Custom travel – Three week learning adventure Part V

Below is part V of Raghav’s custom learning adventure from 2012! If you missed it, here is Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV.

Interested in custom travel? Click here for more information!

20 June 2012 

Today, we woke up at the farm around 9 in the morning. Dtee had already left to go to work in the fields. Heading out in the light rain, we rushed back to the village because we were slightly late for our talk with the kids. We reached the village and freshened up quickly and went to the school. The kids were in their classrooms. When the students leave the classroom, they chant “thank you teacher” in English. We went to the room and the kids come in one by one. While I start looking up some more pictures on my iPad to show the kids, Moi brings me a cup of coffee, showing that she also has opened up to me (she was one of the shyest ones).

We start off the discussion with a funeral presentation from the kids. The two explain the process once someone in the village passes away. It was interesting to note that funerals here were not a one day thing. There were many ceremonies, and the burden was not just on the family, but everyone in the community participated. It was a rule that within three weeks (approximately) a family who has lost someone will not be left by themselves lonely for a single day. When it was my turn, I presented briefly on Hindu funerals as I didn’t know too much about either American or Indian funerals.

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Relationship discussions

After our funerals presentation, we started talking about relationships (boyfriend/girlfriend). Both the guys and girls were shy and laughing throughout the discussion. When my turn came, even I was a bit uncomfortable because everyone was giggling. It was a fun topic though, and it was one of the most interesting things that we talked about with the kids.

We then went to Nid’s uncle’s house to hear a few more presentations, with the principal also joining us. I noticed that everyone presented something except one. Upon questioning him, we found out that he came from a different village (Karen); a village that was converted to Christianity and had lost its culture with time. It was kind of disappointing to see such an ancient and rich culture destroyed by another to get some followers.

After all the presentations, we said goodbye as this was our last day of discussions. We took a few pictures with all the kids. We exchanged Facebooks and emails IDs. It was so cool to think that I could keep in contact with kids so far off from my home. We then met up with the principal again and took some pictures with him. He gave me a guestbook to write in and I wrote a note of thanks to the people and the kids.

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Group shot!

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Me with the principal and Nid.

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Me with Nids Dad.

Upon arriving home, we got ready to learn how to work with bamboo, with Nid teaching us. I made a lot of mini baskets, but I got her dad to make most of the harder parts. It was nice of him to teach and help us. When Nong Beau came home for the first time she asked me for help with her alphabet. We practiced together, and I was amazed at how well she knew it! I was also glad that she had finally opened up to me!

When Moi came home, I asked her whether she wanted to go play volleyball. We went and some of her friend’s came with. It started to rain, and we played for a long time in the rain. It was a ton of fun! After her friends leave, Moi and I played badminton with Nong Sai (one of the children of our house) watching.

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Me with Nong Beau practicing the ABC’s!!

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Trying on the traditional Lawa attire

Tired from playing for such a long time, Moi and I headed home. When we got to the house, the family surprised me with a traditional Lawa costume. I tried it on (with Dtee’s help), and we took pictures with Nid’s family as this was the last opportunity we could. I was taken aback by the kindness of the family throughout my stay with them.

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Me in the traditional male Lawa attire

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Hunting for eels in the rice paddies!

Once we were done with dinner, Dtee decided to take David and me out eel hunting because this was something typical that farmers do that I hadn’t seen. We went to some nearby farms to do so. We looked hard for some eels but we couldn’t find any. At one point, my flashlight ran out of batteries, which was the scariest experience being on thin steppes in the pitch dark. Ultimately, we couldn’t find any because apparently they hide when it is raining. Coming home, I was exhausted from the day’s events so I just fell asleep after getting killed in some arm wrestling matches by Dtee.

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Arm wrestling with Dtee!

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Group shot with Nid and her family!

21 June 2012

Today, we had to get up early in the morning because it was the day we had to go back to Chiang Mai. Everyone was already up waiting for David and me. Moi and Nong Sai said bye because they had to go to school early today. Nong Sai gifted me with a Lawa bag. I was surprised because my communication with her was minimal, so it was really nice of her! I decided that next time I come to the village, I will get her something. After they left, everyone started giving me gifts; I was very appreciative of their kindness! I got a ton of Lawa bags. Pee bit even gave me several handmade hair-clips for my sister. After receiving such hospitality, I did not feel like leaving the village at all.

After saying bye and promising to come back soon, I set out with a truckload of people (me, David, Dtee, Nid’s dad, two of Nid’s uncles, oo, some other Thai girls, and of course Nid) and things to drop off at the village. This time along the bumpy road, we only had to get out of the truck once. Along the way, I started talking to some of the Thai girls on the truck. I learned a lot about them. They were all Catholic, and they told me about the many churches that we saw on the way. I also told them a bit about my own religion because they seemed very interested in that there were many other religions practiced in the US other than Catholicism. During our conversation, it started raining very heavily, making our ride so much more enjoyable!

We reached Mae Sariang and Dtee dropped the girls and our suitcases off at the bus station. Then, we went to go get a Thai massage and said bye to Nid’s dad. It was kind of sad saying bye because it had been such a good time with him. I got ready for the massage by putting on some massage clothes. It was an interesting experience. It was extremely painful (my left calf hurt for days) but it did have a refreshing and healing feeling to it. After our massage was over, Dtee came to pick David and me up while Nid finished her massage. He dropped us all at Leelawadee restaurant, and we said bye to him as well. This was also sad because we had spent so much fun time with him!

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Getting ready to go back to Chiang Mai.

At the restaurant, I got some noodles (I was pretty tired from the trip there). After lunch, we left for the bus station. We got into the van after packing everything. I went into the window seat and enjoyed the long ride back and also slept for a while. Upon reaching the city, we took a taxi to the hotel where I would be staying (Rainforest Boutique). David dropped me to the room and left for his own home. I took a hot shower. For the first time ever, I started appreciating ‘luxuries’ like hot showers after the freezing cold bucket showers in the village.

Natch then came to pick me up, and we went on his bike to the shopping mall to fix a camera. We had dinner at Pizza Hut (we chose this because it had been awhile since I had had something not Thai!). We talked about my experience at the village and continued our previous conversation about how people can be truly happy even if they are poor. After, we left the mall and drove around the city. I saw a really cool temple on the way made of wood and gold. We also a ton of bars and even more lady-boys than I could imagine. After a quick drive around the city, Natch dropped me off at the hotel. I soon after fell asleep.

22 July 2012

Today, I started my discussions with Burmese refugees from Shan State at the Best Friend’s Library NGO. (Find them on Facebook) Before we started our discussions, I was given a briefing about the political situation in Burma at present because, to be honest, I didn’t know much about the military dictatorship there. I was shown pictures and books, and David and I talked a bit with Garrett, the director of the organization. This day was ice breakers and introductions, as all the first days had been. It was a bit intimidating this time because they were all older than I, mostly in their twenties. They were also pretty independent and much more mature than the others had been.

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First day of discussions at the Best Friends Library.

After our late discussion, we headed out back to the hotel and got ready for dinner. We decided to go to Khun Churn restaurant, a vegetarian Thai restaurant that my dad had really enjoyed when he was here. The food was alright and the ambience was really awesome!

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At the night safari!

After our dinner, we decided to go to the Night Safari that night. There, I got to hold and  feed a baby white tiger! It was actually pretty scary because, even as a baby, this guy was strong and aggressive! Before the actual safari, we got to see an awesome show with lights, dancing, and waterworks! On the safari itself, we saw other bigger tigers and many other animals on our safari. We even got to feed some of them such as giraffes and monkeys.

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David, me, Marcia, Nid, and Natch at the night safari!

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Click here to read part VI

written by: Raghav Agarwal

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

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Custom travel – Three week learning adventure Part IV

Below is part IV of Raghav’s custom learning adventure from 2012! If you missed it, here is Part I, Part II, Part III

Interested in custom travel? Click here for more information!

17 July 2012 

Today, I started the day by waking up relatively early at around seven. So far, I had been avoiding the extremely cold bucket showers, but I decided that today I needed to get refreshed again. After my shower, David, Nid, and I ate breakfast. We ate eggs and bread, both of which, and especially the latter, are not eaten in the village, and we had bought at the market in the city. Even though I had been enjoying the homemade meals, it was nice to have some familiar food.

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View from our hike!

After breakfast, we went back to the school for our daily discussion. This was a fun day as we discussed perceptions of both places and compared them. It was interesting also comparing their perception of me and the monk’s perception. Today, we had to cut our discussions a bit short because we had to take a long trek.

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Some of the kids who joined us on our hike!

After a quick break at the house, we set out for a long trek to a Karen village even deeper in the mountains to meet people there and learn about their culture. Accompanying me were David, Nid, four younger kids, and even two dogs! We got our walking sticks and raincoats and set out. It was a beautiful hike, out in the greenery of the mountains with steep agriculture at random places. Winding roads even held some wildlife, especially the blome which was a type of leach that kept sticking to us.

We trekked for two hours, after which it started raining heavily, and we were forced to stop. In a little while Dtee came to pick us up on his motorbike. He took me up to an overlook and called people from the other village to pick up the rest of the crew. This was my first one on one with Dtee. I realized that even though we couldn’t talk because of the language barrier he was a really cool and caring guy.

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The men from the Karen village who came to pick us up!

Eventually, the rest of the people came; after some pictures, we headed over to the village.

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In the Karen village talking with the village leader.

We arrived at the host’s home. We first started talking about sports, Muay Thai was a big deal in Thailand. It was on TV (I was very surprised that there was reception in such a remote area of the world!). We also started learning about the culture and history of the village. The most interesting thing that I learned was that a few decades ago, some Christians had come and converted most of the village. We paid a visit to the school and church that they had built when they had arrived. It was interesting to note that the church that they had built was magnificent for such a remote place, but the school was very run down.

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At the school in the Karen village.

Upon seeing the school, we all head over to visit the eldest people in the village, who were the only indigenous (religion) family left. The couple that we met were in their late nineties. This was one of the most special experiences of the entire trip because they both performed an indigenous, ceremonial blessing for me. I felt extremely privileged to be the recipient of such a special and old practice. After the ceremony, it was an indication of respect for everyone to drink some home-made rice whiskey (very bitter).

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One of the elders who performed a blessing.

We then said bye to the elders there and started heading off home. Before leaving, we saw the places where the villagers make things like rice whiskey and prepare grain in order to be self-sufficient. After this, we decided to head home because it was getting late and it was almost dark. The same people who drove us offered to take us back even though they would have to drive the narrow, winding path in the dark. It was very nice of them! As soon as I got home, I laid down and went to sleep, reflecting on the interesting day I had had.

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Learning how the village whiskey is made.

18 July 2012

Today, after a good nights rest, I woke up early. We all had a nice breakfast that consisted mostly of egg dishes that Pee bit, Dtee’s wife, had cooked (she suspected we liked eggs a lot because of the previous day). We talked about the previous day and shared some thoughts before heading out for the next discussion with the kids.

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Comparing daily schedules.

We began the discussion with general questions from the previous days. There weren’t too many questions except some inquiries about my family and school. They thought it was really cool that I drove myself to school and that it was so far away from my house. After this, we started playing our team building exercise. We had to draw certain things that David would describe to us and the team with the best drawing would win. Our team lost by a little bit. During this activity, I noticed that the kids were a lot more open and talkative than they had been a couple of days before. I felt really connected to them as we tried winning the game.

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Team-building!

After this game, we headed to Kom Jon’s sister’s house because two girls were giving us a presentation on food and traditional Lawa costumes. These presentations were really impressive, especially taken that they were doing it in front of some almost complete strangers. During this presentation, I saw the girls looking at the guys and giggling with each other. Thinking about this, I realized that human behavior is universal. Everywhere that I have seen, young adolescents act like this. Human behavior is truly something that breaks the barriers between different types of people. When the presentation was over, some of the kids invited us to come play sports with them.

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Volleyball time!!

After a quick snack made by Nid, David, Nid, and I went to the school to play. In the beginning, the girls were having their volleyball practice so I just played badminton with Nid on the side. I also shot around some hoops with Nam (Kamon’s son) and other boys. The girls were really good at volleyball, especially Moi (Nid’s niece and Anchille’s sister). Moi let me practice with them; initially, I was terrible and my arms hurt like crazy. I got used to it eventually and, when we started playing some games, my team dominated the other team. We played late into the evening even during heavy rain. It was exhilarating.

Eventually, some of the girls had to go home, so we went back home too. I talked to Dtee’s little kids for a bit (Beau and Nye) and taught them my name (because it is kind of hard to pronounce I guess). Even they were opening up to me and feeling less shy around me. I taught them how to clap and pound, and they loved that! We then ate dinner and played some games on the iPad before falling asleep.

19 June 2012

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Cultural comparisons!

Today’s day started off with another discussion with the kids (the principal of the school also joined us). Today, we had a comparison day. We analyzed our perceptions of each other’s culture and discussed why we thought that way. The main topics that we looked at were government, people, culture food, and sports. One thing I noted, that others had also pointed out, is that the kids were fascinated with America but also disgruntled with Americans at their superior attitudes towards them.

UntitledAfter some group discussions, we headed over to an elder’s house for another presentation. Today, the presentations were Lawa weddings and funerals. It was interesting that the importance of these two events in human society is universal. After the kids presented, I showed them and the elders some pictures of American and India funerals and weddings, and described them with as much detail as I knew. The kids were very interested in my short presentation and many of them took rapid notes. It was cool that most of the group said that they would want an Indian wedding because of the grandiosity while a few of the boys said they would want an American wedding because of the smaller cost.When we finished our discussions for the day, we headed home to get some lunch. Pee bit made us a delicious egg and vegetable meal.

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Walking out to the farm

We then headed off to Dtee’s farm. Fortunately, his farm was not too far and it only took us a 25 minute walk. When we arrived, we walked around and explored as much as we could. The land was very extensive and some parts were surprisingly well-developed! We picked up some walking sticks to help us walk through all the plants and wildlife (the farm was situated in a small jungle/woods). As usual, we caught a few blome trying to get us, but none of them got too far. After spending the entire afternoon, we also decided to spend a night at the farm. We would be staying at a two-story wood structure, built for overnight stays at the farm. Dtee got us some tents and supplies that we need. It also started to rain heavily, but we were lucky that we were covered; also, the views of the rainfall were amazing!

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View from Dtee’s farm

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getting ready for dinner

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Eels!

After setting everything up, we started preparing for dinner. Dtee showed us some eels that he had gone out and hunted (they live in the over-flooded farms in the steppes). Being a vegetarian, I decided not to try them. David, however was open to trying them and even helped prepare the eels. Nid meanwhile prepared other dishes for all of us to share. After dinner, Nid went to sleep and David, Dtee, and I talked long into the night. We learned that Dtee had a desire to learn English just like the Lawa children. Even though he had not been taught much, he still knew the alphabet pretty well and even the numbers. We taught him some basic phrases such as how to introduce oneself. We also talked about how Dtee was engaging in green farming without the use of pesticide and harmful chemical and how it was important to teach the newer generation this. We talked like this until we had to go to sleep just because we had to get up a little earlier in the morning to walk back to the village.

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Dinner out at the farm!

Click here to read part V

written by: Raghav Agarwal

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

Custom travel – Three week learning adventure Part II

This is part II of Raghav’s custom learning adventure from 2012! If you missed it, here is part I.

Stayed tuned for part III coming soon!

10 June 2012 

Today, waking up I was very tired from the activities of the previous day. Shortly, it was time for our daily monk chats. Milan and a few other monks came to say hi and pick me up from where I was staying, a two minute walk away from where we talked.

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Notes from our discussions

Today’s discussions went deeper than the previous day. Today, we started off with a scavenger hunt. The monks and I had to find a certain number of things they use in daily monk life (in two teams). After finding the things, we later talked about them. One of these included the robe of a monk, and we even learnt how to put it on. After, our discussion went into deep analysis of Hinduism and Buddhism. We talked about the roots and most importantly the concept of time as a linear and circular concept, tying in dharma and dhamma. Also, we talked about some of the questions I had about monks. I wanted to know why many of them decided to be a monk. I was surprised to learn that most of them had done it for the free education. Also, disrobing was a concept I had not heard of (a monk can choose to stop being a monk any time he wishes, I thought that they were monks for life). I wanted to know whether they wanted to stay or disrobe. I learned that most of them wanted to disrobe after their education: in fact, only two wanted to remain a monk. Today the discussion seemed to go really fast and before we knew it, it was time for them to go for lunch (some of them seemed to want to stay and talk more).

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Milan and I talking about Buddhism

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At the dam!

After our monk discussion, David, Natch, Marcia, and I decided to have lunch out at the dam. We went to the dam on our bikes. On the way, I even got to drive the bike! The dam was extremely beautiful (as most of things have been). We had lunch at a restaurant right on the side of the river. Seeing the river and many boats, we all felt like going boating. We talked to the restaurant guy, and he led us to go to his boat. We went on the river, and it felt like bliss. It was one of the most beautiful things I had seen so far in Thailand.

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View from the boat!

We then decided to go to other districts just to see and cruise around. I got to drive with Natch on the back. We saw beautiful scenery. We even fell into a rice paddy after stopping to take a look at it! We then stopped at a local shop and got drinks and snacks. Then, we had to take the route back. I drove the bike up till the highway, where Natch took the wheel.

Coming back to the Wat, I was scheduled to meet one of the wisest monks there, Phra Ake at the main temple. There, I talked to him for about an hour about Buddhism and the paintings on the walls on the ceiling. I learned a lot from him and started respecting him a lot. I could almost sense the spirituality flowing from him. Unfortunately, we had to cut it a little bit short to go along with the schedule.

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Learning about Buddhism from Phra Ake

We (sans Marcia) headed out to Nid’s costume shop for dinner. Nid sold all types of costumes for everyone. David told me about the concept of a ladyboy in Thailand. They were men born feeling they were supposed to be women and dress and like women. Some take it far such as hormonal implants and some just occasionally dressed up as women on the weekends. Nid got a lot of ladyboy clients because she sold costumes (clothes) for them.

My dad showed up in a while and immediately left to get his first Thai massage next door. We waited for him for dinner and eventually started eating. Nid was an amazing cook! After dinner everyone decided to go to the night bazaar. Anchille, Nid’s niece who was staying with them for college, also came with us. Natch and I roamed the market while everyone else made their way slowly. We eventually found some nice Thai shirts for me that we bought. My dad bought my sister many things.

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Sunday walking street

12 June 2012

After we finished breakfast at the hotel, David, Nid, and many monks came to pick us up in an open van vehicle. David said that Natch would be meeting us at the foot of the mountain we were going to with most of the novices that were also coming. We got in the car and soon reached the foot of the mountain in about 30 minutes. During this time, it was nice to stick my head out from the car because it was beautiful weather and beautiful scenery.

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At the waterfall

After reaching the foot of the mountain, Natch was yet to show up so we decided to walk around and see the waterfall we were at. En route the waterfall, we saw many shops. For the first time, I saw a bunch of cooked bugs that people were buying. It seemed absolutely disgusting to me, but Nid said some tasted alright and were similar to chicken.

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Snack anyone?

We started trekking up a little where the waterfall was. We arrived, and I started climbing the rocks immediately. My dad joined me after a minute (although he didn’t even get close to how far I got!) and even David came up a little ways to dip feet in. I learned that the wet part of the rock is much more slippery than it looks as I almost slipped! One of the novice monks came with us, but he decided to stay and take pictures (so many people in Thailand who I had met were interested in photography).

We headed back after Natch gave us a call that he had arrived. We greeted him and split into groups again. I decided to go with Natch and Marcia and more of the novices because the pickup truck was much more open, and we could sit outside (enjoying the beauty!).

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On the way to Wat Doi Suthep

This trip in the car was probably the most I was able to bond with the monks. Milan started the conversation with politics. We discussed the democratic republic of America, communism of China, and the constitutional monarchy of Thailand. All of these names for everything seemed meaningless when it all boiled down to the same thing. On lighter notes, they told me that they loved my hairstyle. We even started discussing American rap and pop songs. We all sang along to some popular ones like Jay Z and Eminem.

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My Dad and I at Wat Doi Suthep

We reached Doi Suthep after a beautiful ride while we were literally in the clouds. We were supposed to climb up around 3000 steps to get to the temple, but I decided to go with Nid and Marcia in the elevator to “accompany” them. The temple itself was very beautiful. There were Buddha statues surrounding all the walls. To pay our respects, we had to take some lotuses and walk around the center Buddha three times. Each of the three times we had to think of three things: the Buddha, The dhamma (the teachings), and the sangha (the disciples) respectively. Although it seemed a little odd at first, I realized the power of it after we were done. We then lit an incense stick and put it at the feet of the Buddha for respect.

After paying our respects, we just walked around the main temple and saw different things. I went into this mini temple where Natch told me it was considered good luck if you picked up this heavy object with you pinky finger. Although it was painful, I was able to do it! I was excited for the luck. We all walked around and saw many Ganesha statues (again showing the Indian influences on the Thai culture). We also saw a string of different-sized bells where it was auspicious to go and ring each one. My dad did it. We also saw another gong we had seen before. We could not get it ring with our bare hands though (which Thai people thought of has having a bad karma!).

Going down the elevator, we met this Thai tour guide who asked if I were an America. He said he could tell from my mannerisms. I was surprised because most people can guess that I am of Indian origin but most people don’t know I’m an American because of my brown skin.

Going down the elevator, we met this Thai tour guide who asked if I were an America. He said he could tell from my mannerisms. I was surprised because most people can guess that I am of Indian origin but most people don’t know I’m an American because of my brown skin.

Marcia arrived at the foot of the temple. While waiting for everyone, we went into the market area, and I bought a little Buddha statue. Everyone then came, and we went to go get some lunch. I got some delicious noodles with egg and tofu. It was nice seeing the monks eat something as they barely ate (they weren’t allowed to eat anything after midday). Most of them even enjoyed some ice-cream.

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Group shot at Doi Pui

After lunch, we set out for Doi Pui, a hill market type place. There were many, many interesting shops. David and I even tried our hand at shooting a crossbow. Each time I would miss by centimeters, and the one time David tried he hit the target straight on. As we moved on, my dad, Natch, and many of the other monks disappeared. The place when we got in the middle of it was beautiful and full of flowers. I went to the restroom there and it was one of those toilets that are dug into the ground. Not bad for a hill market, I guess. We then found this shop where you could try on some of the native tribe clothing. Nid, Marcia, and I got into the clothes and took some pictures.

After browsing around shops and seeing a bunch of clothes and other things, we stopped for a little nut snack. Then, we headed into the waterfall area. This was a very manmade area, yet it was extremely natural looking. There were beautiful flowers and bamboo plants all over, and of course, the waterfall was as beautiful as ever! We even saw a gigantic green and red snake sleeping on top of the hut!

We headed back, realizing that half of the crew was gone. We arrived at the car and saw that everyone was waiting for us at the car. My dad told me that he had seen some good Thai shirts for me so we went and got them. We then got back in the truck and set out for a meditation center that most people don’t know about.

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At Wat Palad

Arriving there, the quiet of the center was noticeable. It was completely natural and outdoors. The only noise was the waterfall. We explored and saw some of the oldest Buddha statues in Thailand. Natch and I even ventured, climbed, and slipped up the big waterfall. It started raining so we had to hurry back to the car and head back to the Wat as everyone was very tired! I came back to spend my last night at Doi Saket.

13 June 2012

Today’s day started off with a discussion with the monks. Everyone was high off the excitement of yesterday’s trip, and everyone had opened up much more since the first day. Everyone was feeling kind of sad that this would be the last day for discussions.

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Group shot of the novices from our daily discussions

We started by showing the monks pictures of my family and friends on my iPad. This interested them a lot, and they got excited recognizing my dad from the trip. We then started talking about the different types of rules novices, monks, and I had at home and at school. This discussion took us through the entire two hours and before we knew it, it was already time to say goodbye. After some quick pictures, the monks were off to get their lunch.    After getting lunch with my dad, we all, picking up Sapphire, went to see the hot springs. This was my first time visiting anything else like it.

Right when we reached it, we saw a normal-looking stream type thing. Natch told me that it was part of the spring. That seemed ridiculous because it seemed like completely normal water. As soon as I put my feet in I realized that it was extremely hot (I think the sign said 103 degrees). Natch and I went to the source of the water: the spring itself. We bought some eggs and put them in the water nearest the spring where they could cook. The whole place smelled like eggs, but I realized that it was the smell of sulfur. We went into the spring. There were two. We didn’t drench ourselves in the hot one because that was way too hot, but we did get wet in the cold spring. Our eggs also got cooked, mine were cracked, but Natch’s looked good, and we had a little bit of them. We then went into a naturally warm pool straight from the springs, except this was comfortable to swim in. After about an hour or so, we left and set out for the caves.

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Hot springs

1Unfortunately, when we got to the caves, they were locked up by a little gate so it would be impossible to get in. Instead, we decided to just hike up the

mountain we had already partially climbed. It was a long hike up. I was most surprised because Sapphire was so extremely skinny yet she was ahead of all of us, with the most energy. After reaching the top, we saw the dam and trees we had passed through many days ago. We saw two gong instruments, and David and I started playing on them, and we even had a beat going! The Buddha statues at the top were beautiful as they were the main reason that monks came up here to meditate. It was beautiful. Again, we saw a Ganesha. I had a conversation with Sapphire when she told me that she meditated on the image of Ganesha because she had learned about him in the temples of her home in London. She was twenty-four years old and had already been to 68 countries already! She was probably one of the most interesting people I had met so far!

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Tired after a full day of activities!

After reaching the bottom, we took the truck back and dropped Sapphire at the place she was staying. We were also extremely tired. I went back to the Wat and packed all my stuff as the next day I would be leaving for Nid’s village so it would be convenient if I had stayed at the hotel with my dad. Tomorrow would come the next adventure!

Click here to read part III

Written by: Raghav Agarwal

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

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

New video – Lawa Village

Check out the latest video about our unique Lawa Village program! This video was shot and produced by our talented on-site intern Antoine Gratian.  All details about this program can be found here.

Don’t forget to ‘Like’ ATMA SEVA on Facebook to follow along for all the adventures!




info@atmaseva.org

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Custom travel – Three week learning adventure

During June of 2012, ATMA SEVA hosted a custom trip for a father and son, Rajeev and Raghav.  The father, Rajeev, would be touring and meeting with various traditional healers and learning about traditional medicine in Northern Thailand.  The son, Raghav, who was seventeen, had his trip designed to learn about teenagers from three different backgrounds.  Novice monks, teenagers from a Lawa hill-tribe village, and youth from Shan state.  He lived one week at a Buddhist temple, one week in a remote Lawa hill-tribe village, and one week in Chiang Mai city.  Each week there were daily discussions and the goal was to compare and contrast cultures, history, interests, and what it is like to be a teenager from each perspective.

Below is a day-by-day breakdown written by Raghav about his experience.

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Arriving in Chiang Mai!

Wednesday June 7, 2012
When I arrived to Chiang Mai I was a little nervous to leave the baggage claim because it was going to be my first time meeting David, who I would be spending the rest of the three weeks with. He was waiting for me outside with his girlfriend Nid, and a Thai guy I would get to know well : Natch. They were holding a big ATMA SEVA banner. David already seemed like a nice guy, and so did the others, based on the way they greeted me and my dad. He handed us our homemade Lawa bags, which he had gotten from Nid’s village. Inside were our itineraries and phones.

After the airport greeting, we all got into Doi Saket’s special pickup truck. David and I started talking immediately. He asked me questions about myself and my family, India, what I do there and other things. Our first stop was the Rainforest Boutique hotel, where we would be staying that night.

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Everyone meeting at the night bazaar

After that we headed towards Chiang Mai’s famous night bazaar, where you can buy almost everything at a cheap price. Ellen and Ji, the two people my dad would be spending a lot of time with during his healing tours came to say hi to us.  I walked around with David and Natch, admiring the items like knives and t-shirts. We decided to have Thai food at the night bazaar. We stopped at a local, nice-looking restaurant. This was my first time having authentic Thai food. I found myself liking the coconut-milk soup, fried rice, and Pad Thai, pretty much almost everything. Thai food was great!

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First Thai dinner!

I was very tired after dinner, because of the long day in both Bangkok and Chiang Mai, so we decided to go crash at the hotel. David said he would meet me there and take me to Doi Saket. I fell asleep almost as soon as they left.

Thursday 8 June 2012
The day started with my father and I having breakfast at the hotel buffet. Natch came to get me after my breakfast. I packed my bags as I would be staying at Wat Doi Saket for the next five days while my dad would be at the hotel. I got in Natch’s old Suzuki and headed towards the Wat. This was my first one-on-one interaction with Natch, with many more to come. We had an interesting conversation about Thailand and India, Hinduism and Buddhism, poverty and riches. The main discussion was about how the poor work a lot and make nothing yet the rich barely work and make much more, all because of greed and corruption. The system is made so that only 2% are the ones prospering. I also learned a little bit about Natch’s background. He was a novice monk for eleven years of his life. Now, he wants the repay the Wat for teaching him by teaching the young novice monks (I had not learned the difference between a novice and a normal monk) for eleven years. So far, he has worked there for eight years. I assume that Natch’s years at the Wat have taught him this very Buddhist way of thinking of the system such as conquering anger and feeling that these little things do not really matter in the long run.

After arriving at the Wat, Natch showed me the room where I would be staying. Being used to air-conditioners, I was definitely apprehensive that there wasn’t one in the room, especially since it was Thai summer! Instead, there was a little fan which looked like it might not make it another three weeks. Aside from that, the bed and room itself looked pretty comfortable. Marcia was  also there waiting to see me along with David. Marcia was a volunteer who had been working with ATMA SEVA for around 6 months and was staying at the Wat with me, in the room across the hall.

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Views from Wat Doi Saket

David decided to show me around the Wat a little bit for an introduction to the place; so we cruised around the Wat with Marcia on a different bike. I had imagined the monastery to be a grim type of building (as old Christian churches appear to be in the movies). I saw, however, that Wat Doi Saket was more than just a building. It had its own district where people were living and working in places such as restaurants, garages and markets among many others. The Wat has its own grounds where there were various offices (Natch’s included), the temple itself, and numerous Buddhist statues. We started by going up the mountain where there were amazing views of the city. Up on the mountain, the grounds were amazing with Buddhist statues and lotus ponds. This was paradise.

We first saw a very interesting part of the Wat: they had their own animal zoo! Apparently, people donated many animals to the Wat to make merit, so they decided to make a little ecosystem to support them. The zoo has a variety of animals including peacocks, cats, dogs, chickens, pigs (wild and farm animals) tropical birds, and most surprisingly some crocodiles! After, we took a look at all the statues there. Here, I got a sense of the Thai culture based on the statues they kept at their Wat. Basically, Thai culture seemed like an intense blend of Indian and Chinese influence matured over hundreds of years. They had Ganesh statues, dragon statues, Hindu gods, Chinese myths, etc. I also felt that David was very interested in learning about me and my culture. As we walked around and cruised on the motorbike, we shared our first conversations about Hinduism: its ideals, its philosophy, and its influence on Buddhist culture. We walked farther to a place where the footprints of the Buddha were present. This was one of the holy sites of the area. David told me that many of the Wats claim to contain a piece of the Buddha’s body (finger, hair, etc). Although he did not seem to believe that this was reasonable, he seemed very respectful towards it, saying he takes it with a “grain of salt.”

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Awesome statues at Wat Doi Saket

We saw the rest of the grounds and then we decided to leave them as Marcia had to leave also and go see the school where another volunteer (Sapphire) worked. We met up with Nid, and she led us to the school as we followed on the motorbike.
When we arrived at the school, we were greeted by many smiling little students running after the bike. In the grounds they were preparing for some special ceremony. The elders offered us some food being prepared, but I did not want to try because it looked extremely spicy! We saw the kids studying with Sapphire playing a game in which they had a letter, and they had to come up with an object that started with that letter and make a picture of it. David and I joined in for a little bit of it. One thing that surprised me was the kids’ enthusiasm for learning. They also had respect for their elders and their teachers which they showed by folding their hands and bowing. It was amazing to see kids wanting to learn, as opposed to what I was used to in the US where going to school is the “worst” thing.

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Visiting an ATMA SEVA volunteer

After their class they said goodbye to us as we left for lunch. We started looking for random places to eat and eventually just settled on some noodles and rice. While we were driving around, we saw many gas stations and little family-owned shops selling food and other things. We stopped at one of them, and we saw some massive beehives and jack-fruit. We talked to the lady there with the little English she knew and the Thai that David knew (I had also picked up a miniscule bit by then). After talking to her about random things like where we were from (Thai people never talked about business for leisure as a rule!), she was kind enough to give us a humongous jack-fruit for free, and she told us to share it with the monks. This was one of the first tastes I got of Thai people’s extreme kindness. This was one of the things that struck me the most about Thailand, and I was getting a feel for it already: people were selfless, giving, and kinder than I had ever experienced.

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Cutting open the huge jack-fruit

After our little adventure on the motorbike, we started our main activity for the day. It was the first day we would be talking to the monks. As we arrived David went to the office to get something, and I was there alone with the monks. It was awkward there because they were as shy as I was hesitant. Fortunately, the monk with the best English, Milan, approached me and started asking me questions about myself. I was surprised by his courage to talk to me and his ability to speak English very well. I learned from him that he, before becoming a monk for educational purposes, was from Nepal. Therefore, he spoke a little bit of Hindi, my native language. In fact, he loved Indian music and movies as well. His favorite movie songs were some of mine (specifically Emraan Hashmi and Jannat)! He was one of the monks who struck me as very educated. He was the main novice talking about Buddhism at a high level (the most probably didn’t because of the language barrier).

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First discussion with the novice monks

The discussion consisted mostly of icebreakers. For me, it was very hard to learn everyone’s names so I gave them names based on their interests (for example, there was NBA monk, NFL monk, Sunny, etc). I learned a little about them and their way of life on this first day. They would open up to me more on the following days.

After our discussion with the novices, we met up with my dad and had dinner at the lake/pond. It was truly a most beautiful picnic spot. Our dinner consisted of random things David and I had bought from the market.

After our dinner, we (Me, David, Nid, Dad, and Natch) were scheduled to talk to the highest monks of the area (the abbots and others) and have tea with them. We were greeted warmly. Everyone started talking to each other about life in general (again, no work!). I was surprised to see Milan among these high monks, realizing how knowledgeable he really was talking and conversing among the highest of monks. Phra maha Kom Jon prepared many glasses of tea for us. Seeing his tea set and style of making and serving the tea, we could tell he was a true tea aficionado. I was also offered many different sweet fruits, which I was trying for the first time. They were really good!

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Group shot after our evening discussion with the monks

After taking a few pictures it was time to go even though everyone wanted to talk further. As soon as David and Natch dropped me for my first night at the Wat, I fell asleep. I was so tired I didn’t even feel the absence of an air conditioner for my first night!

Saturday 9 June 2012
By the third day, I woke up surprisingly early. I got all my things and brushed my teeth and went to take a shower. At first, I was extremely hesitant because the bathrooms here were very, very different from the ones I was used to, and this was one of the things I had a hard time getting used to. Thankfully, I got through it alright.

When I got out, Marcia was waiting for me. She told me the cookers from the Wat or Natch had left breakfast on the table, so we both dug in (in Thailand, they eat regular food such as rice and soups for breakfast). After a little chatm David showed up and it was time for our second monk chat. This time, the monks were much more open and having fun at the same time. I had more interesting conversations with them. The main idea of today’s discussion was comparing and contrasting America and Thailand in their and my own eyes. We topped all the deeper discussion with a fun game similar to telephone.

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America vs Thailand impressions

After our discussion with the monks, David, Natch and I decided to go have a market lunch and see the pond and another school ATMA SEVA is working with.

First, we had lunch and then we went to the pond where we had had dinner at the previous day, except a little further down the way. There were many people selling food to feed the fish. We decided to buy some and feed the fish. As we started throwing food, the seemingly quiet waters started rumbling and huge fish started fighting for the food.

Near us a couple had a whole humongous bag of fish food, and they were feeding it all to the fish. I asked Natch why they would spend money on a whole bag to feed the fish. He told me that in Thailand the fish is a holy animal, and after one gets married or any other auspicious time, they feed many fish near temples because it calls for good luck or ‘making merit’. The pond had many kinds of fish, mainly catfish. While we were feeding the fish some of the stray dogs came to have some food also. These strays were very nice and tame-looking: no one could guess they were stray dogs. My reaction was something like “wow, even the dogs are nicer here!”

When we were done feeding the fish, we all decided to see the school where ATMA SEVA was preparing to expand their English project. We visited the school and the second-in-command of the near-by temple. We then set out to explore the grounds and ventured off. We walked through flat rice crops and landed up in someone’s farm. The view from there was amazing. It was one of the most beautiful sites I have ever seen. It was flat grassland, with majestic mountains in view, with ponds, little canoes, lotuses and houses that just blended in. We walked through various plants (keeping an eye for snakes!) and saw many different Thai fruits and vegetables being grown in the fields. Natch, who I thought was an expert after this, would pick up random things and tell us what they were and tell us whether they were “delicious” or not.

After we ventured through the fields, we saw a pond with a canoe. Without thinking we started to get in the canoe for a little ride, and we got yelled at by some people from the house. Apparently, they were the housekeepers. They told us that the house was owned by an old, rich foreigner who married a young Thai girl and settled here. I thought it was weird that he married a young woman. However, David told me that it was very typical for this to happen here as many foreigners come to Thailand with the intentions of settling down and finding a partner. The housekeeper started leaving with a pack of buffalo (tied to a rope through their nose). Out of curiosity, we decided to follow him. He led them to a pond, and they went in to have a bath! It was interesting and funny seeing them bathing because some of them were giving us threatening looks. We took some pictures with the buffalo and then headed back towards the motorbikes.

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Water buffalo’s!

When we got back, we saw many young monks (maybe as young as 7) watching movies on a computer. Seeing this solidified some thoughts I had been having about the monks I was interacting with. Being in the United States, the idea of a monk was so ‘mysterious’, because we don’t have anything similar to it here. When we think of monks, we picture serious people who are meditating all the time. I was beginning to realize the humanity of monks: the fact that they like the same things we do (movies, music, etc.) and are just humans in a different situation in life.

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Checking out the detailed painting process

After stopping at the Wat, our plan was to visit a ceramics factory. We arrived there after picking up Nid to go with us. We started by seeing the whole process of making the shape out of clay and the things they do to it to get the finished product. The whole time I was thinking of the concentration required to pull this off: one mistake and it would be all for nothing. It looked hard! We then saw all of the finished products including clay work, paintings, and furniture. I was extremely scared to break anything. Besides the work itself, the architecture of the building was beautiful. Also, for the first time I got to pet a wild rabbit (I guess they weren’t terrified of humans because the people were kind to the rabbits). After we were done with our tour, our extremely nice tour guide gave us a little elephant. This was the second item I had received out of kindness here. After thanking her, we left for our next activity, the last for the day!

We headed from the Wat to Nid’s friend Dang and her husband Tar’s house for dinner. We first went to the market and bought the vegetables that we would cook. My dad met us there. When we arrived at the house, they both greeted us very warmly. These people were probably the nicest people I had met yet. David and I went to the backyard while everyone else prepared food. They had the most varied fruit trees I had ever seen! Mangoes, Leechi, bananas, and other exotic fruit grew from the branches and vines in their backyard. We then went back and helped a little bit with the food (I crushed some peppers). After dinner, we took some pictures with the family and Dang surprised me with a warm hug and request to come back to their home again. We shared goodbyes and left.

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My Dad and I with Dang and Tar after dinner!

On our way, we dropped my dad off at his hotel. David and I sat at the back of the truck and had a random discussion. I heard his views and found them similar to mine: about how much disparity there is between the rich and poor. The battle between rich and poor is so “in your face.” People in the States are shielded from it all and are in desperate need of perspective of what’s going on in the world and even in their nation. We also talked about how political and corporate powers can sometimes be corrupt to either make more money or remain in power.

Click here to read part II

written by: Raghav Agarwal

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