The Size of My Shoes and the Eiffel Tower: A Thank You to ATMA SEVA and My Monks

*Brady is an ATMA SEVA volunteer who has been living and teaching at a Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai for one and a half months*

The ATMA SEVA team picking me up at the Chiang Mai airport!

The ATMA SEVA team picking me up at the Chiang Mai airport!

Talking to my Thai friends – most of whom are my students, who are all novice monks – I find there are many things I don’t understand about the world of a Thai person. By the same token, there is much that these novice monks do not quite get about the Western World. As a result, lots of our discussions with each other are centered around the exchange of cultural and geographic knowledge, which I absolutely love. However, we sometimes hit snags in the conversation when a topic is especially difficult for one of us to grasp. I have recently encountered two such topics that shocked my monk friends to the core: the size of my shoes and the size of the Eiffel Tower.

During my first week here one of my favorite dogs – I call him Lucius – ate my shoes (scene: “Lucius, No! Lucius what are you doing? What did you do? Oh my god. Oh no. You ate them, didn’t you? Why, Lucius? Why would you do that?” *falls to his knees and shakes his fists at the sky*). It was a traumatic experience, especially to have so soon after arriving in Thailand, but my parents sent me some new hiking boots, and within a few weeks, a brand-new shoe box was sitting in my room, waiting to be opened. As my friends in orange robes crowded around me, curious as ever, I procured my new pair of shoes. Silence fell among them. They looked at the shoes, then at my feet. “I think they are wrong size,” one muttered. “Too big,” said another.

“No,” I replied, “right size for me. Size thirteen.”
“No,” said another monk. “Wrong size.” I shook my head.

What ensued was a solid thirty minutes of them inserting their feet into my shoes, which they began to call boats, and making shocked exclamations about their vastness. Eyes widened, mouths opened, and every pair of feet in the room were placed next to mine in comparison – some more than once – which resulted without fail in a round of gasps, whispers and statements of utter disbelief.

A similar reaction, minus the foot comparison, was elicited by explaining to the novices the size of the Eiffel Tower. Of course, they know all about Paris and France, but none of them have ever had the opportunity to travel there. In their minds, the Eiffel Tower is a medium-sized statue/monument, not the enormous metal monster it really is. So, when I showed them pictures of the crowds of people standing beneath its four humongous legs, their shock was palpable. “Same size Wat Srisoda?” one novice asked me in a cautious voice.
“Same size as many Wat Srisoda,” I answered.
“Oh I don’t believe you!” laughed my friend Chert.

What really stuck with me was how similar their reactions to my shoes were to their reactions to the Eiffel Tower. It’s funny what you learn about perspective when you live in another country, especially when you get to spend time with some locals. As much as you have the potential to expand their schema for understanding the world, they can do the same and more for you. What had always seemed fairly normal to me – giant buildings and even bigger shoes (or is it other way around) – turned out to be completely extraordinary for my friends. When you learn to think within the frames of other cultural contexts, it can allow you to see the world with more amazement. From now on, when I lace up my…boats, or look at a massive piece of art like the Eiffel Tower, I hope that I will be able to channel some of the shock I saw in my monk friends, and allow myself to better appreciate just how extraordinary and incredible things in this world really are.

Me with the head English teacher at the temple!

Me with the head English teacher at the temple!

Learning to see the world in new ways is one huge benefit I’ve gained from living in Thailand. I’ve been able to experience a ton of new and exciting things that I never thought I would be able to. However, I would never have gotten to have so many incredible experiences, or develop such close friendships with Thai Buddhist monks, without the opportunities provided by an incredible organization for which I am extremely grateful. That’s why I’d like to end this post with a huge thank you to the NGO I’m working with here in Chiang Mai, ATMA SEVA. ATMA SEVA, which means “selfless service for the soul” in Sanskrit, truly embodies the concept expressed in their name by promoting valuable service, as well as the development of meaningful relationships with people here in Thailand. Without the opportunities they have given me, I would never have been able to experience Thailand and Thai culture as deeply as I have. I have become very close with a group of monks, who come to my room to hang out and practice English outside the classroom nearly every night. My experience working with ATMA SEVA was summed up in a few words by my friend, Choo, when he said to me last night, “Before I met you, I didn’t dare to speak English.” Cultural exchange, English teaching, and friendship. That is what ATMA SEVA is all about.

Visiting a local cave with other ATMA SEVA volunteers!

Visiting a local cave with other ATMA SEVA volunteers!

In the spirit if gratitude, this post is dedicated to my monk friends Choo, Chert, Winachat, and Gee, who have taught me way more than I could ever teach them; as well as to David Poppe, ATMA SEVA’s Program Director, who has been around to support me and provide a constant stream of amazing opportunities and exciting new experiences since I’ve joined the ATMA SEVA community. Thanks guys!

You can see me teaching in the classroom at 1:55 in the newest ATMA SEVA video!

*Brady has just began a gap year abroad! To read more about his adventures, check out his personal blog!

written by: Brady Gilliam


Many Monk Misconceptions

Before I came to Thailand, I had never met a Buddhist monk in person. Sure, I’d seen pictures, maybe a clip or two on tv, but I’d never actually sat down and had a conversation with a monk. In my head, monks were shy, quiet people who dedicated their lives to meditation.  I’m not quite sure where I got this idea, but it is a stereotype that I’m sure I wasn’t alone in believing.


See, monks can use cameras and cell phones too!

After arriving in Thailand and spending a week in Chiang Mai, I had the opportunity to live at Wat Doi Saket, a temple located about thirty minutes outside of the city and the hub of ATMA SEVA’s volunteer program.  My time at the temple was my first exposure to monks.  Despite my expectations, some of them were actually quite outgoing, approaching me and greeting me in English! I quickly realized that most of my ideas about monks were wrong, or at best were a gross generalization.

Men enter the monastic community for a variety of reasons: to continue their education, to learn more about Buddhism, or to make merit. Some stay for a week, some for a year, and some for a lifetime. You can become a monk, disrobe, and then decide to join again at some later date. There is no expectation of a lifelong commitment. Many men will become a monk for a few weeks or months during Buddhist lent or during summer holidays as a way to “make merit”.  Often times the motivation to “make merit” is for family members, their mothers, or because of a recent death in the family.

The majority of novice monks (boys under the age of 20) join the monastic community because they lack the financial resources to finish their education.  Becoming a novice monk is free and a way for these young men to complete their high school degree.

Another misconception I had about monks is their lifestyle. I envisioned meek, quiet souls who spoke little and spent most of their day meditating. The reality? I saw monks talking on cell phones and watching movies! It’s easy to forget that underneath the shaved head and saffron robe, the novices are just teenage boys.  As novices, they certainly live with more rules and restrictions than the average teen, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t still teenagers at heart.


Novice monk enjoying some good old homemade waffles!

I’m glad that I had the chance to meet a variety of monks in person and see where my preconceptions were not a complete picture. For those who aren’t able to drop everything and travel to Thailand tomorrow, a Skype based “monk chat” is an excellent way to get to learn about the life of a Buddhist monk.  ATMA SEVA offers monk chats with some of the monks from Wat Doi Saket for only $10 a person, money that goes directly towards a scholarship fund for the monks.  These chats are a great chance to ask any questions about Buddhism, what it’s like to live as a monk, and more.


Recent monk chat at Wat Doi Saket between two resident monks and students from a high school in Connecticut, USA!

Please contact us at or leave a comment below if you or someone you know might be interested in an ATMA SEVA monk chat!

Jamie Shannon, On-site Intern

Photography Corner – Wat Doi Ku

Wat Doi Ku is a very small temple located just outside the district of Doi Saket. (click here for google map)  There are only four monks who stay here, but starting next semester (June) the temple will have an additional five novice monks.  This temple offers great views of surrounding districts and lush green rice paddies.  This is also a location that volunteers from our Wat Doi Saket project can stay and teach at a local government school.

Hope you enjoy the photos and stay tuned for more Photography Corners coming soon!

Photos by David Poppe

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

Wat Doi Saket Project – Lessons from the classroom, teaching at a Buddhist temple

This week was my fifth and final week of teaching at my first temple (Wat Pra non ba get tee) and the start of final exams and winter break for the novice monks. It has been a busy five weeks but I enjoyed teaching, getting to know the novices, and being a part of the school. I would like more time with the classes to see them progress further but I am happy to have spent the time with them that I did and know that they are excited about the next volunteers to come and teach.

Wat Pra non is a relatively small temple, located in a district outside of Chiang Mai, settled in between rice paddies and quiet streets with a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains. On the grounds there is the school, in two separate buildings, an outdoor eating area, the temple, pagoda, a small building to house the monks, kitchen, community space and a radio station for talks on Buddhist history, philosophy and healthy living (tune into FM 98.25 MHz!) A series of small gardens are placed around the grounds with hidden statues and wooden signs with faded white writing.  Tombs for the deceased monks line the back walls of the Wat in a row of brightly colored statues. The temple houses a large “reclining Buddha”, where his right hand out symbolizes his death and entering Nirvana. The walls of the temple are painted with detailed images of the Buddha’s life and his teachings.

The Wat is often used as a space for local events, including lectures, community meetings, and religious ceremonies. Local vendors come in to deliver bags of rice and jugs of purified water, and stay to chat with the monks and novices. There is even an “ice cream truck” that peddles in everyday after lunch for a cold treat to sneak in before noon, after which time the novices and monks can’t eat. Stray cats and dogs roam about for the leftovers after lunch and then relax for an afternoon nap in the shady gardens.

One of the novice monks who is from a Karen village

Only five novices and three monks currently live at the temple, and although that number fluctuates slightly throughout the year, it is still pretty small. During the week, one hundred and fifty five novices are bused in from other temples around Saraphi and surrounding towns to attend school here. Many of the novices are originally from hill tribe villages and farming communities outside of Chiang Mai and have ordained as a novice for a variety of different reasons -Thai tradition, financial strains, religion, behavior or problems at home but predominantly they are sent because their families cannot afford public school. I imagine it must be very hard to be away from home for so long at such a young age but some novices are fortunate to be with friends from their homes. One group of boys in particular came from a Karen village a few hours away and were able to ordain together at the same temple. Their village school is very small and poor and can’t afford basic resources for the students. The boys taught themselves some basic English reading and writing and ordained to complete high school. Despite the fact that Wat Pra non is also small and relies heavily on donations from the community and lay people, the school makes regular trips up to this village to give extra books, supplies and food to the people. It is amazing to see that even those who have very little still give all that they can to help others.

Afternoon gathering of all novice monks at the school

The school has six classes of novices broken down by age, from twelve to nineteen, and ranging in size from nine to fifty five, for a total of about one hundred and sixty students. Teachers are highly respected in Thailand and the classes begin with the students saying “Good morning teacher” in unison and end with a big “Thank you teacher ”. This surprised me the first few days; even the class of fifty five thirteen year old’s settled down just long enough for a proper greeting. The main focus of the volunteers teaching is conversational English and it is fun to watch the novices break out of their comfort zones and begin to speak with more confidence, even if they are just repeating words. Some are very nervous about speaking in front of the class or even to the teachers but most are just excited to learn, practice new words, and play fun games.

It is clear that many of the students want to have better conversation skills to communicate and connect with others outside of the monastic community. Thais are very friendly in general and do their best to make conversation with you anyways, even if they can’t speak English. I would like to work on improving my Thai to communicate better with the novices, and the students appreciate it to see that the teacher is learning along with them.

Along with the six classes of novices, I have also been teaching very informal English lessons with the other teachers at the Wat. The teachers would like to learn more English not just for general conversation but also for business and traveling. The principle of the temple school, who is a monk, mentioned he would like to travel to India to see the birthplace of Buddhism.  He said that if he had better English he would be able to speak with other monks there and it would be a more meaningful trip. This was encouraging to hear how teaching English can help even the most unlikely of students.

The teacher’s class is also a great time for me to practice my Thai and learn more words and phrases. One of the first classes I was trying to introduce classroom vocabulary and I pointed to a chair. Chair in Thai is Gao-ii (pronounced “gow-ee”) and chicken is Gai (pronounced “guy”). As I was teaching, they all started looking under their chairs and laughing. It wasn’t until I repeated myself a few times I realized that I was saying, “…this is a chicken, you are sitting on a chicken, I am sitting on a chicken…” Laughter and having fun is very important in Thai culture and it helps in many situations, especially learning a new language.

Although I have had a lot of fun and learned many things so far, there are also challenges to teaching in a foreign language classroom. The novices are all at different levels of English and basic classroom instructions are difficult to get across, especially with larger classes and on days when the Thai teachers are not there to translate. I have learned to slow down my speech, speak a few Thai phrases, and use classroom objects, drawings and body language to communicate instructions and new words but it is difficult to know if all the students understand fully. The other English classes are taught in Thai and focused on grammar, reading and writing but very little on listening and speaking skills for conversation.  This is why the Wat Doi Saket project focuses exclusively on teaching conversation.

The English teacher and I in the classroom

Another challenge has been getting used to “Thai time”. Classes are usually at least 5-10 minutes behind schedule and some days they are cancelled altogether. One day, class was cancelled for the principle to talk to all the novices about the importance of attending class. Other days the teachers did not show up, students are called in and out, and classroom space and materials are sometimes not available. As with any job, one frustrating day can not deter you from coming in with a smile the next morning, and having a relaxed and positive attitude is a must. Everyday after lunch the English teacher would hand me the keys to the office and tell me to “relax now, drink coffee” and I gladly would. When something was confusing or didn’t work out the teachers would often say “Mai ben rai” (don’t worry about it) and of course “sabai sabai” (take it easy).

The last day of teaching I was amazed by the appreciation and generosity of the teachers and the novices. I received a few goodbye notes and gifts, including an over sized teddy bear called Vanilla, aka Vanilla Ice. I also received two handmade bags from the hill tribe village mentioned above and a glass bird statue from the markets. The novices were proud to hand me their written good bye notes and I was just as proud to get them. I will be teaching at different schools throughout this year and will not be returning to teach here but I know they are excited for new volunteers and I had a great experience and learned a lot that I can take with me.

Next week I am moving into Wat Doi Saket and will be staying there through the end of October.  Check out the Photography Corner this week for pictures of Wat Saraphi and my students, and don’t forget to subscribe to this blog!

By Katherine Devine

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