Ever Since I Heard of Bhutan….

Dragons, Dzongs and Divine Mad Men!

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

Untitled

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

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

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

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

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

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

Untitled

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

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

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

Danielle

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

 

Advertisements

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

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

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

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

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

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

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

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

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

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

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

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org