Sustainability at Plekwiwaek Dhamma Center

I studied Agroecology in graduate school, and have been working in organic food certification for nearly a decade.  For the last couple of years I held a comfortable management position at a mid-sized nonprofit in Oregon, USA, but I still felt that At Mae Joe ag fairsomething was missing.  I needed anadventure!  An acquantaince of mine was interning for ATMA SEVA and I learned about sustainability ventures at Plekwiwaek Dhamma Center in the far north of Thailand along the border with Burma.  I have now been at Plekwiwaek since October and will be here for six months.

Plekwiwaek was founded seven years ago on the principle of experiential learning, or what they call “learning by doing.”  Many of the novices at the center are from theThreshing rice Shan ethnic group in Burma and left that area due to the armed conflict between the Shan, ethnic Burmese and other groups in the region.  As such, many of the novices have a nebulous legal status in Thailand and the future of Shan State in Burma is unclear.  Only a small percentage of the novices will become monks, so it is a goal at the center to equip the boys with life skills that may help provide them with a future livelihood.

Hauling dirt at construction siteSustainability is a major focus at the center.  They farm organically and the novices are trained in composting and sustainable farming techniques.  Early construction also utilized locally renewable materials.  Novices made handmade bricks from a mixture of mud and rice hulls.  They assembled the buildings themselves, including learning electrical and plumbing skills.  Currently a large dorm is being constructed, with much of the labor provided by the novices themselves.

Recently Plekwiwaek entered a partnership with Mae Joe University, an institution outside the city of Chiang Mai, that has installed some renewable energy sources at the Dhamma Center.  The project is actually funded by a large Thai energy company.  To date, we have several solar lights, a small wind turbine, and a large solar dryer for food preservation.  A donor recently gifted reusable plastic bottles to the novices to cut down on waste.  We were fortunate to attended an agricultural fair at Mae Joe University this month that feature several sustainability exibits.  The Plekwiwaek director, Dr. phra achjarn Thanee Jongjen, received an award for his pioneering work in this area.

Novices at Mae Jo ag fair

Plekwiwaek also performs extension work.  The Center has trained some of the Rice harvest with reusable bottlessurrounded community on organic farming and sustainable building techniques.  We regularly host groups (often from other countries) that are interested in learning about these topics and community development in general.  Just a few weeks ago, a group of nearly 90 schoolchildren from a nearby village came to the center for a day to learn about sustainability and its relationship to Buddhist principles.  The future of sustainability in Northern Thailand is looking bright!

Corinne Kolm

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

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What Else Could I Ask For?

Experiencing different aspects of ATMA SEVA’s programs, especially teaching and interacting with monks, is an amazing part of my experience here in Chiang Mai. However, my working experience at Doi Saket could not have been amazing without the improvisation from a colorful life style that any intern may live in during their time at Wat Doi Saket.

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Me at Wat Doi Saket!

Doi Saket temple is very beautiful and enriched with amazing decorating styles. The paintings on the walls of the Vihan, the entrance to the temple, and the statues all truly reflect the long, glorious and vibrating culture and history. Every day at Doi Saket is a happy day for me. For each day, I spend at least 20 to 30 minutes for an easy walk or a hike around the mountain and the temple with my music. There are a lot of quick ‘hi’ back and forth between myself and the people around the temple, as well as those who pass by. Starting my day by waking up early for a quick chat and breakfast in the Wat’s kitchen has become my favorite habit at the temple. It reminds me of a lot of my childhood when my mom would wake me up early in the morning of a normal school day for a quick breakfast and rush to school. The kitchen ladies, like my mom, basically want to feed me to death every morning.

I feel so fortunate that ATMA SEVA put me to work with a group of teachers in the same office at the temple. Though I felt like a new comer to their place, in just a short while I was made used to the place and made to feel at home. They are like brothers and sisters to me. Being caring and concerned about your well-being is how they are. I foresaw myself very homesick after having been there for a long while. But no, I was just right there at a place I could call home. The friendliness, hospitality and emotional support they gave to me are immeasurable. Every lunch time, there are always jokes around the lunch table. We talked, and we made jokes. Even though there were a lot of language barriers in our communication at first, we always tried so hard to learn and get to know more about each other. This is a really unique chance for me to get to know more about Thailand in terms of its culture and the commonalities between Cambodia and Thailand. I taught them Khmer, they taught me Thai. As time went by, our cross-cultural communication skills improved quite significantly.

Downtown is within a walking distance from my work place. You have access to almost any kind of necessities you may need. It’s a small beautiful town, full of friendly people. I made friends with so many people in the market, in the stores and in the small restaurants. When you look like a stranger to them, sure you’ll catch their eyes. All you need to do is to say a simple ‘Sa Watt Dee, Krup’ to them. They will sure greet you back, and with an additional smiling face. In the evening, one could always find cheap and fast foods to eat on both sides of the street. The social environment is just perfect for those who are tired from work and looking for a spot to seat and relax with amazing Thai food. I was very lucky to get to know a very friendly Thai family who has their shop nearby the market. I got invited for a visit to their garden family and for a cooking session.

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Me with my new friends in Doi Saket!

What’s most fortunate of all, they have a Muay Thai training camp that I could have free access to training with boxers and a trainer. There, I got to practice a lot of Muay Thai, my most favorite martial art/cultural sport, with other interns from ATMA SEVA as an evening exercise. Just five minutes away from town, there is a beautiful fish pond where I spent a lot of time at. It is a great place for refreshing one’s mind with fresh air. You can go for a quiet walk or a run around the pond; and it is also a great place for reading.

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Muay Thai training!!!!

This is what an intern’s life would look like in their off duty time at Doi Saket. Of course, there are still so many other places and more activities to be explored and get involved in, depending on one’s personal interest. The point is: no matter what life style one may be used to before coming to Doi Saket, experiencing a different way of life in Doi Saket during one’s internship is truly a worthwhile one. In addition to getting involved with interesting and enjoyable education programs, the internship truly gave me a chance to be surrounded by amazing people, colorful natural and social environments, and delicious Thai food. So what else could I ask for?

Click here for more information about internship opportunities with ATMA SEVA!

written by: Kimhean Hok

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

info@atmaseva.org

 www.atmaseva.org

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

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

About Me – Greetings from Bhutan

My name is Jigme Namgyel and I am 24 years old and I am a research intern with ATMA SEVA. My parents are from Bumthang, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Bhutan. I grew up in Wangduephodrang, a place well known for its windy weather, and for that reason, most people nick named it ‘Windy-phodrang’. I completed highschool from Bajothang Higher Secondary School in Wangduephodrang in 2008 and then got an opportunity to enroll in the country’s oldest College, Sherubtse College. I received a Bachelor Degree in Political science and Sociology in 2012, although back in 2009 I didn’t have a clue which course I would be studying for the next three years. It turned out to be a very interesting course, especially Sociology, which developed in me a passion for writing. I learnt how to express myself better through words, which is the reason why I named my blog ‘Potency of Words’.

Jimmi3706I created this blog to encourage myself to keep writing because I realized that many people give up their passion as soon as they graduate from college, especially when it’s related to writing. My blog is unknown to the rest of the world, a secluded one perhaps, but it means a lot to me. It allows me write what I want, or helps define who I am. Being influenced by one of my friends, I developed this habit of blogging while I was in college. Back then I didn’t know how it works and I spent several days learning the basics.

Jimmi3639Photography is another ardor that I loved the most. I find taking picture of places and people around as something very amusing. It helps me relive and embellish my past; indeed a jovial mood festers in me whenever I go through them. Apart from those, playing guitar and drawing (sketching) are also my favorite pastimes.

Image1940Currently I don’t have a permanent job. It was through an advertisement that I ran across the internship offered by ATMA SEVA. The description they have provided was clear enough and looked like a lot of fun to me, since it required writing (mostly about Bhutan) and obviously photography. I did not apply for this internship for any reasons other than saving the urge in improving my writing zeal further. For a fresh graduate, I don’t consider money the most important priority. Benefits such as short commuting and flexibility mean just as much as salary. I was looking for a position where my contributions count and my efforts will be appreciated and hopefully those could lead to a long time commitment. Therefore, I applied for this internship with all my dedications towards putting my abilities to the fullest.

Jigme Namgyel, research intern

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

‘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

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

info@atmaseva.org

 www.atmaseva.org