Photography Corner: Day Trip to Fang District

Prior to wrapping up my on-site internship in Wiang Haeng, I had the opportunity to take a short day trip with a fellow teacher and some students from grade M. 4 (the equivalent of 10th grade in the United States) to the neighboring province of Fang. It was an interesting time to travel as the rainy season was in full swing, threatening to keep us confined to the indoors. We left early in the morning and, due to my tendency to get very car sick, I spent a great deal of the three hour drive in a Dramamine-induced sleep. But as I began to fight off the drowsiness I realized that the rain had stopped and the landscape had transformed into a vibrant sea of green. While the rainy season can be draining, with its lack of sunlight and grey skies, it also creates some spectacular sights. As soon as the rain stops, the fresh planted rice turns technicolor green, the sky a radiant blue, and the mountains in the distance covered with a misty haze. As the views unfolded in front of me, I quickly reached for my camera and tried to capture the beauty of northern Thailand with its expansive rice fields and surrounding mountains.

Our first stop was Wat Thaton, a large temple filled with Buddha relics from around the world. The novices and I enjoyed exploring the hundreds of statues and the variety of designs – some were very modern looking, while others were very old and traditional. Afterwards, we walked up the naga-style ramp to the top level of the temple where we paid respect to an ancient, and very well respected, Buddha relic. The views from the top of the hill were amazing as we looked over the town of Thaton and neighboring hill tribe villages and the Maekok River. By this time, the sky had fully transformed from grey to brilliant blue and the air felt crisp and fresh.From there we headed to the Fang hot springs where we marveled at the park’s geysers and beautifully maintained park. The park had ancient trees with raised, knotted roots that added to the mysterious beauty of the park.

I think the students enjoyed the trip as much as I did – it was great to get a change of scenery and explore different landscapes. I had no idea Fang district had so many outdoor activities to explore. I hope to return in the near future to explore the area further and all it has to offer!

Maria Moreno

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

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Photography Corner – Exploring the Wiang Haeng District

In the past few weeks I have had the opportunity to visit various sites and temples (also known as “wats”) in the Wiang Haeng district. The Wiang Haeng district is located in the north/northeastern part of Thailand, right along the Thai-Burmese border and is home to six different ethnic groups, each with their own distinct cultures, clothing, and language. As such, each temple is a unique blend of architectural styles and carries its own traditions.

My students and fellow teachers have been kind enough to take me on tours around the district and have provided further insight into their unique histories. Wiang Haeng is also located in a lush valley surrounded by forests and mountains – providing a peaceful environment and great hiking and running trails. One weekend, my student took me to visit Mae Hat Waterfall which is tucked behind a small Karen hill-tribe village. The Karen are known for their respect for the environment and have lived for centuries in harmony with nature. Click here to learn more about the Karen and their relationship with nature.

Here is a glimpse into some of the sights I have visited in the past few weeks!

If you are interested in volunteering and would like the chance to live at this location, check out the Wat Doi Saket project for all details!

Maria Moreno, on-site intern

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

Two months into the on-site intern experience!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maria Moreno, on-site intern

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

Photography Corner – Wat Kong Lom

No two days are the same at Wat Kong Lom – I’ve come to anticipate and appreciate this fact. On any given day we are hosting visiting monks, participating in school clean-up and beautification projects, planting rice, or paying special tribute to the teachers, community, and holidays. In addition to getting a traditional “book” education, students at the school obtain hands-on skill training as well.

The temple at Wat Kong Lom is currently under construction and will be completed within the next year. Currently, workers are working every day to complete the detail-oriented decor of the building. The temple, named after the village in which it is located (Kong Lom, which is part of the larger Wiang Haeng area), is a location where ATMA SEVA volunteers live and teach.  Hope you enjoy the pictures!

Don’t forget to ‘Like’ ATMA SEVA on Facebook to see more pictures from this location!

Maria Moreno, on-site intern

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

Visakha Bucha in Wiang Haeng

On Friday, May 24th Buddhists from all over Thailand gathered to celebrate one of the most auspicious Buddhist holidays: Visakha Bucha Day. Visakha Bucha falls on the full moon of the sixth lunar month and marks three important events in the Buddha’s life: the Buddha was born, attained enlightenment, and died, all of which occurred on the same day (many years apart, of course).

Visakha Bucha is a national holiday where many Buddhist Thai families take the time to visit their temple and celebrate the Buddha’s life. This was my first time partaking in a Buddhist holiday and I have to admit, I found it quite moving. The day started off with a festive breakfast where we were joined by over 30 guests, many of whom had spent the night at Pleekwiwek the night before. Our breakfast consisted of more vegetable dishes than usual (four different leafy-green stir-fry dishes and sticky rice wrapped in green banana leaves) and the “green” theme carried on throughout the day’s activities.

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String ceremony.

After breakfast we headed to the main Sala where the visitors assembled donation “trees”. We then proceeded to sit down and hear about the Buddha’s life and teachings (the Dhamma). We were then instructed to pull the strings that were hanging from the ceiling and wrap them around heads, the most sacred part of our body, as part of the blessing ceremony.The string unites all of us to the blessing and links us directly to the Buddha image at the front of the Sala. The string ceremony helps to raise your spirits and help you overcome challenges in your life. This ceremony can take place during different days of the year as well; you can ask a monk to perform it if you feel as though you are in low spirits and need strength to overcome the challenges you are facing. The monks and novice monks at the Center then proceeded to chant for 30 minutes, as they blessed the participants for their contributions to the community.

The main individual needing their spirits to be lifted would sit under the three branches with a string wrapped around his/her head. The three branches represent three important tenants of Buddhism: speaking no evil, thinking no evil, and doing no evil.

The main individual needing their spirits to be lifted would sit under the three branches with a string wrapped around his/her head. The three branches represent three important tenants of Buddhism: speaking no evil, thinking no evil, and doing no evil.

After the chanting ended, we each pulled down our string and were instructed to keep the prayer flag and keep it to bring luck, prosperity, and protection. These flags would normally be added to the spirit house one has outside their home or a small shrine in their home.

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On the way to planting trees!

We then proceeded to the field behind the Center to partake in a tree-planting ceremony, as Visakha Bucha has also been designated National Tree Day in Thailand. Many of the individuals at the ceremony had donated funds in order to purchase nearly fifty trees that will be planted throughout Pleekwiwek Center.

Similar to the string ceremony that was held in the Sala, the tree planting ceremony also used a string to connect all of us to the tree (the new life) that was being planted. The string was attached to the small sapling and each participant held the string in their hands as the monks and novices chanted and blessed ceremony. Incense and small fruit baskets were given as an offering, along with white paper flowers.

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Blessing ceremony for new trees.

After the first sapling was planted, we proceeded to the next site where two trees were planted. Everyone participated by either physically touching the tree as it went into the ground, or if you were unable to reach it, you would gently put your hand on the back of the person in front of you who was touching the tree. It was not unlike the string – we were all connected to each other and to new life. The next site had four trees to plant, and the last one had eight. After planting the fifteen trees we then ended the day with a festive lunch before sending our visitors off.

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My friend Wan preparing the offering.

In the evening, one of the Center’s close friends, Wan (meaning sweet), invited me to join her in making offerings to the Buddha. She spoke to me in Thai quickly and without hesitation as if I understood every word. I listened attentively and looked for hints in her body language, piecing together the few words I could understand. I was eager to learn, not only about her culture, religion and language, but also eager to find understanding beyond words and find a universal language. She patiently showed me how to make a banana leaf cone in which we placed flowers, three sticks of incense (one representing the Buddha, one the Dhamma, and one the Buddha’s followers, or Sangha), and a candle. We then proceeded to visit the first sapling we had planted earlier in the day. Wan prayed aloud and we then had a moment to silently pray or reflect. We then slowly circled the tree three times chanting, clasping our offerings in prayer position and then left our offerings with the sapling.

Traditionally one circles around the pagoda at their temple with candles and flowers in the evening as they mark the end of Visakha Bucha, but as we do not have a pagoda at the Center, we decided to end our day by coming full circle to that first tree – and symbol of life – that started our day.

Maria Moreno, on-site intern

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

ATMA SEVA – First impressions of Wiang Haeng

Welcome Maria

Me (center) with two other ATMA SEVA on-site interns

When I was first told that I would be spending the next four months living in Wiang Hang, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I studied the tiny speck on the map and wondered what life would be like there, what stories the people had to tell, and what new adventures lay ahead. The past two weeks here have indeed been an adventure with no two days the same. But this is exactly the type of adventure I was hoping for. After living in Bangkok for 3 months, I was eager to move to a more rural area where I would have an opportunity to learn more about Thai culture and challenge myself to learn Thai.

The area I am in is actually comprised of multiple townships, each with its own distinct culture, language, and story to tell. Within a 15 minute car ride, you are able to visit a Karen village, a refugee camp that has an expansive solar-power project, and a village with Chinese roots (complete with traditional dress and red Chinese lanterns hanging from every home). The majority of the people in the region, however, are from the Shan State in Myanmar. In spite of the diversity in the area, the one aspect that is universal is the importance that Buddhism plays in each of their cultures. Every temple and pagoda is different – each one reflecting the stories and culture of its members.

novices construction Wiang Haeng

Novices helping with the construction

I am currently living in Pleekwiwek Dhamma Center, along with thirty novice monks and three monks. Pleekwiwek serves multiple functions: it is a dhamma center and meditation retreat, the home and training center for the novices, a community center, and a model for self-sufficiency. The founder of the center and current director, Dr. Phra Ajarn Thanee, received a master’s degree in agriculture, a fact that very much shapes the way the center is run. The novices grow a majority of the vegetables and rice they eat right here at the center. In addition to learning about farming, they learn how to make bricks out of mud and cement and have built a number of the cabins on the grounds. Novices learn to value the homes they have built for themselves, the food they have grown for themselves, and even the cotton they have grown to make the robes they wear. Therefore, the boys who have lived here have not only had the opportunity to attend school and learn about Buddhism, but also learn valuable life skills that they can apply to future life endeavors.

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Shot from Pleekwiwek Dhamma Center

In spite of my efforts, I still struggle to pronounce the name of the Center correctly (at least, the locals don’t seem to know what I’m saying), however, as soon as I say that I am teaching at Wat Kong Lom and am working with Dr. Thanee, everyone kindly reminds me of the correct pronunciation: Pli-wih-wehk. It’s clear from their reactions that Dr. Thanee and the work he does is an integral part of the community. This is also evidenced from the number of training camps that have taken place here in the past few weeks.  The trip here started with an English camp which was followed by a weekend retreat with over one hundred students from the local government school learning about Buddhism and sufficiency economics, a few days later we had a flock of women working frantically to prepare decorations for blessing a new construction site, then we received a group of soldiers who helped plant numerous trees on the grounds, and then we hosted a large retreat for all of the students from Wat Kong Lom.

I am excited to be here and see all of the activity taking place around me. I never would have expected that that little dot on the map could be so full of life and yet so peaceful.

I have been working in the field of community organizing and event planning for many years, but I decided to come to Thailand to learn more about how community development takes place in developing nations. Pleekwiwek has been a great experience in teaching me more about sufficiency economics and the way that a community that is so diverse can come together as neighbors to help one another.  In the short time that I have been here I have learned more about Thai culture, language, and Buddhism than I have in the previous 3 months living in Thailand!

Buddha view Wiang Haeng

View from Wat overlooking Wiang Haeng

I am eager to continue learning – learning about northern Thai culture and all of the diverse groups in the region. I have already learned three new ways of saying “hello,” I’ve been anointed with a Thai name, and have heard numerous folklore stories from the region. I am also excited to begin teaching English. The people in the region and the novices I am working with are just as eager to learn about me, my culture and my language as I begin to teach at Wat Kong Lom temple school.

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

Maria

maria@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org