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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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

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Learning Muay Thai in Doi Saket

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Kim sparring in the ring

Muay Thai is a combat sport and is the National sport of Thailand. It is also called “the art of eight limbs” because it combines fists, elbows, knees, and feet. As an English volunteer teacher in Doi Saket district I spent my evenings in Doi Saket with Kim, another volunteer English teacher. We always introduced ourselves to all the shop owners we met around the market. The reason is that Thai people are very friendly, and we wanted to make as many friends as possible in Doi Saket. On one of these occasions we befriended two young women, Kwang, Gift, and their mother at their family’s grocery shop. Kim forgot his notebook in the shop, that is why he had to come back the following day. While chatting with them he learned that their father used to be a Muay Thai fighter and was now training a few young men for free. They offered us to be trained at their gym. In exchange Kim offered to teach English to the youngest sister Kwang, whose English was weaker than her sister’s.

That is how we started training three to four times a week in Doi Saket. Kwang and Gift’s family owns a huge house surrounded by a wide domain including several traditional guest houses, farming activities and a gym with bags, gloves, weights and even a boxing ring. Even though we were a bit shy at the beginning, our Muay Thai teacher and his family made us understand that we were now part of the family. We call our teacher “Pa”, which means “Father”, and his wife “May”, which means “Mother”. We are trained by our teacher, but also by his four students, all younger than us (they are aged from 15 to 19, while Kim and me are 21 and 23 years old). Pa’s friends are visiting him daily and, along with the employees of the domain, they usually stay around the gym to watch the training and give us very useful advice.

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Me having fun in the ring!

More than just learning Muay Thai, we truly feel that we belong in this big family. The daughters always make a small detour to chat with us while we train, and sometimes even bake cakes for us. Our teacher and his friends are always smiling and patient, debating about how to improve our boxing and then trying to guide us with simple Thai or English words. The other fighters we train with are very talented despite their young age. One of them has fought more than 70 times. It is a privilege to learn with them : they are always training very seriously and being very warm and respectful with us, even though I am a complete beginner.

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One of the fighters getting ready for practice

All our training sessions start jumping for several minutes on a tire laid on the ground. We punch the air in front of us while holding small weighs in our fists. After this warm up we usually do pull ups, push ups, sit ups and lift weights in order to build our strength, as physical strength and endurance are a very important part of Muay Thai.

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Me doing some chin ups

As a beginner I have spent most of the first trainings hitting bags in order to learn different moves : kicking with the shin, usually as high as possible, hitting with the knee while holding my opponent’s neck, punching with one hand while protecting my jaw with the other and relaxing my shoulders to hit with my elbows. I have also learnt how to stand with my legs straight, my upper body bent forward and my fists held high on the sides of my head. I have trained to protect myself by lifting one of my knee and up to my elbows. I can create a wall with my upper arm and my shin in order to protect my head, neck and ribs.

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Practicing on the bags

When I started mastering these moves I was invited to enter the ring and practice with the other fighters. After exchanging a few punches, we practice clinching, grabbing each others neck and trying to free our elbows and knees to hit the other (lightly of course). We can also try to tire our opponent or throw him off balance. During my last training I also tried my kicks on one of the fighters who was wearing heavy protective gear and tried to punch back every time I kicked, to teach me how to protect myself against counter-attacks.

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Practice in the ring

I am very happy to feel that I am improving day after day. But the thing I appreciate the most about Muay Thai is that it is a smiling boxing style. We learn to relax and ideally to smile while boxing. The family atmosphere of our gym makes this trait of Muay Thai even more enjoyable. We train, fight and have fun at the same time, trusting each other and laughing as we learn together.

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Group shot!

I will keep training and I hope to come back to Thailand next year to continue this great experience.

Stay posted to learn more about Thai culture and the experience of volunteers within the Wat Doi Saket project.

Antoine Gratian, on-site intern

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Two months into the on-site intern experience!

I’ve officially been living in Wiang Haeng for two months. At this point one would expect the excitement of living in a new place would be wearing off, but that is far from the reality.
In the past two months I have visited numerous temples in the area, tasted dozens (if not hundreds) of new dishes, and participated in several religious ceremonies. In addition to my classes with the novice monks, two other teachers from my school and I started teaching classes at the government sub-district office this past month. I started to get into a routine – wake up, morning run, shower, eat, school, sub-district, teach English to novices at the Dharma Center, read, sleep, wake up and repeat.

IMG_3776 To some extent, I was beginning to think that I had seen it all – however, that changed recently when one of my students from the sub-district office invited me to cook and eat lunch with her and her family. We ended up having so much fun that we spent the entire day together. We cooked, ate, visited sites around the area, and met her friends and family. She then invited me to spend every Sunday together so that she can take me around to tour the area and check out the sights. How could I resist such an offer?

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Over the past few weekends I have found new beauty in the town and district in which I live. I’ve seen parts of my town that I never knew existed, fields quietly tucked away on side roads near my school, and neighborhoods hiding past the row of businesses on the main street. The sights are simply spectacular. As we coast through dirt roads on her motorcycle, we are flanked on both sides by lush rice paddies and the brooding mountains surrounding us. The rainy season is among us and the air is becoming crisp and cool, while rainbows become a common sight.

IMG_3883 These trips have also helped me feel like a more integrated part of the community. Kong Lom is a small village boasting around 400 houses. As a naturally kind and extroverted person (and a person who was born and raised in the village), my friend Toy seems to know everyone in town. Here, there is no such thing as a short bike ride, as we are constantly stopping to say hello to various family members and friends. And let me tell you, Thai families are not small! Everywhere we go we are warmly greeted and offered something to eat, which means I have eaten more than ever before but every dish is uniquely delicious.

IMG_3884 I also have to admit that I am addicted to Toy’s children’s energy. There’s nothing quite like enjoying a new site when your tour guides are 4 and 6 years old. They simply have a different taste for life and it makes you appreciate the experience that much more. The kids squeal with delight as we bump along the roads, while I close my eyes and grip tightly to my seat. They repeat what I and their mother say in English, even if they have no idea what it means. They like to hold my hand and tickle me when I least expect it. Her children, like many of the community members around me, communicate with me even if it’s not by using words – but rather, by sharing and creating experiences together.

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I’ve tried to document some of the experiences through pictures, but I’m finding it difficult to capture the sights, sounds, and emotions on camera. The views can’t be fully experienced until you feel the wind blowing in your hair as you wiz through the fields in a motorbike, hear the giggles, and see the warmth of the smiles in person. Here is a brief attempt to capture those experiences.

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Stay tuned for more pictures in the Photo Corner in a few weeks and don’t forget to ‘Like’ ATMA SEVA on Facebook!

Maria Moreno, on-site intern

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Photography Corner – Chorten Memorial

The Chorten Memorial, located in the middle of the capital Thimphu, was built to honor the Third King, Druk Gyalpo Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, who is known as ‘the father of modern Bhutan’. It was the Druk Gyalpo’s dream to build a monument to world peace and prosperity, but due to his unfortunate death in 1972 he could not fulfill his dream of erecting the Chorten. However in 1974, at the initiative of the Royal family, the Memorial took its present shape, built in the King’s memory and also as a monument to peace.

On the outside of the Chorten three statues stand upon the entrance, representing the protective Bodhisattvas – Avalokiteshvara (the symbol of compassion), Manjushri (the symbol of knowledge) and Vajrapani (the symbol of power). They reflect the deep insight into the Buddhist philosophy. Four statues of lions sit smugly upon a pillar, facing outward in four different directions. The huge golden spire is the prominent part of the monument, making it visible from almost everywhere in the capital.

Ever since its inauguration a thousand of devotees have visited the Chorten on a daily basis, especially the older ones, for they find the monument a safe haven. They circumambulate around it in a clockwise direction, reciting prayers and turning the large prayer wheels painted with Buddhist mantras (Mani Dungku). The number of devotees visiting the Chorten in times of holy occasions is even greater.

Jigme Namgyel, research intern

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Bhutan – Archery : A tradition embellished in time

Archery is the most popular sport played in Bhutan. Indeed, it is the country’s national sport. It is considered a cult evolved in time and this game has changed as it was embellished by modernity and globalization.

Nothing is more incongruous than team members yelling across the archery field, trying to help their team mates by literally standing near the target while arrows are shot at it from the other extremity of the field, but in Bhutan it is a common practice. The conducts involved in an archery game or tournament are truly unique. There is always excitement in witnessing an archery game. People either participate as archers or watch cheerfully while others play, in a lively atmosphere.

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People dwelling in the villages perceive archery as their favorite pastime, and in times of festivals such as Losar, and particularly during ‘Chodas’ (a particular event whereby a village directly challenges another one), the events are even more colourful and exciting. Adult men in villages set off for the competition early in the morning, hanging their bow and arrow cases upon their shoulder. The archery field can stretch as long as 130m from one end to the other. Relatively small and beautifully painted wooden targets (Ba) are placed at each end of the field.

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The other members of the family also play a vital role in the event. The children bring tea and Suja (butter tea), and locally prepared alcohol (Ara and Singchang) as refreshment for the archers while archer’s wives prepare their best dishes and drinks. Apart from these, the archer’s wives cheer their husbands by singing symbolic songs. They also tease the opponent teams with disturbing gesticulation and often singing songs with words of affront.

As the competition draws to an end, usually in the late evenings, all the archers gather with their wives and the audience to dance. They dance in a circle. One leads in singing while others follow him/her, changing the pace of the dance with the tone of their singing.

IMG_1189Before having competitions, teams often seek advice from an astrologer (Tsip) in order to draw luck in their favor or to hinder the opponent’s capabilities. The archers even spend a night outside their home, for example in barns, the night before the competition. The astrologer, through his astrological finding, instructs the archers to enter the archery field in-order according to their individual horoscopes. Such beliefs are very prevalent among the people regardless of the influx of modernity. In addition to this, archery in Bhutan is a concept linked to friendship and cooperation. This is evident from the pack lunches that the people bring along with them and the gestures that they share while on the field. Archery is a mean of socialization in Bhutan, with diverse people brought together to enjoy the same game.

IMG_1195This sport has been embellished by the modern technology. Although all other trends have remained the same, the bows used in the competitions have changed. The use of bows made of bamboo and arrows from reeds has been slowly waning. Today archers in Bhutan prefer to use compound bows. These imported compounds bows are either American or European. Many modern trends such as individual and corporate sponsorship, cash and material prices have become a vital part of any archery competition or tournament.

IMG_1185The archery field right next to the Changlingmithang stadium in Thimphu serves as one of the country’s most famous archery fields. And the most prominent archery tournament is the Yangphel tournament.

Jigme Namgyel, research intern

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‘I have every earthly reason to feel excited…’

Me arriving at Wat Doi Saket!

Me arriving at Wat Doi Saket!

My name is Kimhean Hok (Kim), and I am twenty-one years old and from Cambodia. I am interning with ATMA SEVA for seven weeks in Chiang Mai, Thailand. My main responsibilities are to live and teach conversational English at Wat Doi Saket to monks as well as to learn about ATMA SEVA’s various projects. My main goal is to help connect ATMA SEVA with Middlebury once I get back to Middlebury College. Teaching and interacting with people of all socio-economic backgrounds are truly my passions. Over the course of my times in Cambodia and abroad (Norway and the US), I have taken part in many different social works, community services and humanitarian projects. In the summer of 2011, I participated in a volunteer program to help my teacher teach English to prisoners in my hometown. In the same summer, I spent twenty days working with the UWS (United Word Schools) project to help build schools and organize curriculum for indigenous children from remote villages and disadvantaged tribes.

As a liberal art student, what I expect from this internship are the unique sets of experience and knowledge that can empower and prepare myself to deal with complexity and diversity in my future career and other endeavors. Sure, this knowledge and experience will be achieved because, over the course of interning with ATMA SEVA, I will be encouraged to learn to cope with differences in real life situations by listening and appreciating others’ opinions, and by looking at issues from different perspectives. An internship which deals with education and community development requires interns to be highly flexible, cooperative, creative, and disciplined. Therefore, I will be compelled to be critical of communication methods and analytical and problem-solving skills in dealing with almost every aspect of my activities.

Me with fellow on-site intern Antoine in Chiang Mai.

Me with fellow on-site intern Antoine in Chiang Mai.

It has been almost one week since I arrived and touched the Thai soil on a practical basis for the first time. I was picked up by the director of ATMA SEVA at the train station; and on the way from the train station to Wat Doi Saket, my mind was full of worries and excitements simultaneously. Day one in Chiang Mai was full of welcoming gestures and words, greetings and hospitality from my Thai co-workers and the ATMA SEVA team as a whole. Being exposed to experience the heavenly beauty of Chiang Mai and the enriched Thai culture; and to be warmly welcomed by everyone, was quite a day full of happiness. At the end of the day, though I was extremely exhausted after having been on buses, taxis and a train, I lied in my bed feeling assured that ‘the next seven weeks in Chiang Mai will be such a positive adventure; and that I have every earthly reason to be excited for it.’

Teaching at Wat Doi Saket.

Teaching at Wat Doi Saket.

For the first few days upon my arrival, I set a goal to get to know my way around Wat Doi Saket; and to make friends with people at the Wat and in town. Up till now, though I have to admit that my Thai is not good enough for a long and proper conversation yet, I do not hesitate to witness the culture of friendliness and respect of the people of Doi Saket. I remember my struggle in day two when I was trying to introduce myself to a group of people in one noodle soup restaurant in town. We did not seem to understand each other much in verbal language, but the languages of ‘smiling’, ‘greeting’ and ‘respecting’ each other are universal. For a sizable amount of time I was there, I used these languages to communicate with them. Improvised by my few broken Thai sentences and their broken English, we were all entertained and so much rendered comfortable with each other. With regard to teaching students at Wat Doi Saket, so far I really have enjoyed it so much. Students are so smart and committed to learn. Though we still have some difficulties with communicating with each other, there is no doubt that this will improve quicker than I may realize it.

Kimhean Hok, on-site intern

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