ATMA SEVA – “What could possibly go wrong?”

Sawatdeeka, everyone!


A picture of me at Wat Doi Saket, where I lived for one week before heading out to the Lawa village of Pa Pae.

I’m Jamie, the latest on-site intern with ATMA SEVA!  I’ll be in Thailand for four months helping primarily with social media, and also some program development.

My first few weeks in Thailand have been quite the whirlwind!  I arrived to a balmy Chiang Mai night in late January and was greeted at the airport by several familiar ATMA SEVA faces- David (programs director), Nid (Lawa village director), Katherine (on-site intern), Alexis (on-site intern), and Natch (English teacher at Wat Doi Saket).  From then on, it’s been non-stop action, with a few curve-balls thrown in (despite Alexis’s repeated refrain, the title of this entry!) Some of these include an unfortunate, but relatively minor, motorbike accident involving Alexis and Stu (another friend of ATMA SEVA who has his own charity, getting stranded in Chiang Mai after finding out that the songthaews (a kind of a shared taxi) stopped early that day, a freak rainstorm that took out power across Chiang Mai, and a flat tire on the road to Doi Saket.

Now I don’t want to give the wrong impression here, Thailand has been great! These minor crises have actually been some of the highlights of the trip thus far.  In moments like these, we may panic just a little, but in the end, we look back and laugh (maybe not the motorbike accident, but the more than helpful Thai bystanders we met that day are a fond memory.  One woman even gave Alexis some tamarind root for her injuries!)  So, for example, the case of the flat tire.  This happened the morning after I was stuck in Chiang Mai, where I eventually was delivered to Katherine’s apartment and spent the night, when she and I headed back to Doi Saket.  Now Doi Saket is about a half hour outside of the city.  We had navigated most of the tricky parts, most notably getting OUT of the city on the busy roads, and had less than ten minutes on a straight away section to go when suddenly the bike started swerving.  Katherine pulled over and our investigation turned up a flat back tire.  Bummer.  Luckily, not five minutes later, a police officer on a motorbike pulled over to help us.  This is one of the great things about Thailand- whatever happens, help is not far away.  And not the kind of help that says “hey, how about a twenty for my trouble?” but the kind of help that is simply there to get you out of a rough spot.  This has been one of the most welcome surprises about Thailand for me so far.  Anyways, between Katherine’s Thai and my gesturing at the tire, the cop understood what we were trying to say.  He picked up his radio, clearly “phoning a friend”, and another five minutes later, backup arrived.  We hauled the motorbike up into the back of the truck, noticing that it didn’t quite fit.


Hauling Katherine’s injured motorbike into the back of the police truck for a lift to Doi Saket.

The response?  We were instructed (via charades) to climb in back and hold on to the bike so it didn’t fall out.  Ooookay! Luckily we weren’t far from town where the tire was repaired for the equivalent of about $6.  What a deal.

The point of this story is that when you’re traveling, or living abroad, things will go wrong.  You will not be aware that toilet paper cannot be flushed and you’ll end up clogging your toilet (this definitely didn’t happen to me….)  You will get stuck somewhere, or end up somewhere you didn’t intend, and have to find your way home.  You will most certainly be misunderstood, or sometimes just not understood at all.  These are all stressful situations, but in the end, there’s no feeling quite as good as when you find your way out.  The feeling of venturing out into the unknown, putting yourself out there, encountering foreign problems and surviving is one of the most powerful feelings that exists.  This is what drives me to travel and to explore the world as broadly and deeply as possible, not to mention the great stories that I’ll come home with after four months over here!  Every minute isn’t sunshine and rainbows, any traveler who says otherwise is kidding themselves, but the richness of my experience over here with the ATMA SEVA team is unparalleled.


Sunset over the hills of rural Pa Pae.

Right now, I’m living in Pa Pae, a rural hill tribe village south west of Chiang Mai.  This is an experience that I could never in a million years have conjured on my own.  It’s a unique challenge to be the only fluent English speaker for miles, but despite the rough moments, I wouldn’t trade my time here for anything.

I look forward to blogging more throughout my adventures with ATMA SEVA after returning to Chiang Mai next week!  Feel free to check out my personal blog for more of my ramblings and check out the ATMA SEVA Facebook page to see more of my adventures 🙂

Jamie Shannon


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

ATMA SEVA – Meet and hear from our new intern, Katherine!

Sawatdee-ka!  My name is Katherine and I am the first On Site Intern with ATMA SEVA! I arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand two and a half weeks ago, after a few months of planning and almost 38 hours of travel! I will be staying in Chiang Mai for one year, working with ATMA SEVA as an English teacher, contributing to this blog, creating the newsletter, coordinating volunteers, and helping to develop the website. I am currently living at Saraphi Technical College and teaching English to novice monks at Wat Saraphi.

In 2011, I graduated from the University of Vermont with a Bachelors Degree in Environmental Studies and a concentration in Community and International Development. During my freshman year of college I took a two-week travel study class in Ecuador to learn about land use issues and the indigenous populations. Again, during my junior year I spent a semester in Australia studying Rainforest, Reef and Cultural Ecology through the School for International Training (SIT). Both experiences abroad left me with a desire to continue to travel and do meaningful work in local communities.

After graduating college, I spent one year back at home in West Hartford, Connecticut (USA) working at an after-school program in an elementary school and part time at a children’s museum in town. With a year of experience in the classroom and an aspiration to work abroad, I began the job search.  I first heard about ATMA SEVA through a family friend in Connecticut and contacted David (Programs Director) to find out more. After a series of email conversations and skype sessions, my travel plans were finally becoming a reality and I was set to go!

My first week in Chiang Mai was a great introduction to the country and Thai culture. The first day, David, Marcia (a volunteer from Mexico) and I took a drive outside Chiang Mai to find and a friends house where a third volunteer, Sapphire, was meeting with traditional healers. Our plan was to meet her and explore the area. We ended up getting lost and driving on the motorcycle for close to three hours! I enjoyed the drive though and the scenery was beautiful; rice paddies, fields of palm and banana trees, and lush green mountains throughout the vast countryside. Even the roadside fruit stands and noodle shops have their own charm and beauty. This was my first time riding on the back of a motorcycle and the only thing David told me to be careful of was the metal pipe on the side. For my first day I thought I was doing pretty good, until I touched the pipe. Ouch what a burn! Marcia remembered an old trick to rub an egg white on the burn before it blistered and our search for the friends house turned into immediate medical attention… with an egg. The first few shops pointed to their fried egg dishes and chickens running through the grounds until finally, we stopped at a small family shop and got an egg and a bowl to treat the burn. The women running the shop also brought out a medicated cream, and through a combination of water, egg whites, cream and laughter about the situation, I was nursed back to health to keep riding. Another quick look at the map and we were back on the road. David realized we were close to Saraphi, where I am now living and working, so we drove through the town and stopped for lunch at a small noodle shop near the temple. It was closed for Mother’s Day (the Queen’s birthday) but the woman opened the shop for us and we sat for a rest, noodle soup with pork, and a cold beer. A great first day.

The motorcycle I was riding outside the noodle shop

The rest of the week was full of trying new foods, exploring the night markets and Sunday walking street, more motorcycle rides, learning new Thai phrases, a meeting at Wat Doi Saket, dinners, beers, and even a Monk competition, where local temples show off their school projects – science fair style. I also spent a day exploring “the old city”, including the Chiang Mai Cultural Arts Center, and browsing used bookstores. And to top it all off, massage parlors and spas are abundant and cheap. In the first week I got two one-hour Thai massages, each for the whopping price of 170 Baht or $5.45 USD. I could get used to this.

To end the week, we had a visit from Sonam Lhaden, our ATMA SEVA partner in Bhutan.  Sonam is the managing director for Bhutan and is responsible for all tours and projects within the country.  We spent Thursday touring many different temples throughout the city and in the mountains. We talked about cultural comparisons between Thailand, Bhutan and the United States, and differences between Theravada Buddhism (practiced in Thailand) and Mahayana Buddhism (practiced in Bhutan). To my surprise, we found many similarities between our different cultures and I learned a lot about living in a Buddhist country. It was wonderful to meet her and make new friends all over the world!

Group dinner! It was at a friend of Nids (Dave’s girlfriend) house. Her name was Dang and her home is in Mae Jo district. From L-R; Sonam, Dang, Nid, Im, Katherine

I moved into my room at the Saraphi Technical College on Saturday and began teaching that Monday. Saraphi is a charming district outside of Chiang Mai with long tree-lined streets and plenty of local shops and family life. My room is in a section of teacher housing for the college in a quiet corner behind the automotive shop.

Saraphi road

Monday morning I was woken up bright and early by my neighbor Nit, a teacher at both the technical college and Wat Saraphi, telling me to get dressed and ready for breakfast. With little time to get ready I stepped out of my room wearing a long black Patagonia dress and sandals. Nit looked at my shoes and shook her head, “No no no.” She turned back into her room, picked up a pair of bright orange cheetah print heels and handed them to me to put on. I tried to politely decline the shoes but she looked down at my sandals again, thought for a second and insisted. I put the shoes on and we walked to the eating area for a breakfast of rice, pork and a fried egg. The courtyard was crowded and soon I heard music playing over the loudspeakers signaling the start of the morning announcements as students lined up in the courtyard. I was introduced to a few other teachers and sat down for the announcements. Next thing I know I hear, “ATMA SEVA… Kat-er-een!” and all of the students clapping. Wait… what?! I walked clumsily to the front of the courtyard, stepped on stage and took the microphone. “Sawatdeeka” (Hello in Thai) The students replied Sawatdeeka and a deep “Wai” or short bow showing respect and then sat quietly. “Chan chew Katherine…. I am a teacher… I am from America… I am excited to be here…” It was short and sweet and I just laughed to myself as I stepped off the stage. That explains the heels.

Later that morning, in my own shoes, David and I headed to the temple for my first day to observe in the classroom. I was unsure at first about how to properly act around the monks and how much English they knew but I was quickly put at ease with how friendly, funny and willing to learn most of the novices are. Yes they are novice monks wearing saffron robes, studying Buddhist texts, chanting and living in the temples, but they are still just teenage boys at the end of the day.

My day of observation turned into teaching two classes in a row with David, including a class of 55! Although it is a large group the students are respectful and excited to have new teachers. Throughout the rest of the week I went over the same basic conversations with the classes and even started English classes for the other teachers!

First day in the classroom

It has been a long week and the first days I felt nervous and unsure of the lessons, but after only a few days of warm smiles and genuine laughter from both the students and the teachers I feel more confident in my teaching and my place at the school. I have a lot to learn about Buddhism, the novices, and teaching in general but I am looking forward to all of it.

I will be teaching through the end of September and then spending some time in the Lawa Village, five hours outside of Chiang Mai.  Subscribe to our blog and ‘Like’ our Facebook page to follow along for my adventures and more on teaching, the students, Buddhism, and life in Thailand!

Katherine Devine

My new email –

Wat Doi Saket project – Riding a bike in Thailand

I was standing outside the building, which I would be calling ‘home’ for the next 4-6 months.  Dave was standing right next to…..a Honda Wave! “I am going to take you for a small tour of the district”, he said.  Suddenly, an image from a movie came to mind:  Ben and Andy are going on their first date after meeting at the bar, and he points to his choice of transportation: a motorcycle, and says to Andy: ‘are you ready to go for a ride Andy?’… which Andy replies with the same question but different intonation: ‘are YOU ready to go for a ride Ben’? (How to Lose a Guy in 10 days)  Hahahaha….Was I ready to go for a ride?

Me? Get on that, for real? How was I supposed to hang on to my seat-cane and still hang on to the rider for safety? I was not an octopus! But adventure was part of the deal and after putting on a helmet, securing my seat-cane with a bungee cord to my waist, and wrestling with my legs and balance I was able to get on the back of the bike. Dave took off and I hung on to him for dear life!!!

The experience was great; I am not so sure Dave’s waist agreed though…I was hanging on hard! We went to look around Wat Doi Saket, to the fishpond, and to the Dam. What a wonderful ride that was!

While riding with Dave that first time I remembered the Elite Honda I used to own, a gift from my brother Emilio.  I loved riding it; I even rode it to the school where I used to work.  When I told this to Dave he insisted I gave it a try, not on his, but on Natch’s, which was a Scoopy, an automatic, much easier than Dave’s. I did. I was terrified and thrilled at the same time. Between my balance issues due to the neuropathy and my forgotten experience I wobbled but I did it and it felt amazing!

A few weeks later I saw myself searching for a bike! You ought to see the amount of bike markets and stores, used and new, it was a bit overwhelming making a decision. I opted to rent one first and to see how I did with it. I chose one that was not too high for my legs and not too heavy. The fishpond was the witness to my first lesson. Going around the pond, trying out the brakes, always-knowing Dave was walking around in case anything happened.  He was so nice, patient, understanding and encouraging.  Soon, my previous knowledge came rushing back and slowly my confidence grew stronger.  However, on the way back to the Wat I learned my first hard lesson; scared to ride it up the hill, I stopped and turned right in the middle of the ascent; long story short, the bike tilted to the side, I tried hard to hold the bike and kind of succeeded but it was scary and difficult!  I had bruises on both arms for days!

It is not hard to see that Thailand is definitely a motorbike country!  I have to say that maybe 75-80% of the population drives a ‘motorcy’.  Back home one could see a few motorcycles, mainly Harleys and Hondas but nothing like here. I have seen such a variety of bikes it is unbelievable!  Yamaha and Honda are the most popular but there are others as well. I was in shock when I saw the first PINK bike, so lady like, it made them look so easy to drive! Yes, they come in all different colors and styles: blue, orange, yellow, light-blue, purple, red…automatic, non-automatic….Fino, Mio, Amore, Scoopy, Wave, Dream….you name it.

When I first planned on volunteering I pictured the Monastery to be out in the wild with no paved streets, but this one does have paved streets and it is right next to a small town that makes it perfect for having a bike.

I have slowly gone from ‘holding on for dear life’ to ‘lifting both arms and happily feel the wind on my face’; no more bungee cord for my seat-cane or holding on tight, my middle section has gotten the ‘feel’ of riding the bike and now I can take a picture, drink a cup of coffee…..even carry a big laundry bag on my lap!! Hahahaha I know, crazy, huh?  But you have got to see what Thai people are able to do and carry on the bikes. I have seen: young girls all dressed up and wearing high heels; family of 3-5 on one bike; kids fast asleep on the back of the parent driving; animals balancing on their own in front of the bike with two paws on the seat and the other two on the handle; girls seated side-ways on the back texting, unworried.  Some bikes even have an extra front seat, specially installed for kids.

I feel very lucky to have chosen this program amongst many others.  Dave is great and is always there to help and make my stay a memorable one. Being a volunteer with the Atma Seva-Wat Doi Saket project has been a great experience.  It has allowed me the opportunity to teach (which is one of my passions) at the Buddhist monastery, but it has also given me the opportunity to ‘dive’ into the Thai culture; riding a bike has been an incredible way of doing this.

Bike hunting was fun and exhausting and I had mixed feelings: excitement and terror! But excitement won and thanks to my brother’s generosity I now have my own bike, an orange Yamaha Fino.

I am blessed with the opportunity of being here. Dave and I have been exploring the area, riding on the back roads, learning about Thai culture, enjoying the views, visiting markets, fairs, festivals, schools, Wats, parks, making new friends…riding along happily….and when we least expect it after a turn on the road, the universe has a peaceful sunset over the mountains reflecting the sunlight on the rice fields…a perfect way to wind up long riding days.

Riding a bike here in Thailand has been exhilarating! The sense of freedom, the sun hitting my skin, the music of the wind singing in my ears, the song in my heart, and an unvoiced, sometimes voiced, energizing shout in my lips.  After a few days of having my own bike, Dave asked me: “have you sung already while riding your bike?” I laughed so much because that was exactly the way I felt! Feelings are universal, after all.

Marcia Somellera