On atmaseva.org we recently added a new section, Wish List, where you can purchase one of three packages that go directly to the children, teachers, and schools. The majority of the students we work with are novice monks, and in most cases these young men join the monastic community because they lack the resources to pay for public school. The other Thai government schools we work with primarily have students that are from various hill-tribes and usually come from poor socioeconomic homes.
Our photography corner series is relatively young, but we wanted to look back and highlight what we think are the best shots from 2012. We have big plans for 2013 and lot’s more photos from unique locations in Thailand and Bhutan still to come. Hope you enjoy the pictures and thanks to all photographers who have contributed! If anyone has suggestions for how we can improve or what types of photos or locations you would like to see more of, please leave us a comment below.
Although I’m working from Rochester, NY, I could not be more excited to join ATMA SEVA as a Research Intern! I’ve only been a part of the team for a few weeks now, but I’m already learning so much about the hill tribes in Northern Thailand and the work that ATMA SEVA does there. I hope to go to Chiang Mai in the near future to meet everyone in person and see what I’ve been helping with!
A little background about me: I recently graduated from Colgate University in May 2012. Although I graduated with a degree in Classical Studies and a minor in Political Science, I plan on pursuing a career in international development. I had somewhat of an epiphany my junior year while I was studying abroad for a semester in Cape Town, South Africa. It’s one thing to learn about the legacy of apartheid and the economic disparity in South Africa in a classroom; it’s another thing to live there and see the effects everyday. It was both fascinating and disturbing to study and see the socioeconomic conditions in this beautiful country, and my experiences there completely changed my worldview. Ultimately, I decided to study African politics when I returned to Colgate and to work towards a career in international development and non-profit work.
Since graduating, I have been interning/volunteering at a refugee center here in Rochester called Mary’s Place Outreach. We aid refugees from Burma, Thailand, Nepal, and numerous African countries. Most of my work there has involved education: tutoring, helping teach ESL classes, and helping kids with homework after school. I am also in the process of trying to develop a Saturday science discovery program for the kids there. I have really enjoyed getting to know the refugees and especially spending time with the kids!
I am in the process of trying to decide whether I will apply to law school (for International Human Rights Law) or to a masters program for International Development. I’m not sure what path I’ll take, but I’m looking forward to getting started. As of now, though, I’m so happy to have the opportunity to be involved with ATMA SEVA, and I’m excited to see what the next few months will bring as I work with this incredible organization!
In part 1 I outlined some basic facts about hill-tribes in Northern Thailand and shared one story that made a lasting impression on myself. For part 2 I will continue with my stories and impressions.
One thing that stuck out in my mind that was common across all the villages was the feeling of community and the lack of selfish behavior. All of the villages do not have police or police stations and it was very apparent that everyone takes care of each other. Quick story; at the Lawa village we went walking to visit a friend and along the way were followed by a man who was clearly intoxicated and wanted us to come with him to drink whiskey. He came with to the friend’s house and ended up spending the whole night with us. No one was ever nasty to him even though at times he was clearly annoying some. Everyone treated him nicely and they referred to him as their ‘brother’. I was thinking about this situation and compared it to how it would probably be handled elsewhere.
Adding to the notion of community, it was overall simply a wonderful feeling to be in that environment. Being born and raised on the East coast of the US, there were times of community feelings, but generally the outlook is to take care of you. I am not sure how else to describe the feeling other than that it felt so natural and so warm. When we walked through these villages everyone always offers for you to come inside their home where they would offer food and drink. A side note, which is humorous to me, is how many missionaries have come to these villages and tried to spread the word of god and build churches. It is ironic because the people in these villages are more Christian/Catholic and live their lives according to what Jesus preached more than the missionaries themselves. And they didn’t even need a bible to tell them that!
Lastly, to drag out this sense of community I felt with one last story. In the villages I visited most of them produce their own alcohol which they call whiskey but is technically rum because it comes from rice. Either way, when they drink together they only use one glass and they always pour for someone else. Compare that to other countries where everyone has their own glass and own plate of food. Not to sound cheesy or make it more than it is, but to me this just felt right and felt warm. (Pun intended, as the village whiskey is pretty strong!)
During our trip we visited my girlfriend’s sister’s new home where there would be a house blessing. House blessings are very common in Thailand and it is a ceremony preformed by Buddhist monks after a new house is finished being built. It is meant to bring good luck to the new home and its residents and also to wish them happiness for the future. The night before the house blessing was a time for the family and village to come together and prepare for the ceremony and also to enjoy good food and good drink. That night we met lots of people from the village and also the local community. It is very common for the men to sit together and enjoy homemade village whiskey. As I was mingling around and meeting people I was invited into the house to join a small circle of men from the village. Included in the circle were the number one and two leaders of the village (similar to a mayor). Even though I have a decent grasp on Thai language between their accents and them speaking their hill-tribe language there was not a lot of communication. We sat in a circle and proceeded to drink and pour each other village whiskey. All of the men were clearly excited to be in the presence of a foreigner and even though we could not talk or communicate very much it was extremely comfortable and a situation where body language and sign language was enough to convey our emotions. They kept giving me whiskey and having me try different leaves and different local dishes. No matter what my reaction was they were super pumped about everything and the excitement in the air was palpable. Being treated so kindly and being brought into their circle was a fun moment for me and I truly hope to be in a position to repay the hospitality someday.
The other thing that stuck out to me was the sense of pride from the people from the different villages. Wearing the traditional dress and talking about their culture was hard not to notice. I guess I am jealous of their strong heritage and traditions. Coming from a mixed background with no dominant nationality or family traditions, I guess that I yearn for what they have in a sense.
To sum it up, if you couldn’t guess by now, I thoroughly enjoyed meeting, visiting, and staying with the different villages. I felt like I was 12 years old again building a fort with that sense of excitement and adventure there in full force.
I am very hopeful that the project to bring volunteers to teach English and learn the unique culture and lifestyle will be a success. The experience even though it was brief, affected me in a positive way.
Check out this short video to see the school and children from the village. (Change to 1080p for maximum viewing pleasure!)
I am writing this from my room in Doi Saket on a sunny Sunday afternoon. I think now I will continue with my routine and go get half a chicken and sticky rice, but this time watch the latest episode of ‘Sons of Anarchy’. (I recently bought my first motorcycle so watching that show is twice as cool or me now!)
David Poppe, Programs Director
Over the past two weeks I have been lucky enough to visit and stay with 5 different hill-tribes. There were two main motivations for these visits; 1) One village is a potential place for volunteers to live and teach English and 2) A co-worker is leading a tour in August to take groups to learn about hill-tribe shamans and basics about hill-tribe culture, and I will be co-leading on that trip.
Before I start on my short stories and impressions I want to lay some basic groundwork about hill-tribes in Northern Thailand. “There are seven broad hill tribe groupings: Karen, Lahu, Hmong, Lisu, Akha, Mien, and Padaung. However, within these categories, there are sub-categories and clans that further divide the groups.” Estimates including sub-categories are around 12 different hill-tribes in Thailand. Some migrated from China while others have roots within Thailand. Each hill-tribe has a distinct culture, language, and traditional dress. Majority of hill-tribe people are farmers and for the most part live off the land. The traditional dresses are known for their bright colors and unique designs. Over the two-week span I visited Karen, Lahu, Lisu hill-tribes, and spent extended time in a Lawa village (Northern Thai language Lawa is called ‘Lua’).
As beautiful as their traditional dresses, language, and culture are there are many hardships that hill-tribe people face. Three major problems are trafficking, obtaining citizenship, and discrimination. The UNESCO Bangkok newsletter from 2008 hits it right on the head, “Lack of citizenship is the single greatest risk factor for a hill tribe girl or women in Thailand to be trafficked or otherwise exploited, according to United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) research.” Being from a hill-tribe very often brings discrimination and many Thai people believe they are in a lower class. With those three problems outlined, plus lack of a good education, it mixes into a problematic situation and an uphill battle. It is not all bad news though; progress has been made. The Royal Project Foundation, which taught and assisted farmers to switch from growing opium to vegetable’s and coffee, to many great organizations that have built schools, modern facilities, and help with education. (http://www.samsara-foundation.com/ & http://hilltribeinthecity.org/ are two great examples)
With that information I wanted to share a few moments from the two weeks that made a lasting impression on myself. The first is a story I was told over dinner at the Lawa village. This is the village where my girlfriend was born and raised and where her family lives. She has two older sisters and they are twins. I jokingly asked which sister is older and her answer knocked my socks off.* The sister I asked is technically younger as she was the last one to come out of the womb. However, in Lawa culture they believe the sister who came second is the older because she had the foresight to let her sister come first as she wanted to take care of her. I was absolutely blown away and was very impressed at that outlook and level of compassion. What started as a cute question to make conversation turned into something I won’t forget for a long time.
*It matters in Thai society b/c they address people as either “pee + their name” or “nong + their name”. Pee means they’re older and nong means they’re younger. Example, I am younger than the Thai teacher at school so he addresses me as ‘nong David’
Stay tuned for part 2 which includes reflections on community and fun with village whiskey!
 “Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand – Thai Hilltribes – 1stop Chiang Mai.” http://www.1stopchiangmai.com/. Web. 12 Feb. 2012. <http://www.1stopchiangmai.com/culture/hill_tribes>.