My view of Chiang Mai: from the seat of a Motorbike

trafficDoes this look like harmony, togetherness and peace to you? Is it an ugly rush hour nightmare, or something rhythmic and strangely beautiful?  On the surface, most of us would say the former.  When I arrived in Chiang Mai and took my first tuk-tuk ride, another volunteer Victoria was exclaiming how the traffic here really was special.  All of the different vehicles worked together in a beautiful, harmonious flow.  I naturally took one look at the noisy chaos of traffic around me and thought, “Wow…are all of the people at ATMA SEVA out of their minds?!” But now I have realized that while the traffic may seem stressful and chaotic on the outside, if you actually take time to observe and experience it, like Thai culture itself, it really is quite special.

As ATMA SEVA’s newest on-site intern, I will be helping with social media, volunteer coordinating and anything else ATMA SEVA needs!  I am living in Chiang Mai city close to the office, not at a temple or outside district.  I think that, because of this location, I have had a slightly different view of Thailand than some of our other volunteers.  Living in the city is definitely louder and more hectic on the surface but, even amongst the masses in the city, the underlying principles and values such as community, warmth and friendliness make Thailand what it is.

I have been here for almost a month now, but I have to say that I didn’t have a full understanding or appreciation of Thailand and its culture until about a week and a half ago.  So what happened a week and a half ago you ask?

My awesome motorbike!

My awesome motorbike!

It was my first day on a motorbike!  This is the first time I saw harmony in the city.  I don’t like to admit this, but I was pretty scared to get on a bike in Chiang Mai.  At first glance, the motorbikes, cars, tuk-tuks, and songtaews seem to be haphazardly zooming around the city without any mind to other motorists or traffic laws, an intimidating prospect for someone coming from a fairly civilized driving country.  I took it slow at first on smaller streets and almost immediately realized that they have a method to their madness here.  Everyone shows respect for each other, and all types of vehicles on the road work together to create space for all.  It is definitely an environment where you have to be very aware of your surroundings, but I think that this awareness also creates a sense of community.  I have been courteously allowed into traffic countless times as I fumble around the many one-way streets of the Old City.  This mindfulness of one another on the road alludes to the welcoming and kindness I have felt from all of the people working with ATMA SEVA.

As an intern, I have been fortunate enough to see almost all of ATMA SEVA’s locations for our  Wat Doi Saket Project in the time that I have been here through various volunteer set-ups and visits.  I feel so lucky to see all of the places that we work with because we have a huge network of truly unique locations and spectacular individuals.

From government schools to Buddhist temples and Dhamma centers, and from principles and English teachers to novices and monks, everyone I have met is enthusiastic about volunteers and teaching English to their students, and teaching Buddhism and Thai culture to us.

I have met principals who take in volunteers as if they were their own children… a monk who was a chef in the Cheesecake Factory… novices who love Liverpool Football Club…

Novices playing English games

Novices playing English games

I have done circle dances with the local ladies preparing for Loy Krathong and watched cotton being made into beautiful, dyed robes in just one day as a donation for a Kathin ceremony.

Process of creating beautiful robes!

Process of creating beautiful robes!

I have seen a temple nestled in the foothills of the Suthep Mountain in Chiang Mai city and a beautiful Dhamma center in the mountains near the Myanmar border.

Dhamma Center in Wiang Haeng district

Dhamma Center in Wiang Haeng district

At first, I was a little bit nervous about going to so many new places so quickly but, at each and every place we have visited, they have welcomed us with open arms and treated us like family.  I have been overwhelmed by the sense of community and openness from everyone I have met in Thailand.  All of these people and places truly amazed me and are just a few examples of my experiences with the ATMA SEVA family.  I have been here only a short time, but I am SO excited to continue to experience and learn about Thailand and its people through this extended family.  And you know what? I am even excited to continue experiencing the “harmonious” Thai traffic jams on a daily basis 🙂

Amy Kaylor, on-site intern

Photography Corner: Art in the Concrete Jungle

While it may not come as a surprise to most, but many people view Bangkok as a dirty, crowded and grimy city (except perhaps the Siam Center area, with the extravagant malls and decor). But it is usually not recognized for its art. However, within this large and chaotic city, you can find some beautiful, and maybe sometimes misunderstood, art just walking along the streets.

When walking around a lot of neighborhoods in Bangkok you can easily stumble upon art that may represent some factor of Bangkok life and culture. It may also be completely random and confusing. But either way, it is a representation of this city. In many cases there is a stark contrast between the amazing art you see in front of you and the slums it is surrounded by. It is also fascinating to see this kind of art with grand skyscrapers in the background – which really tells you the story of how Bangkok has grown and is still growing.

Street art is quickly becoming an embedded part of Bangkok. As a result, the very first Street Art Festival was held earlier this year. It was such a major event that the Bangkok Arts and Cultural Centre gave over 400 square meters of exhibition space over to street artists, which was the biggest exhibit of its kind.

So while Bangkok may not be well known for its art, when you’re in the city always take a look at your surroundings – you never know what you might stumble upon.

Katie Davos, research intern

A cold rainy summer in Pa Pae

Summer has passed half way and these past 2 weeks, I’ve taken some time to visit my family back in Vietnam. Last week as I accompanied two friends – Tony and his sister Lily – back to Pa Pae village, it felt like coming back to my hometown. People recognized and smiled at me. And I became the host for my friends, taking them around, showing them places and introducing them to others.

The children that I met and the time I spent with them was definitely what I’ve missed the most. A group of fourth-grade students welcomed me back with words like “Teacher, we’ve missed you” or “Teacher, do you bring us gifts from you country?” During weekends they would knock on the door and drag my lazy bump out so that we could begin our adventure around the village. It is incredible to see how eager these children are. All of them are sweet, nice and do have very polite, respectful attitude which provides a comfortable environment for teaching and living.


Village kids in traditional Lawa costumes

I remember at first, the idea of watching little children worried me a little bit, just because I’ve had very minimal experience taking care of kids. The children would start fighting, and playing in class, over and over again. Yet, as time went on, they noticed that there was a much older person in the room, a person that could guide them and help them. Some kids began to calm down and pay more attention to what I said. Some even tried to make conversation with me. As they began to look for me more often, I decided to instigate some activities that the kids and I could participate in together. Over the weekends, we ventured out onto the temple or playground and talked in mixed language – Thai, English and hand gestures. The boys are more shy standing next to me or making conversation than the girls. But they do have their own way of expressing their eagerness, by climbing up the trees and picking down the fruits for everyone to share.


Teachers and students carry the candle up to the temple

With their tremendous help and presence this time, we took our friends to all the popular spots and shot some good footage for a marketing video for Atma Seva. The weather has gotten even cooler and rice fields have all grown to full extent in beautiful green color. We were back in time for another festival – the Buddhist Lent Day or “Khao Phansa Day”, which could be translated as “the entering of the rainy season”. It marks the beginning of three lunar months when monks are required to remain in one particular place or temple. This tradition originates from old times when Buddha stayed in temples during the rainy season to avoid killing insects or harming the growing seeds. It is a period for study, meditation and teaching of new monks. The monks are allowed to go out during the day but they must sleep in the same temple every night during these three months.


Khao Phansa Day ceremony at the temple

Upon preparation for this day, the kids helped teachers decorate a large yellow candle with flowers on a big bamboo draft, which would later be presented to the monks. This candle is big enough to last for 3 months! Around 8:30 in the morning, everyone gathered in the schoolyard for the flag ceremony. Instead of traditional Lawa costumes, kids showed up all in white shirts for this special Friday. Everyone made small donations in an envelope and put it next to the candle. They then proceeded to stand in lines, following the teachers and older kids who carried the candle and we all marched up to the temple. Here we sat in the big bright hall, listening to the monks’ teachings and paid our respects with kowtow gestures. Although I didn’t understand any words, seeing others’ faces made it clear how important this event was for them. They all wish for a prosperous rainy season so they could have enough rice and food for another year.


Female teachers and volunteers after the ceremony

As the ceremony came to an end, we also said goodbye to Tony and Lily. They have finished their short but fully exciting trip and hopefully through the images they brought back to share with others, we could look forward to having more and more people knowing about Pa Pae and coming to help while experiencing the warmth and beauty of this mountain village.

Trang Nguyen, on-site intern

Wat Doi Saket project – Eat, Pray, Love, Give

I found ATMA SEVA by chance online, and now I’m in Chiang Mai for 2 months, helping to teach English to young novice monks at Wat Pranon Bagatee in Saraphi.

I arrived on a Wednesday morning, and had my first lesson the next day! I was excited with thousands of butterflies in my stomach at the same time, but with the forwardness, constant smiles and support from everyone I was slowly but surely beginning to feel at ease.

The novice monks were eager to meet the new teacher from London as I was to meet them all, and there are some great characters! It feels like the lessons are full of smiles with a bubbly atmosphere, especially when games are involved!

I had my first lunch with all the students, the monks and other teachers, as well as the few dogs and cats around! But before lunch there’s always a chanting of thanks, which completely moved me to my very soul the first time I heard it. It was all overwhelmingly beautiful, the temple, the kindness, the peace and serenity of it all, I shall never forget those first feelings.

20130712_08061120130712_100101Aside from the teaching, there’s all the exploring of Chiang Mai, with the incredible history and the fact that there are more than 300 wats in this region, as well as hill tribes, mountainous national parks, hot springs, caves and plenty of markets with unlimited food stalls everywhere. It is almost impossible to go hungry!

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One of the things I personally adore is the fact that you can smile at a stranger, and in return get a great smile! This is afterall, the land of smiles, and what a great place to be!

I have now almost been in Saraphi for a week, and it already feels like I have been here longer. Everyone from the other volunteers, the teachers, and the novice monks have made me feel so welcomed and part of the team, the sense of community and togetherness is wonderfully gracious and humbling. I’m eager for each and every day, with so much to do, see and feel, it makes me think these next two months will go by too quickly for my liking!

Getting to know the students and helping them in lessons is very interesting, even just walking around the temple between lessons I will hear “hello teacher” followed by a big beaming cheeky smile!

I found it hard to imagine what it would be like here in Chiang Mai, and now that I’m here, I understand why I couldn’t imagine much, nothing could have prepared me for the genuine kindness and care from everybody here, not just for me, but for each other, everybody helps everybody. 


Victoria Castro

Lawa village – Wai Kru Day + daily village life

Me hiking around the village!

Me hiking around the village!

The marking of my fourth week in Thailand and third week living in Pa Pae village just happened to coincide with the traditional Teacher’s Day – or ‘Wai Kru Day’, which is a different event from the modern version of Teacher’s Day. Here in Thailand, Wai Kru Day is a part of the schools’ celebration scheduled every June and it normally falls on the 2nd Thursday as Thursday is considered an auspicious day in Buddhism. This year it was on June 13th. In the afternoon before the ceremony, everyone gathered in the lunch hall for a quick rehearsal before the students went out to look for different types of flowers and leaves. Together with some candles and incense, they did their best to make their class bouquets appear beautiful and unique.


The flowers and stage ready for the ceremony.

The formal celebration started just after the daily flag ceremony on Thursday morning. We walked into the hall and saw some nice decorations on the stage, a row of chairs for the teachers placed next to the alter, and a picture of the King of Thailand. Beautiful flower bouquets were displayed on the table in front of the stage. The teachers came in and sat on the chairs, in front of the crowd of students. The ceremony began with students’ reading, in harmony, their words of appreciation, respects and promises to be good students, good people and good citizens. Each class representatives – in pairs of one boy and one girl – walked to the stage on their knees carrying the bouquets, first prostrated at the alter, and bowed at the King’s picture. Then they kneeled in a row and prostrated at teachers’ feet as a sign of respect, and presented the flowers to the teachers. After that, groups of students would follow, each bringing their own smaller and simpler versions of flower bouquets wrapped inside the banana leaves. My personal winner was the yellow bouquet as it is my favorite color!

The event was the first time I’ve learnt, witnessed and experienced Wai Kru Day. I felt like being a saint sitting on a gigantic altar; because the clasping-hand and kowtow gestures usually signify worship toward the supernatural, as well as the ascendants, in my home country (Vietnam). I would be happy enough just to receive flowers knowing that the children appreciate my effort. It was both a surprise and an honor to be a part of the event even though I am just a volunteer teacher. And I’m so proud to be the first ATMA SEVA on-site volunteer to have this experience.


Students gathered for Wai Kru Day.

Life up on a mountain village has been good so far, with moderate adjustment to the weather, the accommodation, and of course the teaching. Things are beginning to take off in my preparation for materials and interaction with the kids in class. The area I am working on at the moment is conversational English, helping the students to become familiar with new vocabularies by topics, and learn to make simple question-and-answer dialogues. The challenge of having a class of all hill-tribe students is that they have to learn three languages – the local Lawa, Thai and English – at the same time. It makes things hard for them to retain without regular review and practice. And the local people in general have rather limited exposure and resources to a good English education. So I am very appreciative of the support and ideas of helping these kids that ATMA SEVA is offering. Having observed and made progresses for three weeks, I have started to create more activity-prone materials – such as puzzles, coloring tasks, games and songs – for the children as my go-to teaching strategy. It seems to work effectively in keeping the students interested, attentive and engaged in learning.


Rice fields in the village.

Outside of classroom, the rainy season has started, and the weather is much cooler than in Bangkok or Chiang Mai, which is plus. For the last few weeks, I have not slept in the gale of a fan. We are still getting some nice sunny weather between the rain showers, but the showers are beginning to get longer and more persistent. Rainy season also marked the beginning of planting season. People here maintain a sustainable lifestyle by self-producing food from farming and raising livestock while still insisting on protecting the environment as they understand the importance of preserving nature as their main source of existence. The 13th day of the 5th lunar month marks the start of rice planting season. On my first day after arriving in the village, Katherine took me around for a tour of the area and we walked up to the farm of pee Bits family – who has been taking great care of the volunteers. They were cleaning up and ploughing the soil to make space for new rice season. Three weeks since then, I was walking along the narrow hillside roads, looking down the terrace rice fields that have all been filled with rain water and rice started to grow out in bright green, creating a beautiful canvas down the valleys.


Pee Bit’s husband ploughing the rice field.

Similar to other small rural villages around Asia, Pa Pae is a close-knit community. Life is simple; people are friendly and welcoming. The doors are always open and people in the house enjoy making conversations with their neighbors and the passer-by. Beside the many familiar things we could see or find in any Asian countries, there’s always something that is different and distinguishes the cultures apart. The ‘twisty’ difference within the resemblance gives this place a special charm that makes it special and fascinating. Houses are raised on stilts; people live on the upper quarter while animals are kept on the ground together with storage space. The villagers always seem to be busy with their daily activities. The men go to their work in the farms everyday, women gather at one house and make traditional Lawa bags together. Some teachers work at school during the day and go to the farm in the afternoon and during weekends. As the nights fall, everything gradually comes to sleep before another new day dawns. Walking along the alley every night from pee Bit’s house back to my dorm room, the dimming light flickering from the houses can be easily mistaken with fireflies.


Cooking dinner with Pee Bit.

I got used to listening to the kids’ voice in the schoolyard to tell time. Everyday around 7am, the morning sounds of doors opening and students’ talking wakes me up. And music about the King and his teachings echoes shortly after, like a greeting for a new day. I admire the students here for being hardworking and showing great respect to the teachers. On my first day at school, I walked into the new room and was surprised by a group of students who were cleaning and bringing me things to make sure I would have a comfortable stay. They would clasp their hands together and bow down toward the teachers all the time. They bring water and coffee for teachers, help clean and wash the dishes after every meal. They also divide among themselves to help cooking lunch for the younger kids in kindergarten. School for the village kids is not only the place to learn but it’s also a social gathering place, where they learn about farming, help build and maintain school with activities such as planting flowers, cleaning and repairing things. Between 4-5pm in the afternoon is the quietest time at school, when students finish with classes and go back home for a short break. Then they all just come flooding back yelling, screaming, laughing, playing sports and games down in the schoolyard before dinner time. Friday is what I call ‘traditional Lawa clothes’ day when the boys show up in their white shirts and pants, and the girls in black shirts and skirts with pretty decorative details that I totally love. And that’s why I’ve just got for myself, my sister and my mom each with a traditional Lawa shirt and I am so eager to wear it the coming Friday. Maybe then I’ll look like a Lawa teacher!

Trang Nguyen, on-site intern

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

ATMA SEVA – Meet and hear from our new intern, Katherine!

Sawatdee-ka!  My name is Katherine and I am the first On Site Intern with ATMA SEVA! I arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand two and a half weeks ago, after a few months of planning and almost 38 hours of travel! I will be staying in Chiang Mai for one year, working with ATMA SEVA as an English teacher, contributing to this blog, creating the newsletter, coordinating volunteers, and helping to develop the website. I am currently living at Saraphi Technical College and teaching English to novice monks at Wat Saraphi.

In 2011, I graduated from the University of Vermont with a Bachelors Degree in Environmental Studies and a concentration in Community and International Development. During my freshman year of college I took a two-week travel study class in Ecuador to learn about land use issues and the indigenous populations. Again, during my junior year I spent a semester in Australia studying Rainforest, Reef and Cultural Ecology through the School for International Training (SIT). Both experiences abroad left me with a desire to continue to travel and do meaningful work in local communities.

After graduating college, I spent one year back at home in West Hartford, Connecticut (USA) working at an after-school program in an elementary school and part time at a children’s museum in town. With a year of experience in the classroom and an aspiration to work abroad, I began the job search.  I first heard about ATMA SEVA through a family friend in Connecticut and contacted David (Programs Director) to find out more. After a series of email conversations and skype sessions, my travel plans were finally becoming a reality and I was set to go!

My first week in Chiang Mai was a great introduction to the country and Thai culture. The first day, David, Marcia (a volunteer from Mexico) and I took a drive outside Chiang Mai to find and a friends house where a third volunteer, Sapphire, was meeting with traditional healers. Our plan was to meet her and explore the area. We ended up getting lost and driving on the motorcycle for close to three hours! I enjoyed the drive though and the scenery was beautiful; rice paddies, fields of palm and banana trees, and lush green mountains throughout the vast countryside. Even the roadside fruit stands and noodle shops have their own charm and beauty. This was my first time riding on the back of a motorcycle and the only thing David told me to be careful of was the metal pipe on the side. For my first day I thought I was doing pretty good, until I touched the pipe. Ouch what a burn! Marcia remembered an old trick to rub an egg white on the burn before it blistered and our search for the friends house turned into immediate medical attention… with an egg. The first few shops pointed to their fried egg dishes and chickens running through the grounds until finally, we stopped at a small family shop and got an egg and a bowl to treat the burn. The women running the shop also brought out a medicated cream, and through a combination of water, egg whites, cream and laughter about the situation, I was nursed back to health to keep riding. Another quick look at the map and we were back on the road. David realized we were close to Saraphi, where I am now living and working, so we drove through the town and stopped for lunch at a small noodle shop near the temple. It was closed for Mother’s Day (the Queen’s birthday) but the woman opened the shop for us and we sat for a rest, noodle soup with pork, and a cold beer. A great first day.

The motorcycle I was riding outside the noodle shop

The rest of the week was full of trying new foods, exploring the night markets and Sunday walking street, more motorcycle rides, learning new Thai phrases, a meeting at Wat Doi Saket, dinners, beers, and even a Monk competition, where local temples show off their school projects – science fair style. I also spent a day exploring “the old city”, including the Chiang Mai Cultural Arts Center, and browsing used bookstores. And to top it all off, massage parlors and spas are abundant and cheap. In the first week I got two one-hour Thai massages, each for the whopping price of 170 Baht or $5.45 USD. I could get used to this.

To end the week, we had a visit from Sonam Lhaden, our ATMA SEVA partner in Bhutan.  Sonam is the managing director for Bhutan and is responsible for all tours and projects within the country.  We spent Thursday touring many different temples throughout the city and in the mountains. We talked about cultural comparisons between Thailand, Bhutan and the United States, and differences between Theravada Buddhism (practiced in Thailand) and Mahayana Buddhism (practiced in Bhutan). To my surprise, we found many similarities between our different cultures and I learned a lot about living in a Buddhist country. It was wonderful to meet her and make new friends all over the world!

Group dinner! It was at a friend of Nids (Dave’s girlfriend) house. Her name was Dang and her home is in Mae Jo district. From L-R; Sonam, Dang, Nid, Im, Katherine

I moved into my room at the Saraphi Technical College on Saturday and began teaching that Monday. Saraphi is a charming district outside of Chiang Mai with long tree-lined streets and plenty of local shops and family life. My room is in a section of teacher housing for the college in a quiet corner behind the automotive shop.

Saraphi road

Monday morning I was woken up bright and early by my neighbor Nit, a teacher at both the technical college and Wat Saraphi, telling me to get dressed and ready for breakfast. With little time to get ready I stepped out of my room wearing a long black Patagonia dress and sandals. Nit looked at my shoes and shook her head, “No no no.” She turned back into her room, picked up a pair of bright orange cheetah print heels and handed them to me to put on. I tried to politely decline the shoes but she looked down at my sandals again, thought for a second and insisted. I put the shoes on and we walked to the eating area for a breakfast of rice, pork and a fried egg. The courtyard was crowded and soon I heard music playing over the loudspeakers signaling the start of the morning announcements as students lined up in the courtyard. I was introduced to a few other teachers and sat down for the announcements. Next thing I know I hear, “ATMA SEVA… Kat-er-een!” and all of the students clapping. Wait… what?! I walked clumsily to the front of the courtyard, stepped on stage and took the microphone. “Sawatdeeka” (Hello in Thai) The students replied Sawatdeeka and a deep “Wai” or short bow showing respect and then sat quietly. “Chan chew Katherine…. I am a teacher… I am from America… I am excited to be here…” It was short and sweet and I just laughed to myself as I stepped off the stage. That explains the heels.

Later that morning, in my own shoes, David and I headed to the temple for my first day to observe in the classroom. I was unsure at first about how to properly act around the monks and how much English they knew but I was quickly put at ease with how friendly, funny and willing to learn most of the novices are. Yes they are novice monks wearing saffron robes, studying Buddhist texts, chanting and living in the temples, but they are still just teenage boys at the end of the day.

My day of observation turned into teaching two classes in a row with David, including a class of 55! Although it is a large group the students are respectful and excited to have new teachers. Throughout the rest of the week I went over the same basic conversations with the classes and even started English classes for the other teachers!

First day in the classroom

It has been a long week and the first days I felt nervous and unsure of the lessons, but after only a few days of warm smiles and genuine laughter from both the students and the teachers I feel more confident in my teaching and my place at the school. I have a lot to learn about Buddhism, the novices, and teaching in general but I am looking forward to all of it.

I will be teaching through the end of September and then spending some time in the Lawa Village, five hours outside of Chiang Mai.  Subscribe to our blog and ‘Like’ our Facebook page to follow along for my adventures and more on teaching, the students, Buddhism, and life in Thailand!

Katherine Devine

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