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.


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.


Group shot!


Me with the principal and Nid.


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.


Me with Nong Beau practicing the ABC’s!!


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.


Me in the traditional male Lawa attire


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.


Arm wrestling with Dtee!


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!


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.


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!


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.


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

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Click here to read part VI

written by: Raghav Agarwal


Custom travel – Three week learning adventure part III

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

Click here for more information on custom travel!

14 June 2012 

Today, I had to get up a little earlier than usual because it was the day to leave for the village. My dad and I went to get breakfast at the buffet and were joined shortly by Natch who came to pick me up for the bus station.  Before we finished, we were also joined by Ji who was going to take my dad on his tour alone today. We all decided to head out to the bus station.


At the bus station ready to go to Mae Sariang!

David and Nid showed up shortly after we did. We all took some group pictures as this was the last time I would be seeing my dad until I returned home to the US. After saying goodbye, we got in the van. The vans in Thailand were very interesting. They were very comfortable-looking with an air conditioner and everything. However, there was limited leg space! You got used to it quickly; it was just funny to see it at first. Looking through the window, we could see beautiful views of the green mountains we were going up to. After about four hours of short naps and awesome views, we arrived at a small town called Mae Sariang. Here, the van dropped us off, and Nid’s brother Dtee picked us up. To me, he looked exactly like a male version of Nid. David told me that he was a very solid guy and he was a tough guy (he looked skinny but he was hiding some major muscle!). We did some shopping in Mae Sariang at the market and 7 11 for bread, candy, and many many vegetables because there would be no shops or markets up in the village.

We then went to Nid’s sister’s house to pick up Nid’s dad who was staying with her and would be coming back with us to the village. We got into the pickup truck with a lot of stuff in the car. It was a tight fit!


Our new friends!

Along the way, Nid’s dad wanted to pick up some chickens for some ritual and food. They literally went to this place to buy them and just stuffed the chickens into these baskets he had made. While we were watching this, a very friendly shopkeeper on the other side of the road greeted us. He invited us over and fed us some Thai fruits and got us some water. He was very kind and talked to us nicely. We took a picture with him, and we headed on to the village.


On the way to the village

Driving along the way up on the mountains, we had some interesting experiences. There was so much rain that we had to stop the truck at a rest stop. We waited there for awhile till the rain subsided a bit, having some drinks and playing with the local dog. Dtee also bought us a sling-shot and David and I had fun shooting it around! Then, we headed out to the winding road to the village. The rain had ruined the dirt roads so badly that we often had to get out of the truck in order for Dtee to maneuver around.


First dinner in the village!

We finally arrived after a few hours, and I got to meet the rest of Nid’s family including her mother and sister in law and some of her nephews and nieces. David and I watched the family make a Thai dinner, different from what we had in the city. It looked different because the flavoring and spices they used were indigenous to the area. During our dinner, one of the teachers, Kamon, came and visited us. We discussed general things such as introductions, family, schooling, and other things. After Kamon left, I was shown the room I would be sharing with David. It was a very basic room with sheets on the floor and no fan or AC. Fortunately, there were no bugs. It felt different and surprisingly good to be living so simply. I also got an introduction to the bathroom that was a hole in the ground in the downstairs, which made me kind of nervous, but it was a good challenge. After this quick introduction, I fell asleep on my bed early because I was so tired from the journey!

15 June 2012

Today was the first full day I got to spend in the village. I woke up really late because I was so exhausted by the previous day, so by this time everyone had gone to the farm. I started my day with my first bucket shower. Pouring myself with ice-cold water for a shower was frightening. Although it was an awesome experience, it really was cold. In fact, my hair even began steaming from the temperature difference between the water in my hair and the air around!


First day discussions!

After getting ready and having some breakfast, we all headed to the school where we would be having our daily discussions with the kids. This time, we played a game with candy. The number of candies a student took was the number of questions he or she would have to answer. As an icebreaker, we had fun questions for each other such as what superpower would you like to have. I got to learn the kid’s names (although I cannot claim to have remembered them perfectly) and about their families. Most of their families were farmers and most of the children went to help out at their respective farms after school and during school breaks.


Two of the village elders who taught us about Lawa culture

With our daily discussion complete, we all had lunch and then set out to explore the village. David, Nid, and I met with some of the village elders who often joined us later on our discussions with the kids at school. These elders were the ones who were the most knowledgeable about the culture, and we asked them many questions. One of the most interesting concepts we learned about was the belief of spirits. Through these discussions, we learned that there existed a blend of animism and Buddhism here. After our discussion, we decided to go visit Kamon’s farm.


Kamon getting the rice fields ready for planting!


Me trying to get the fire ready

We began our twenty-five minute trek to the farm. Along the way, I learned that Kamon was one of the people, along with Nid’s brother Dtee, who were advocating green farming and the reduction of pesticides, something that was also being taught to the young students. We reached Kamon’s farm and saw a beautiful display of steppe agriculture. We explored a little around and had my first “blome” (a small leach that would stick to us). In addition, we saw Kamon working on the farm with his machines. Unfortunately, we had to cut it a bit short because it started raining extremely heavily, and we still had to walk a ways back to the village.

Walking through the cool and heavy rain, we arrived back at the village ready for dinner. David and I offered to help with the dinner preparations. Nid challenged us to make fire from two pieces of wood. No matter how much we tried, we could not get it! Eventually, Nid’s dad just helped us out with it. After dinner, I immediately fell asleep.

16 July 2012


View of the rice paddies from the village


The animals blood wiped on the created structure for the spirits

Today, we spent most of the day trekking and witnessing really unique things at the farm. After a long, long hike up in to the mountains we came to the farm that we were supposed to be at. Here, we witnessed a ceremony to wish for good luck and a good harvest for the upcoming rice planting. The ceremony entailed the sacrifice of two chickens and one pig. I could not help but feel sorry for these animals as their emotions were brought to their face (the pig started crying of desperation to escape). After the sacrifice, the blood was wiped and a ceremonial plate was carried around. The animal’s meat was then eaten for lunch. Despite my rudimentary understanding of the ceremony, it was a complex process.


Food, whiskey, and tobacco offerings for the spirits

The rest of the day, we spent exploring the farm. I went down to the river that ran through the village and farms that provided a major water source. In addition, I helped plant some new rice seeds into the flooded soil in the steppe agriculture. This was a really messy and fun process. We enjoyed the company and learned more about their farming techniques from the other farmers there.

Later on, we headed back to the village as it was going to be a very long way back. Kamon invited us to his house to have a drink and converse. We stayed at his house for an hour and then we stopped at another house to see Kom Jon’s (one of the monks at Doi Saket) sister’s new born baby. After this visit, I quickly fell asleep.

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Click here to read part IV

written by: Raghav Agarwal

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.


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.


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.


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.


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

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.

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

Two Blissful Months in Thailand

It has been almost a month since I returned from my sojourn in Chiang Mai. I am finding it surprisingly difficult to talk about my time in Thailand as there was no one place, person or experience that seems to take center stage. Each person, place and experience was so memorable that I can recount every moment of it. My two months were full of life experiences that will always stay with me and all this is due to my chance encounter with the ATMA SEVA website and meeting Programs Director David Poppe via skype!


Arriving in Chiang Mai airport!

My first 3 days were spent at Wat Doi Ku and I could not have asked for a more welcoming place. Ajahn Sirichai is a young, dynamic abbot of a small temple about 36 km NE of Chiang Mai. I was invited to join Sirichai for alms, or the collection of food by the monks that occurs daily around dawn. Giving alms is one of the many ways in which Buddhists can make merit, along with living life according to religious precepts and praying. When Buddhist monks make their alms rounds, laypeople prepare food and water and wait for the monks to approach them with their alms bowl. Once food and water are placed inside the bowl, the monk will place the lid on top of his bowl and recite a prayer blessing to the donor after which the merit-making is considered complete. Phra Sirichai allowed me to make some merit by carrying the alms for him. He also gave me a Thai name, ‘Kaa ja-om’ which has brought many smiles on Thai faces. It refers to the person who helps the monks on their daily alms rounds. It was a delightful experience as I met many welcoming villagers.

Ajahn Sirichai also invited the villagers to come to the temple as he now had an English tutor. That afternoon, three very eager boys came to the temple and we set up class for them in the basement. No sooner had they left, a young woman came to pick up a quick lesson – she was in Real Estate in Chiang Mai and most eager to work with farangs (a Sanskrit word meaning foreigner). While I was in “session”, Sirichai was able to recruit a few members of the local Thai military who were stationed nearby and eager to pick up a few words!

I would have enjoyed staying in Doi Ku and getting to know the villagers, but not knowing how to ride a motorbike and being a bit out of the way, I knew that this temple would be logistically difficult to manage. David had already made arrangements for me to stay in Doi Saket, just 7 km SW and a little closer to Chiang Mai with songtaews (shared taxis) leaving for the city every 15-20 minutes (and costing just 20 Baht!)

Me at Wat Doi Saket testing to see if I have good karma!

Me at Wat Doi Saket testing to see if I have good karma!

My first stop in Doi Saket was a week teaching at a local Gov’t school. I had never taught English before but the ATMA SEVA team helped put together lesson plans for each class and it was just a matter of following the guide book. Before I came, I had found several online sites that gave valuable tips on how to teach English as a foreign language. It was challenging as I did not speak Thai – Ad, the English teacher at the school, was very gracious in joining me for the initial classes, which was an enormous help. The young students were adorable; many of them live here during the school year and go home to their villages during the summer. What touched me the most was to see how disciplined and gracious the children were as they stood in line for their bowl of rice, got their own water from a water tank and washed their cups and utensils when the lunch was over. That week in itself was worth the price of my airline ticket. The experience was also a reminder of how it is possible to instill in our children the value of responsibility at a very young age instead of inundating them with electronic gadgets for constant amusement.

I ate lunch daily with the teachers who were a jovial group; unfortunately, most of them spoke no English and all humor had to be translated by Ad. After the school was over, I would teach a class to the teachers. They too were an eager bunch – one must understand that many of the local English teachers do not speak enough English to be able to teach a conversational class. In one assignment, I had them give me directions on how to go from Doi Saket to Chiang Mai, a very real situation they might encounter with a farang. Before the class, they would just wave in the direction where they think the city lies!

Me with all the teachers after English class.

Me with all the teachers after English class.

After my week teaching at the government school, I spent a couple of weeks doing a meditation retreat at Wat Rampoeng, an experience I’d be glad to share if anyone is interested. (I did have another 10 days at a meditation center in Bangkok just before I returned home to Atlanta in April.)  In between, there were trips to a Lawa & Karen village, Mae Sariang, and more, some of which are well described by on-site intern Jamie Shannon here and volunteer Dan here.

My second teaching stint was at Wat Doi Saket where I lived in the volunteer room reserved for ATMA SEVA volunteers. It was another two blissful weeks and an incredible way to learn about life in a monastery where novice monks live and are schooled along with senior monks. The Principal, Phra maha Insorn, has managed the school and the teachers for many years and is very engaged in various community and NGO projects. Because the semester had ended, I did not have an opportunity to teach a regular class along with my friend Natch Tankarp, the Director of the English program at Wat Doi Saket. Instead, I tutored two monks, a layperson who would come from the village and a novice monk who was there from Laos. Michael, a graduate student doing his doctoral research, was the primary tutor and it was a very rewarding experience to work with such motivated students. Because these students speak English, I could teach them arithmetic, geography and other subjects in English that would allow them to utilize the language in daily tasks.

Stairs leading up to Wat Doi Saket!

Stairs leading up to Wat Doi Saket!

I would be amiss if I did not write a bit about daily life at Wat Doi Saket. Without having lived at the wat, I would not have had such a rich experience. Most of all, I would have probably never learned what it takes to go from a novice monk to an ordained monk and what it is like to live as a monk. I did not need an alarm clock as I was woken up each morning at 5am from the sounds of the monks praying and chanting in Pali. Most often, I would go to the mondop so I could feel the energy of the prayers. The wat is located on a hill and there are two ways to access it: via a winding road or by 304 steps straight up that I counted several times.  There was always someone making a trip up or down the hill, but I typically opted to take the steps as I knew I would not have the privilege of being forced into such a good fitness program once I was in suburban America driving my 2000 pound SUV to the grocery store ten minutes away to buy a gallon of milk.

Thailand is very warm in March and April. There is not much AC around and you learn to appreciate the fans that are all over the place.  Evenings are wonderful- things cool down a bit and people are out and about. It’s not uncommon to see a scooter with two adults, a child in the middle and a child in front holding the handle bar – it is uplifting to be in a Libertarian country at such times. There is only one bar in Doi Saket and it actually has the best food that I found in the village; the owner is also the chef and she wants to come to America to open up a Thai restaurant. Her bar has a pool table and a TV showing some soccer games at all times.

I quickly fell in love with Doi Saket village, which is quite small. There is a market where I got my daily fresh coconut drink and fresh fruit fix, along with several roadside cafes. For 30-40 Baht, one can have a very healthy Thai meal. The 7-11 is the 24-hour store and seems to be the center of all activity in the village – a little expensive but not too bad as they have to compete with the street vendors and local markets. There is a pharmacy and the pharmacist and I quickly became good friends, as I would stop there almost every day to have my blood pressure checked. Pharmacists pretty much replace physicians for all routine stuff out here.  Luxuries like a barbershop shave or an hour-long foot massage that are expensive back home can be found here for very reasonable prices.

Sunset on the main road in Doi Saket.

Sunset on the main road in Doi Saket.

I chose to share my experiences in the hopes of helping those who have never lived in Thailand to learn more about the day to day life here. Doi Saket is no different from other small towns and Doi Ku is not that different from other villages in Northern Thailand. On weekends, one can take a songtaew from the village to Chiang Mai and participate in festivals and the many activities that are there. Chiang Mai has some of the finest hospitals in the world should one need to go there and the local pharmacies there are well stocked. To save money, I even had a checkup done at a fraction of a cost of what it would have cost me at home and without a long wait or hassle that I am used to!

ATMA SEVA provided not only teaching opportunities, but also the chance to experience a new culture like a native despite not knowing the language. Other than David Poppe, I was very fortunate to make friends with Natch, the English teacher at Doi Saket. When Natch was in town, we would go out for dinner and I never felt alone. He also introduced me to his family and friends, and without his friendship, I may not have felt at home as much as I did. One has to visit and spend some time in Thailand to really know the Buddhist culture and feel the warm welcome that they seem to have for visitors. There is very little crime in small towns and villages and I never had the feeling that I was getting ripped off. This was my 4th trip to Thailand and 2nd to Chiang Mai and so it was not a surprise and I pray that it does not change despite the onslaught of westerners that now come to Chiang Mai. I am very appreciative to all who made this a very memorable trip and I am looking to make this my annual pilgrimage.

If anyone has any specific questions about my experiences, teaching, living abroad, meditation retreats or anything else discussed here, please leave a comment below!

Hunaid Qadir

ATMA SEVA – On site internship first weeks

It has only been a short time that I have been working with ATMA SEVA in Northern Thailand, but the past few weeks have been very eventful!  My internship started with a trip to Wat Doi Saket and then to a Lawa Village, called Ba Pae, in the mountains of Mae Hong Song.

At Wat Doi Saket I was able to meet the novice monks studying there and see them take part in an annual gift exchange ceremony.  I was given a tour of the monastery, including a beautiful new conference room used for retreats and ceremonies.  This large white building overlooks the valley below with breathtaking views.  It was built by a local businessman, working in Bangkok, who wanted to “make merit” and improve his Karma.

gift exchange

Gift exchange at Wat Doi Saket in new conference center

A few days later I found myself on a bus to the end of the line, where we would be met by my colleague’s cousin to help us on the final leg of the trip to the Lawa village.  We hopped into the back of his truck to make the last 3 hour leg of the journey into the hills, on the dirt tracks.  This was pretty rocky going and didn’t do much to help those suffering from travel sickness!

Road down to the Lawa village

When we finally arrived however we were given a very warm welcome from the host family, who were very kind and hospitable.  Their house is a large wooden building with plenty of room for us to sleep.  The fire was alight in the kitchen and we sat down for tea, some great homemade food, and of course some local whiskey!  The whiskey is brewed in the village and made from fermented rice balls. It is then heated in a large barrel with a fire beneath it until it is forced out of the container when it evaporates.  The vapors are forced down a tube attached to the barrel, and collected in bottles ready to drink.  Different families make different strengths, and local people in the village have their own particular favorites.

The point of our journey was to collect Katherine, another intern with ATMA SEVA, who had been teaching in Ba Pae for the last two months.  During this time she had learned a lot of Thai (practically nobody there speaks English) and made a lot of new friends.  The villagers seemed genuinely excited to have an English teacher and the kids especially were very sad to see her leave!

Entrance to the school in the village

Entrance to the school in the village

The local school is a nice collection of buildings with good sized classrooms and a big yard for sports and play time.  The equipment for teachers however is basic, and it does not always run to the schedule that you might expect in some less rural places.  It was great to see donated sports equipment (badminton sets and basketballs) being used even outside school hours.  They kids were certainly happy to have it! From what I could see the children were very respectful and polite, happy and eager to work with new volunteers.  They wanted to develop their language skills and seemed to be enthusiastic about their lessons, despite being a little shy to speak.  Onsite there is a room for visiting teachers and volunteers to stay in, with a big bed, bathroom, and kitchenette for their use.  Another teacher also stays in the school throughout the week, and returns to her family for the weekend.

While we were in the village we went to have a meeting with the “number one”, who is the elected head of the village.  There are 12 villages in the vicinity that all elect a leader, who runs for two years at a time.  From the 12 councilors a government representative is elected also.  He told us that the village was very happy to have volunteer English teachers and was excited about the prospect of having more soon.  I also had a tour, and met many of the local families and children. With 200 residents, Ba Pae is one of the biggest villages in the area, and one of the better off. The village of Ba Pae is one of the only villages in the mountain which has a basic health clinic, meaning sick villagers from the surrounding area are forced to walk there on poorly maintained trails for basic health care facilities.

kids show in villageAlthough we were visiting a week after Christmas, according to the Western calendar, we were there for the local Christmas celebrations, which were great fun! We visited the local church (built by missionaries) which was the center of the fun.  Despite the fact only a percentage of the locals have converted to Christianity the venue was packed and everyone was welcome to the social event and the party!  The children from the school put on a show, singing and dancing in traditional costumes, before more adult games took place.  These included blowing up balloons as fast as you could – the winner being the first to pop theirs – and having grown men racing to eat cookies and drink milk from a baby’s bottle!  There was also a selection of fairground games to be played, where adults and kids all won prizes donated from the church.  These included toiletry kits, Dettol sets, sun hats, sweets and cookies.  They proved very popular and it was highly amusing to watch the older villagers elbowing each other and pushing over the barriers to win as many prizes as they could.  The competition was fierce!!

One of the tasks which we accomplished while in the mountains was to distribute clothing to a remote Karen village near to Ba Pae.  ATMA SEVA learned about this village through a novice monk who is currently studying at Wat Saraphi.  It is his home and he informed us of some of the challenges that they face throughout the seasons.

Walking down to the Karen village

Walking down to the Karen village

Simply finding the village was a bit of a challenge for us.  It is tucked away down a small track which is hardly visible from the bigger track which substitutes a road!  Luckily our local driver managed to locate the correct spot, and we walked down the trail to the houses.

It can be very cold in this region at night, and warm clothing is necessary – the donation from ATMA SEVA was gratefully received.  While we were passing through we also took a look at their solar panels.  These were provided some time ago by another NGO who never followed up on them or sent anyone to repair them.  The government likewise has not followed up on promises to send someone to service them.  ATMA SEVA had been informed that they have not been working for some time and as such the village had no electricity at all.  We took the serial numbers and models for reference, and became apparent that it is possibly not the solar panel which is broken, but maybe just the light bulbs themselves.  ATMA SEVA will continue to assist and work with this Karen village.

Group shot!

Group shot!

We were planning to stay in Ba Pae until the 3rd January; however the trip was cut short by the fact that there were no bus seats free for our return!  Because a lot of students and adults who work in the city returned home for the Christmas celebration and New Year’s holiday season the seats were booked up long in advance.  Luckily for us a neighbor was traveling to Chiang Mai on the 1st January in a pickup truck, and kindly let us sling our bags, and ourselves, in the back.  It was considerably more comfortable than the bus and the ‘air con au natural’ was also very welcome, as well as the tanning session!  It showed how limited the local transportation services are however, even taking into account that buses only run as far as the town 2-3 hours down the trail.

Goodbye Ba Pae

Goodbye Ba Pae

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Alexis Taylor