Wat Doi Saket project – Eat, Pray, Love, Give

I found ATMA SEVA by chance online, and now I’m in Chiang Mai for 2 months, helping to teach English to young novice monks at Wat Pranon Bagatee in Saraphi.

I arrived on a Wednesday morning, and had my first lesson the next day! I was excited with thousands of butterflies in my stomach at the same time, but with the forwardness, constant smiles and support from everyone I was slowly but surely beginning to feel at ease.

The novice monks were eager to meet the new teacher from London as I was to meet them all, and there are some great characters! It feels like the lessons are full of smiles with a bubbly atmosphere, especially when games are involved!

I had my first lunch with all the students, the monks and other teachers, as well as the few dogs and cats around! But before lunch there’s always a chanting of thanks, which completely moved me to my very soul the first time I heard it. It was all overwhelmingly beautiful, the temple, the kindness, the peace and serenity of it all, I shall never forget those first feelings.

20130712_08061120130712_100101Aside from the teaching, there’s all the exploring of Chiang Mai, with the incredible history and the fact that there are more than 300 wats in this region, as well as hill tribes, mountainous national parks, hot springs, caves and plenty of markets with unlimited food stalls everywhere. It is almost impossible to go hungry!

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One of the things I personally adore is the fact that you can smile at a stranger, and in return get a great smile! This is afterall, the land of smiles, and what a great place to be!

I have now almost been in Saraphi for a week, and it already feels like I have been here longer. Everyone from the other volunteers, the teachers, and the novice monks have made me feel so welcomed and part of the team, the sense of community and togetherness is wonderfully gracious and humbling. I’m eager for each and every day, with so much to do, see and feel, it makes me think these next two months will go by too quickly for my liking!

Getting to know the students and helping them in lessons is very interesting, even just walking around the temple between lessons I will hear “hello teacher” followed by a big beaming cheeky smile!

I found it hard to imagine what it would be like here in Chiang Mai, and now that I’m here, I understand why I couldn’t imagine much, nothing could have prepared me for the genuine kindness and care from everybody here, not just for me, but for each other, everybody helps everybody. 


Victoria Castro



New video – Buddhist monk ordination

This is an ordination ceremony that took place at Wat Doi Saket in June 2013.  Hope you enjoy the video and check out our Wat Doi Saket project if you are interested in volunteering at Buddhist temples!

*Video shot and edited by Antoine Gratian*




Wat Doi Saket project – Finding a ‘new normal’

I was first drawn to Thailand for its deep-rooted culture, natural beauty and easy way of life, and while I have traveled before, I underestimated some of the difficulties of living in a new country and just how different it would be.  However, after almost three months in Chiang Mai, the culture shock is finally fading and I am beginning to feel more comfortable living in another country, starting to find a ‘new normal’.  As a popular holiday tourist spot, Thailand can be very accommodating and it is not hard to find some of the same comforts as home, but living outside of the tourist spots and trying to adjust to the language, food and culture while teaching, working, and living in a Buddhist temple has been a very unique experience.

For the month of October I have been living at Wat Doi Saket, the main temple for volunteers with the Wat Doi Saket project, in a district North of Chiang Mai.  The town is relatively small but the community is strong and the culture is vibrant.  Some of the cultural differences are small, things to eventually incorporate into daily life, and others are the major definitions between American and Thai culture.

Here are some of biggest cultural differences that I have (mostly) adjusted to:

Paying Respect

Thailand is officially a Buddhist Kingdom, so respect for the Buddha and the King are a must.  Images of the King and Buddha statues are in every government building, school, store, and most peoples homes.  The King’s song plays every evening at 6 pm (TV, radio, loudspeakers, etc.) and in public you stop what you are doing to stand and pay your respect.

To the Buddha statues you Wai (bow) three times and sometimes tuk tuk drivers and people on motorbikes “Wai” to Wat’s and various Buddhist statues as they drive past.  Monks are always highly respected in the community and often people from town will come and bring a gift to the monks and the Wat to “make merit” for themselves or a loved one and receive a blessing from the monk.

This is just a small part of a larger cultural standard regarding the importance of family, community structure, and social roles.  Younger people respect those older than them, including teachers.  Even when I am just walking around the school the students Wai to me and say “hello teacher”. This still makes me smile everyday!

Please Remove your Shoes 

This one is very simple but ties into a strong part of Thai culture.  In Thailand feet are considered the dirtiest part of your body and, out of respect, you must remove your shoes before entering school buildings, someone’s house, and of course the Wat’s.  When you are in a Wat you must not point your feet towards the Buddha or the Monks, and it is impolite to point with your feet in a store or street market.  At first I couldn’t think of any possible situation when I would point with my feet until I was at a market, drinking a coconut with one hand and carrying my camera in the other, and wanted to show something at the stall.  I unintentionally pointed with my foot and the women at the stall stopped talking and stared at me and I understood how rude it was.

DO talk to strangers

Although this is the complete opposite of everything you were told as a kid, talking to local people is the best way to understand a new place and get adjusted quickly.  The locals are eager to talk to you and will often go out of their way to help you.  This genuine kindness was surprising at first when people in town would see me walking and stop on the side of the road to offer me rides on the back of their motorbikes, even if it was just up the hill or down the road.  When I refused and got strange looks, I realized that people actually want to help you get wherever you are going.  I was even offered a ride home by the masseuse after a massage because I had to wait a few minutes for her to finish with another client.

Restaurants and shop owners are excited to see “farang” (foreigners) and almost always do their best to make conversation and get to know you.  For dinner one night I went to a roadside barbeque stand for grilled chicken, but the women working said she was out and would have more tomorrow.  I came back the next day, not sure if she would remember me, and when I walked up she said “you’re late!”  There was only one piece of chicken left on the grill that she said she was saving for me because I said I would come back.

Mai? Mai. Mai! mai. Maii.

Thai language is made up of 5 tones (high, low, rising, falling, & mid-tone) and one word can be said 5 ways with 5 different meanings.  A word that sounded simple at first, Mai, which I just understood as “No”, also means “new”, “fine”, “silk” or “yes-no?”.  I am far from understanding how to pronounce the different tones and language is still one of my biggest challenges, but just trying goes along way and most people will correct my Thai with a smile.

Spicy, sour, bitter and sweet with rice.

Just like the language, traditional Thai food is complex and full of many flavors at once. Most dishes are based around rice or noodles, and can be spicy or ‘Thai spicy’.  At restaurants they offer chilies, fish sauce, sugar, and salt to amp up the flavor.  Even something as common as pad thai can be prepared more than ten different ways, with different spices, meats, and vegetables.  I am still getting used to the tangy fish sauce and just how much spice I can handle.  Meals are also eaten communally, where each person has their own bowl of rice, the dishes are shared and you take one spoonful at a time. Most meals are pretty informal and the communal feel is relaxed and enjoyable.

Motorbikes rule the road

Learning to ride a motorbike has been one of my favorite things about living in Thailand. The freedom to explore other districts and small towns is addicting and driving on the highway is exhilarating.  In America I would see a handful of motorcycles on the roads and thought of motorbikes for racing or on country back roads.  But here motorbikes are the main mode of transportation and it is not uncommon to see whole families on one bike at a time.  I hate to admit that since my first blog I have had more than one burn and a scratch or two, but this is one aspect I am fully enjoying!

Squat toilets, bucket showers, & bug netting

Since being in Thailand I have moved around quite a bit, from a hotel, to a technical college, a Buddhist temple, and now a rural hill tribe village, with weekend trips in between.  Before Thailand, I had never used a squat toilet, taken a bucket shower or slept with a bug net before, but with everything else, after a few times (and some funny mishaps) I am used to them.  Each place has had varying living conditions, most are without bug netting, a stand up shower and flush toilet, but at least the “how the heck do I use this?!” moments are over and I am not surprised to see a hose instead of toilet paper anymore.

Whenever I start to really get comfortable I have moments when it hits me that I am actually living in Thailand and I have something new to adjust to.  I will not be fluent in Thai anytime soon and I still gasp when I see parents holding their babies on the motorbike on the superhighway, but travel is necessary to help you understand that things are constantly changing and you can find new comforts when you are open to new experiences.  It is also important to know that you can move to a new country, or even just a new city and still find your rhythm and routine with a new way of life.

Subscribe to this blog to read more about life abroad, Thai culture, Buddhism, and the Wat Doi Saket Project.

By Katherine Devine



Photography Corner – Lawa village part 1

This photography corner is broken up into two parts.  Recently the ATMA SEVA team went to the Lawa village outside of Mae Sariang for one week.  The purpose of the trip was to help Katherine, our current on-stie intern, get set up as she will be living and teaching there for two months.

It was an action packed week and some of the highlights were hiking out to local farms and helping to harvest rice, visiting neighboring Karen villages, learning about Lawa culture, and seeing the auk pansaa ceremony.

Auk pansaa is the day when Buddhist lent ends and there was a ceremony at the local village Wat.  The first thirty minutes or so, was chanting in the temple.  Before coming to the Wat, everyone brought banana leaves with flowers, incense, and a candle wrapped up.  After the chanting everyone lit their incense and candle and proceeded to walk around the main temple three times.  The reason for walking around three times is to pay respect to 1 the Buddha, 2 the dhamma (Buddha’s teachings), and 3 the sangha (Buddhist community).  After three times of walking around and chanting, everyone left their flowers/candles/incense in front of the temple.  By attending this ceremony it is believed that you are making ‘merit’ and gaining positive karma.  Auk pansaa is also some what of a celebration and all of the children in the village had a blast shooting off fireworks!

The reason we went to neighboring Karen villages was to find the father of one of the monks whom Katherine taught.  After talking to the novice monk we found out his village was close to the Lawa village, and thought it would be nice to bring the father a picture of his son, whom he had not seen for many years.  It took us around three hours to find the village as it is extremely small and there are no direct roads, but driving in the lush jungle with rolling mountains is not a bad way to spend an afternoon!  After finally finding and meeting the father, he was extremely grateful for the picture and glad to hear his son was doing well.  The village was extremely poor and ATMA SEVA will be working and collaborating with other local NGO’s to help as best we can.  Stay tuned for details how you can help or visit ‘Our Work‘.

Stay tuned for part 2 which includes pictures from the first day of school and English class!!

Click here to see part 2

Photos by David Poppe


Photography Corner – Wiang Haeng trip

ATMA SEVA went to Wiang Haeng to meet with a new Buddhist school we will be working with.  We visited the Thai/Burma border, a Shan refugee camp, local temples, Chang Dao caves, and a Dhamma center.

Hope you enjoy the photos!


Photos by David Poppe



Photography Corner – Mae Sai part 2

In Mae Sai part 1, the ATMA SEVA team went to the White temple and also Mae Sai.  On our second day, in the morning we went to Wat Thampla MaeSai also known as the Monkey cave temple, as monkeys roam around and live on the premise.  The temple is set right into the mountain and jungle and there are two caves you can hike up to.  There are great views and the caves are fun to be in and the Buddha shrines within are stunning.  There are quite a few monkeys and visitors are accompanied by local teenagers who carry bamboo sticks in case the monkeys bite or jump on people.

After Wat Thampla, we set out to find a very unique temple named Wat Maa Tong or the Golden Horse temple.  The temple is famous because of the abbot Phra Khru Bah Neua Chai Kositto, who is a former professional kick boxer, and has also helped the local hill-tribe community immensely.  He also teaches self-defense and muay Thai to the young men to teach discipline and give them strength.  The monks in this temple ride horses to collect alms in the morning, hence Golden Horse temple.  A while back a horse was donated to the temple and the abbot saw how the horse could help him spread the Dhamma.

We went for a hike next to the temple to try and reach a stupa on the mountain.  After about forty minutes of hiking we found a farm in the jungle where lots of horses were and we also saw the abbot, but he was unable to speak as he was in the middle of a seven day meditation.  The area was so mystical with a muay Thai training area, horse farm, and Buddha statues nestled into the lush green background.  We never reached the stupa, but we were overly satisfied with what we had found.

Stay tuned for the next Photography corner as the ATMA SEVA team went to Wiang Haeng several days after this trip!


Photos by David Poppe



Wat Doi Saket project – Washing the robes to clean the mind by Phra maha Ake

This morning I taught Dhamma to novice monks and after lunch I prepared my robes to wash by machine.  I went to the building with washing machines; it is a public place for monks and novices living here at Wat Doi Saket. The washing machines are about 500 meters from my room.

When I was walking to get there, I thought of a question about clean and dirty. “Why must I as a human wash robes every week like this?”.  After I thought of the first question, I got more and more questions about this. When I got there, all of the washing machines where being used, so I decided to wash them by hand at my room.

I brought the robes back to my room and also brought those questions to contemplate.  I started to think about the teachings and the beliefs that I have studied to support my doubts.  First, I thought of the idea from Buddhism that we have two parts, body and mind, for each human being.

After I got to my room, I prepared the things for hand washing.  I continued my thoughts:

“Body and mind are both able to be cleaned and get dirty but in different ways.  The body gets clean by taking a shower or by washing and it gets dirty by sweat, dust, smoke or other things. How the body gets clean and how it gets dirty, is easy to see with your eyes.  The mind, on the other hand, is not like that because how the mind gets clean and dirty are not easy to see with human eyes but we can see them by using ‘wisdom’ eyes”.

When I was washing the robes in the bath room, questions, ideas, doubts, and answers came up on the thoughts as a cycle:

“Now I’m washing the robes which are used for the body.  Whatever they got dirty from, they have to be cleaned by water with a machine wash or hand washing.  How about the mind?  How does it get dirty and how can it be cleaned?”

I stopped washing and tried to remember about the teachings of Buddhism that I have studied. I remembered this:

“According to the teaching, the mind of human beings can be cleaned and can get dirty but it does not get dirty from the things like the body does.  The mind gets dirty from the things coming through seeing, hearing, smelling, eating, tasting, and touching.  How about my mind?  How can I clean my mind at the same I am cleaning my robes? The teachings tell that we must clean it with Dhamma, but how?”

The doubts came more and more. Then I figured out how to stop these thoughts. “Thinking-norh..Thinking-norh..Thinking-norh” and “Doubting-norh..Doubting-norh..” ; this is one way to meditate.  And then I finished washing.

After I brought the robes to hang out, I knew that all the times my thoughts came up meant I made my mind get dirty from the doubts, thoughts, and many questions created. However, everything can be both good and bad.  So if we know the way to get the good and the bad from each thing, we can get it.  It depends on what you want, how you get it, and where you get from.  Considering the doubts, thoughts, and questions happening to me today, they seemed good but it also meant I was making my mind dirty until I was able to settle my mind.  Usually, every day we get a lot of garbage that our mind has to process.

Today, my robes got dirty but I washed them with water and my hands.  My mind got dirty and I washed it with the Dhamma and knowledge; a way of meditation.

How about you? How does your mind get dirty? How do you clean it?

By Phra Maha Ake

Read more from Phra Ake

“Changed thinking killed the anger”

“Giving (Dhana)”