter notes, they told me that they loved my hairstyle. We even started discussing American rap and pop songs. We all sang along to some popular ones like Jay Z and Eminem.

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My Dad and I at Wat Doi Suthep

We reached Doi Suthep after a beautiful ride while we were literally in the clouds. We were supposed to climb up around 3000 steps to get to the temple, but I decided to go with Nid and Marcia in the elevator to “accompany” them. The temple itself was very beautiful. There were Buddha statues surrounding all the walls. To pay our respects, we had to take some lotuses and walk around the center Buddha three times. Each of the three times we had to think of three things: the Buddha, The dhamma (the teachings), and the sangha (the disciples) respectively. Although it seemed a little odd at first, I realized the power of it after we were done. We then lit an incense stick and put it at the feet of the Buddha for respect.

After paying our respects, we just walked around the main temple and saw different things. I went into this mini temple where Natch told me it was considered good luck if you picked up this heavy object with you pinky finger. Although it was painful, I was able to do it! I was excited for the luck. We all walked around and saw many Ganesha statues (again showing the Indian influences on the Thai culture). We also saw a string of different-sized bells where it was auspicious to go and ring each one. My dad did it. We also saw another gong we had seen before. We could not get it ring with our bare hands though (which Thai people thought of has having a bad karma!).

Going down the elevator, we met this Thai tour guide who asked if I were an America. He said he could tell from my mannerisms. I was surprised because most people can guess that I am of Indian origin but most people don’t know I’m an American because of my brown skin.

Going down the elevator, we met this Thai tour guide who asked if I were an America. He said he could tell from my mannerisms. I was surprised because most people can guess that I am of Indian origin but most people don’t know I’m an American because of my brown skin.

Marcia arrived at the foot of the temple. While waiting for everyone, we went into the market area, and I bought a little Buddha statue. Everyone then came, and we went to go get some lunch. I got some delicious noodles with egg and tofu. It was nice seeing the monks eat something as they barely ate (they weren’t allowed to eat anything after midday). Most of them even enjoyed some ice-cream.

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Group shot at Doi Pui

After lunch, we set out for Doi Pui, a hill market type place. There were many, many interesting shops. David and I even tried our hand at shooting a crossbow. Each time I would miss by centimeters, and the one time David tried he hit the target straight on. As we moved on, my dad, Natch, and many of the other monks disappeared. The place when we got in the middle of it was beautiful and full of flowers. I went to the restroom there and it was one of those toilets that are dug into the ground. Not bad for a hill market, I guess. We then found this shop where you could try on some of the native tribe clothing. Nid, Marcia, and I got into the clothes and took some pictures.

After browsing around shops and seeing a bunch of clothes and other things, we stopped for a little nut snack. Then, we headed into the waterfall area. This was a very manmade area, yet it was extremely natural looking. There were beautiful flowers and bamboo plants all over, and of course, the waterfall was as beautiful as ever! We even saw a gigantic green and red snake sleeping on top of the hut!

We headed back, realizing that half of the crew was gone. We arrived at the car and saw that everyone was waiting for us at the car. My dad told me that he had seen some good Thai shirts for me so we went and got them. We then got back in the truck and set out for a meditation center that most people don’t know about.

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At Wat Palad

Arriving there, the quiet of the center was noticeable. It was completely natural and outdoors. The only noise was the waterfall. We explored and saw some of the oldest Buddha statues in Thailand. Natch and I even ventured, climbed, and slipped up the big waterfall. It started raining so we had to hurry back to the car and head back to the Wat as everyone was very tired! I came back to spend my last night at Doi Saket.

13 June 2012

Today’s day started off with a discussion with the monks. Everyone was high off the excitement of yesterday’s trip, and everyone had opened up much more since the first day. Everyone was feeling kind of sad that this would be the last day for discussions.

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Group shot of the novices from our daily discussions

We started by showing the monks pictures of my family and friends on my iPad. This interested them a lot, and they got excited recognizing my dad from the trip. We then started talking about the different types of rules novices, monks, and I had at home and at school. This discussion took us through the entire two hours and before we knew it, it was already time to say goodbye. After some quick pictures, the monks were off to get their lunch.    After getting lunch with my dad, we all, picking up Sapphire, went to see the hot springs. This was my first time visiting anything else like it.

Right when we reached it, we saw a normal-looking stream type thing. Natch told me that it was part of the spring. That seemed ridiculous because it seemed like completely normal water. As soon as I put my feet in I realized that it was extremely hot (I think the sign said 103 degrees). Natch and I went to the source of the water: the spring itself. We bought some eggs and put them in the water nearest the spring where they could cook. The whole place smelled like eggs, but I realized that it was the smell of sulfur. We went into the spring. There were two. We didn’t drench ourselves in the hot one because that was way too hot, but we did get wet in the cold spring. Our eggs also got cooked, mine were cracked, but Natch’s looked good, and we had a little bit of them. We then went into a naturally warm pool straight from the springs, except this was comfortable to swim in. After about an hour or so, we left and set out for the caves.

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Hot springs

1Unfortunately, when we got to the caves, they were locked up by a little gate so it would be impossible to get in. Instead, we decided to just hike up the

mountain we had already partially climbed. It was a long hike up. I was most surprised because Sapphire was so extremely skinny yet she was ahead of all of us, with the most energy. After reaching the top, we saw the dam and trees we had passed through many days ago. We saw two gong instruments, and David and I started playing on them, and we even had a beat going! The Buddha statues at the top were beautiful as they were the main reason that monks came up here to meditate. It was beautiful. Again, we saw a Ganesha. I had a conversation with Sapphire when she told me that she meditated on the image of Ganesha because she had learned about him in the temples of her home in London. She was twenty-four years old and had already been to 68 countries already! She was probably one of the most interesting people I had met so far!

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Tired after a full day of activities!

After reaching the bottom, we took the truck back and dropped Sapphire at the place she was staying. We were also extremely tired. I went back to the Wat and packed all my stuff as the next day I would be leaving for Nid’s village so it would be convenient if I had stayed at the hotel with my dad. Tomorrow would come the next adventure!

Click here to read part III

Written by: Raghav Agarwal

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