ATMA SEVA – A look back

Despite my disbelief, I’m into my last week in Thailand and final week of my internship with ATMA SEVA. I’m not sure where the time went, but looking back at my photographs helps remind me of the some of the amazing things I saw and did over the past four months.

Jamie in CNX airport

Me arriving to Chiang Mai!

In my short time here, I’ve seen ATMA SEVA grow leaps and bounds. When I arrived, there were two interns on the scene. Over the next month or two, we had five new interns joining our family! I’ve seen several volunteers come and go, each bringing new perspective to our work. It’s a strange feeling to think that in a week, I’ll be another memory, still connected but from across the ocean.

Between the meetings and countless café work sessions, I also managed to have a lot of fun here. I spent two weeks in Cambodia and Vietnam, was able to visit the village of Pa Pae several times and even made it to a Thai National Park.

The best part, however, was the merging of work and pleasure. Most people go to work forty hours a week, working the standard 9-5 Monday through Friday. That schedule can wear on you after awhile. One of the pros and cons of work with a growing NGO is that the hours on the clock or days of the week on a calendar mean very little.  This means that sometimes you’ll end up spending a Saturday afternoon working to prepare for a new volunteer or out in a remote district helping move someone into their new home. This also means that sometimes you’ll find yourself enjoying a Thai massage on a Wednesday afternoon if things aren’t busy! It’s an ebb and flow type of job and once you learn to embrace the variability, it can be quite enjoyable- the lack of routine keeps things interesting! It also helps when your coworkers are fun-loving people who make even work meetings entertaining. We work hard, but we also have fun doing it. There’s none of that pressure that you find in many corporate world jobs back home.

There’s a lot that I’ll miss about Thailand. In no particular order, some of the things that I’ll miss most are:

The people – my fellow ATMA SEVA team, all the random friends I’ve picked up along the way, Kru Noom (the yoga teacher I’ve been taking classes with for the past two months) and the friendly owner of Mono Café next door!

Me, volunteers, and the ATMA SEVA team in a neighboring Karen village

Me, volunteers, and the ATMA SEVA team in a neighboring Karen village

The food – need I say more? Thai food is amazing and the fact that you can get a full, delicious, fresh meal for a mere dollar or two is a wonderful thing.

The pace of life – things move on “Thai time” here, which means they happen slowly, if at all. This has been a source of frustration at times, but I do enjoy the unhurried “no worries” attitude that permeates Thai life. Stressed out westerners could learn a thing or two on how to enjoy life over here.

How inexpensive things are – I doubt I’ll be able to ever find a taxi in the states that will take me to the other side of town for a dollar. Or enjoy an amazing plate of pad thai for the same price.

Tuk tuks – I don’t know what it is about those quirky little Mario Kart-esque taxis, but I have yet to find a vehicle that I enjoy traveling in more than a tuk tuk. Can’t find those in Connecticut!

Me with my students in the Lawa village.

Me with my students in the Lawa village.

Needless to say, it’s been a great four months and I’m going to miss Thailand a lot. I hope to come back to visit someday soon and look forward to watching ATMA SEVA continue to grow in the future!

Jamie Shannon

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

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Gin Yut Yut! A Day at Thai Cooking School

Last week, we (on-site interns Katherine and Jamie) had the pleasure of attending a day-long Thai cooking class with The Chiang Mai Thai Farm Cooking School. For just 1000 B per person (roughly $30), we were picked up from just outside the ATMA SEVA office, taken to a market outside of the city to learn about the different ingredients we’d be using, and then shuttled over to a quaint farm well outside of the hustle and bustle of downtown Chiang Mai.

The course was run by a very friendly, lively Thai woman named Pern (the r is mostly silent). She gave us a tour around the farm, showing us different fruit trees and herbs and letting us taste many of them. After our tour, the real fun began: making the food! Our adventures in cooking included five courses, with each consisting of three different options. Course #1 was a choice between green, red, or yellow curry. Given that their were three of us (one of Jamie’s friends from Canada came to visit for the weekend), we did our best to “divide and conquer,” each making a different option for each course. We learned to cook many Thai classics, like Tom Yum (the traditional hot and sour soup), chicken with basil, and everyone’s favorite, pad Thai!

The facilities were exceptionally clean, comfortable (well, as comfortable as you can be in 95 degree weather with fans… but the fans did help keep the air moving!) and spacious. Each student had his or her own cooking station. I’d have to say that the highlight of the day was when we got to enjoy the fruits of our labor… eating!

Our advice to anyone who opts for the Thai Farm Cooking School? Don’t forget they offer doggie bags to take your divine creations home- take advantage of these rather than stuffing yourself! We brought about half of the food we made back with us and had it later that evening for dinner. If you have any questions about our Thai cooking class experience, please leave us a comment below! Try not to get too hungry looking through our pictures 🙂

Katherine Devine and Jamie Shannon

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

Behind the scenes at ATMA SEVA

Everybody loves a good, heart-warming story of how people are making a difference in the world. How often do we see a headline and picture of a donation being received, a volunteer construction project being completed or other “snapshot” moments in the volunteer world?  There is no shortage of worthy causes to support.

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On-site intern Katherine and the student from the Karen village

What many people don’t realize, or think about, is how much work goes on behind the scenes to allow that photo op to happen. For example, ATMA SEVA recently visited a Galiang (Karen) hill tribe to bring light bulbs and fixtures for the entire village of twelve families. Our connection with this village has grown organically over the past year. It all began when we met a novice studying at Wat Saraphi (temple school working with our Wat Doi Saket project) who came from this particular village. After hearing that he had not been home in over five years, we thought that it would be nice to take a picture of him to his family back in the village. This particular village is very small and remote and has no computer access. The next time we were out in Pa Pae (Lawa village), we made a trip over to the village of this student to deliver a picture to his parents. They were thrilled to hear how their son was doing and see a photo of him, happy and well, at the wat.

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Our first visit to the Karen village

It was during this trip that we noticed a surprising presence in the village: solar panels! This small village of less than fifty people had received a donation of solar panels and light bulbs from an aid organization several years ago.  Unfortunately, despite the implementation of a quite modern system, many of the houses didn’t have light. Originally, they thought the solar panels were broken, but it turned out that many of the light bulbs in the houses had simply burnt out. When we asked if there was anything we could do to help, they asked us if we could bring them some replacement bulbs. Thus our mission began!

After a few trips to the village to find out the specifications and number of light bulbs required, we eventually acquired the necessary equipment and matching mounting fixtures in Chiang Mai to bring back to the village.  This past weekend, we were finally able to bring the supplies to the village and watched while one of the village men deftly assembled the new light fixture in his home, a happy moment for all.

Lights in Karen village

Success!

Many of ATMA SEVA’s connections have similar histories. We pride ourselves on working directly with community leaders and letting them convey their needs and desired projects.  Often times even the best intentions can have unforeseen negative consequences if the community is not an active participant in the relationship. In our opinion, it’s much better to let the community tell us what needs they have and together we can then discuss a potential partnership to address these needs.

This is how our flagship Wat Doi Saket project started- after the initial Rotary funding for the HIV AIDS awareness project expired, we approached the temple with a simple question: how can we best help?  The answer was straightforward: ‘we would like English teachers to help improve our English’. Since then, we’ve been working hard to develop a sustainable program bringing native English speakers to Wat Doi Saket as well as other affiliated temple schools.

ATMA SEVA is at a point in its development where we are confident in the quality of the relationships and programs we have created and maintained. The trial and error phase is over and we are ready to launch full steam ahead! Like many organizations, the biggest obstacle is funding. We have recently submitted our 501(c)3 paperwork to become a federally recognized non-profit with tax-exempt status. Once this is approved, all donations received from the date of submission onwards will be eligible for tax-exemption.

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One of many trips to the Karen village. This trip we brought a donation of clothes.

Similar to the project with the Karen village, people often overlook how long it takes to develop relationships and build trust.  We recently started a Wish List, where people can donate money and that donation goes directly towards school supplies for the schools we work with.  This did not happen over night.  For ATMA SEVA to be in a position to bring donations and volunteers has taken over three years to establish.  These ‘feel good’ moments are fueled by extreme hard work and dedication to our projects.  In addition to hard work and dedication, it takes money to pay for gas or money to pay for volunteer teaching supplies.

We would like to encourage everyone, if you can, please consider making a donation to support ATMA SEVA’s ongoing efforts.  We finally have the manpower to increase the momentum of the projects, but to keep things up and running, we need funds. Every little bit helps, from $5 that can pay for the gas necessary to drive to and from a school out of town where we’ve stationed a volunteer, to the $55 that will buy a full school support pack- whatever the amount, you know that it is going directly to support and improve our community projects. The Karen village light bulb donation would not have been possible without a generous donation from Elizabeth Devine that allowed us to purchase and transport the supplies.

Click here to DONATE NOW

Thank you very much to all donors, past and present, who support ATMA SEVA..

If anyone has any questions about donations, our projects, or anything else, please send us an email or leave a comment below.

Krup Kuhn mak krup (thank you very much in Thai)

Jamie Shannon & David Poppe

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

Many Monk Misconceptions

Before I came to Thailand, I had never met a Buddhist monk in person. Sure, I’d seen pictures, maybe a clip or two on tv, but I’d never actually sat down and had a conversation with a monk. In my head, monks were shy, quiet people who dedicated their lives to meditation.  I’m not quite sure where I got this idea, but it is a stereotype that I’m sure I wasn’t alone in believing.

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See, monks can use cameras and cell phones too!

After arriving in Thailand and spending a week in Chiang Mai, I had the opportunity to live at Wat Doi Saket, a temple located about thirty minutes outside of the city and the hub of ATMA SEVA’s volunteer program.  My time at the temple was my first exposure to monks.  Despite my expectations, some of them were actually quite outgoing, approaching me and greeting me in English! I quickly realized that most of my ideas about monks were wrong, or at best were a gross generalization.

Men enter the monastic community for a variety of reasons: to continue their education, to learn more about Buddhism, or to make merit. Some stay for a week, some for a year, and some for a lifetime. You can become a monk, disrobe, and then decide to join again at some later date. There is no expectation of a lifelong commitment. Many men will become a monk for a few weeks or months during Buddhist lent or during summer holidays as a way to “make merit”.  Often times the motivation to “make merit” is for family members, their mothers, or because of a recent death in the family.

The majority of novice monks (boys under the age of 20) join the monastic community because they lack the financial resources to finish their education.  Becoming a novice monk is free and a way for these young men to complete their high school degree.

Another misconception I had about monks is their lifestyle. I envisioned meek, quiet souls who spoke little and spent most of their day meditating. The reality? I saw monks talking on cell phones and watching movies! It’s easy to forget that underneath the shaved head and saffron robe, the novices are just teenage boys.  As novices, they certainly live with more rules and restrictions than the average teen, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t still teenagers at heart.

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Novice monk enjoying some good old homemade waffles!

I’m glad that I had the chance to meet a variety of monks in person and see where my preconceptions were not a complete picture. For those who aren’t able to drop everything and travel to Thailand tomorrow, a Skype based “monk chat” is an excellent way to get to learn about the life of a Buddhist monk.  ATMA SEVA offers monk chats with some of the monks from Wat Doi Saket for only $10 a person, money that goes directly towards a scholarship fund for the monks.  These chats are a great chance to ask any questions about Buddhism, what it’s like to live as a monk, and more.

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Recent monk chat at Wat Doi Saket between two resident monks and students from a high school in Connecticut, USA!

Please contact us at info@atmaseva.org or leave a comment below if you or someone you know might be interested in an ATMA SEVA monk chat!

Jamie Shannon, On-site Intern

jamie@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

Adventures in the Hills: Ob Luang National Park

This past weekend the ATMA SEVA team took a trip out to Pa Pae to pick up Dan, our latest Lawa village volunteer, who has been teaching summer classes in the village for the past month. We were fortunate enough to have a little extra time, so we set off from Chiang Mai a day early to check out the “grand canyon” of Thailand: Ob Luang National Park! (Ob Luang literally means “canyon grand”, making this park the home of Thailand’s very own Grand Canyon!)

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Katherine at one of the very scenic view points in Ob Luang!

The park itself is located about two hours southwest of Chiang Mai. We took a airconditioned van from Chiang Mai headed for Mae Sariang (200 B per person, or about $7) but asked the driver to let us off at the entrance to Ob Luang instead of taking the ride all the way to Mae Sariang.  Local busses (~70-80 B) are also an option, but for a few extra dollars, we figured the airconditioned ride through windy roads was worth it! (I’d definitely recommend traveling this way if you have a tendency to get carsick.)

When we arrived at the park, we approached the counter to purchase tickets. Typically it’s 200 B per person- per FOREIGN person I should say. When Dave approached the desk and inquired about the prices in Thai, we were told that we could have the locals discount since he was speaking Thai! If you go, and know any Thai at all, use it! It may save you 180 B (the local price is only 20 B per person!) The woman also informed us that the great waterfall, one of the main attractions of the park, didn’t have any water. Wait… what? Yes, that is what hot season in Thailand does: leaves a normally healthy waterfall with no water to fall!

Ob Luang National Park- view of the "grand canyon!"

Ob Luang National Park- view of the “grand canyon!”

Despite the lack of water falling, we took a nice hike/walk around the river that had some stunning views. We saw a spot where prehistoric human remains had been excavated, some cool cave drawings, and lots of big rocks.  The whole hike only took about two hours, with several short breaks, but it was enough to work up an appetite! Luckily, there’s a nice little open air restaurant at the entrance of the park to grab food. The food isn’t spectacular, but it isn’t too expensive and it can hit the spot after a few hours of hiking around in the sun!

From there, we decided to check out Thep Phanom Hot Springs, located only 14 km from where we were at the park entrance. The ride to the hot springs was absolutely beautiful: we only had Dave’s motorcycle, so we had to shuttle the four of us back and forth in a few trips. The views of the mountains and river from the back of the motorcycle were incredible. And we were rewarded with our own little private oasis at the end of the road! Thep Phanom has one large pool, more like a hot lake, where you can swim- just not during the day. When it’s 99 degrees out, a 95 degree pool is the LAST thing I want to jump into! Luckily by 10pm, it felt like a nice relaxing bath. The grounds of hot springs also have a spa where Katherine, Nid and I enjoyed a wonderful afternoon massage for only 150 B each. There is no restaurant at the hot springs, but there are a few open air stall restaurants just a few minutes down the road in the town Om Khut. It’s definitely off the beaten path, but if you find yourself out here, it’s a great place to sit and enjoy a cold drink and some rice right on the river.

Thep Phanom Hot Springs

Thep Phanom Hot Springs

Thep Phanom has one cabin for visitors to spend the night. There are three double rooms, two bathrooms and a balcony with a table and chairs. We lucked out that nobody had booked the cabin ahead of time.  The woman recommended calling ahead to check availability before showing up since there is only one cabin in the entire place!  You can rent rooms individually or rent the whole house for only 1800 B a night, which is what we did. To be the only people staying in the middle of the hills with only the sounds of nature was an incredible break from Chiang Mai. You can also stay on the main road near the entrance to Ob Luang.

I really enjoyed our time in Ob Luang and at Thep Phanom Hot Springs, two places that most tourists never see or even hear about. If you are in Chiang Mai and have the time and the transportation, I would recommend making a trip. Having a your own car, truck or motorbike would definitely make the trip easier. Public transportation will get you to Ob Luang, but the hot springs are less accessible without your own ride.  Also, December-February would be a more ideal time to visit when temperatures are cooler and the waterfall has water! For more information about Ob Luang, visit here. Feel free to comment below if you have any questions about specific activities or the logistics of the trip!

Jamie Shannon

On-site Intern

jamie@atmaseva.org

jshannon614.wordpress.com

www.atmaseva.org

Photography Corner: Cambodia and Vietnam

Southeast Asia is a must see for many travelers.  Thousands flock here annually to experience the culture, natural beauty and history of this region.  Not always famous for the best reasons, Cambodia and Vietnam have rich histories that have been played out among some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.  Angkor Wat, Phnom Penh, and Hue, to name a few, all contain scars bearing testimony to the conflict that occurred not too long ago in this region.  Despite, or perhaps in part because of these reminders, SE Asia remains a beautiful and fascinating destination for any world traveler.

I recently returned from a two-week trip from Bangkok to Hanoi.  Here is a collection of some of my favorite shots from the highlights of my trip. From the vibrant energy of cities like Saigon and Hanoi, to the awe-inspiring Angkor temples, to the relaxing backdrop of Halong Bay, there are no shortage of things to do and see in SE Asia.  This is only a snapshot of some the amazing places these countries have to offer! To read more about my trip, check out Southeast Asia on a Shoestring Schedule.

Photographs by: Jamie Shannon

jamie@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

Southeast Asia on a Shoestring Schedule

Greetings!

I recently returned from a two-week trip through Cambodia and Vietnam with a good friend from college.  As anyone who has traveled these parts knows, two weeks is a very short amount of time to make it through these two countries.  Heck, try getting through even one! There were plenty of places we spent a night or two where I wished we could have stayed a full week, but that just wasn’t possible with our schedule.

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Day 1: Watching the sunset over the river in Bangkok from a hidden second story restaurant on the water.

But despite our time limitations, we did it!  I can definitively state that you can get through Cambodia and Vietnam in two weeks, although this may mean taking a strict editorial eye to your itinerary.  We endured many questionable stares or comments to the tune of “wow… that’s fast…” throughout our journey as people learned how much we were seeing in how little time.  A lot of travelers in our situation might have chosen to just see Cambodia, or to only do the south coast of Vietnam.  But it can be done. And I’d like to share some advice for those who might find themselves in a similar spot with only a few weeks to spare and a long list of sights to see!

When it came to planning, we each had our own “must sees.” For Anna, my traveling companion, Halong Bay in northern Vietnam was at the top.  For me, I had always wanted to visit the part of Vietnam where my Dad had been stationed back during the war.  We both agreed that Angkor Wat in Cambodia couldn’t be missed either.  Beyond those few stops, everything else was negotiable, which made planning a lot easier.

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Exploring the Angkor temples, a true must see for anyone traveling to SE Asia.

We met in Bangkok on a boiling Monday morning in March and spent one day wandering the city before taking off for the Cambodian border the following morning.  Throughout the entire trip, we booked our guesthouses and transport (including bus, train and plane) one city in advance.  This allowed us to be somewhat flexible while still planning far enough ahead that we never got stranded anywhere due to lack of transportation or accommodation, which was a big concern on our tight schedule!

We spent two full days at the Angkor temples with a guide, which I highly recommend.  Having Seng, a Cambodian born and raised in Siem Reap, to take us around made the days so much more enjoyable, and manageable.  If left to our own devices in that 100 degree heat and 85% humidity, I’m pretty sure we would have thrown in the towel much sooner and missed out on a lot of what the temples have to offer.

There are other tourist attractions in Siem Reap, like the floating villages on Tongle Sap lake.  Knowing our schedule, we agreed that we were content skipping all the side attractions.  This is one of the keys to traveling on a strict time budget: know what your “must sees” are, stick to them, and forget about everything else.  This is important with any trip, but especially important if you’re trying to see a country in less than a week.

A corollary to this is the importance of not lingering on what you didn’t see. Every trip is going to end with some regrets about a city or an activity that was missed.  At the end of my two weeks, I shared a ride to the Hanoi airport with a British girl who had been traveling for three months.  Instead of being elated at all she had seen and done, she couldn’t stop talking about how upset she was that she missed Halong Bay.  This is an easy trap to fall into at the end of a trip, dwelling on the few places that you didn’t see rather than thinking about all the amazing things you did see.  If you’re going to try to see a lot in a short amount of time, this feeling has the potential to be much worse.  We did a good job of cutting what we needed to and not letting our thoughts linger on the places that we didn’t get to (no matter how many times people asked us why we didn’t go to Hoi An.)  Keep in mind that this most likely won’t be the last trip you take and you will never, ever see it all, so be grateful for the time you have and what you are able to see.

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Halong Bay, northern Vietnam. Limestone islands like this one dot the bay everywhere.

If you keep these things in mind as you travel, you’ll enjoy your time even more.  Not everyone has the time or money to spend four months backpacking through SE Asia, which a lot of bloggers seem to do, so I wanted to share some advice for those of you who may be considering a shorter trip.  Sure, there are places that I wish we had seen… more of Cambodia (particularly the coast), Nha Trang, Hoi An, Sapa… but I returned to Chiang Mai with nothing but fond memories of everything that we got to experience.  Plus, I’ve gotta save something for my next trip to SE Asia! 🙂 Now I’m hooked!

Check out the corresponding Photography Corner featuring more photos from my trip.  And for more of my ramblings, check out my personal blog: jshannon614.wordpress.com

If you have any questions, whether about specific places I visited, or are looking for more general travel advice, please feel free to comment below or shoot me an email.  I’m always happy to swap stories and ideas with fellow travelers! 🙂

Cheers,

Jamie Shannon

jamie@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org