Sustainability at Plekwiwaek Dhamma Center

I studied Agroecology in graduate school, and have been working in organic food certification for nearly a decade.  For the last couple of years I held a comfortable management position at a mid-sized nonprofit in Oregon, USA, but I still felt that At Mae Joe ag fairsomething was missing.  I needed anadventure!  An acquantaince of mine was interning for ATMA SEVA and I learned about sustainability ventures at Plekwiwaek Dhamma Center in the far north of Thailand along the border with Burma.  I have now been at Plekwiwaek since October and will be here for six months.

Plekwiwaek was founded seven years ago on the principle of experiential learning, or what they call “learning by doing.”  Many of the novices at the center are from theThreshing rice Shan ethnic group in Burma and left that area due to the armed conflict between the Shan, ethnic Burmese and other groups in the region.  As such, many of the novices have a nebulous legal status in Thailand and the future of Shan State in Burma is unclear.  Only a small percentage of the novices will become monks, so it is a goal at the center to equip the boys with life skills that may help provide them with a future livelihood.

Hauling dirt at construction siteSustainability is a major focus at the center.  They farm organically and the novices are trained in composting and sustainable farming techniques.  Early construction also utilized locally renewable materials.  Novices made handmade bricks from a mixture of mud and rice hulls.  They assembled the buildings themselves, including learning electrical and plumbing skills.  Currently a large dorm is being constructed, with much of the labor provided by the novices themselves.

Recently Plekwiwaek entered a partnership with Mae Joe University, an institution outside the city of Chiang Mai, that has installed some renewable energy sources at the Dhamma Center.  The project is actually funded by a large Thai energy company.  To date, we have several solar lights, a small wind turbine, and a large solar dryer for food preservation.  A donor recently gifted reusable plastic bottles to the novices to cut down on waste.  We were fortunate to attended an agricultural fair at Mae Joe University this month that feature several sustainability exibits.  The Plekwiwaek director, Dr. phra achjarn Thanee Jongjen, received an award for his pioneering work in this area.

Novices at Mae Jo ag fair

Plekwiwaek also performs extension work.  The Center has trained some of the Rice harvest with reusable bottlessurrounded community on organic farming and sustainable building techniques.  We regularly host groups (often from other countries) that are interested in learning about these topics and community development in general.  Just a few weeks ago, a group of nearly 90 schoolchildren from a nearby village came to the center for a day to learn about sustainability and its relationship to Buddhist principles.  The future of sustainability in Northern Thailand is looking bright!

Corinne Kolm

info@atmaseva.org

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Photography Corner: One year in Thailand

Katherine Devine was an on-site intern with ATMA SEVA from August 2012 – 2013. Below are photos from her year in Northern Thailand!

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Photography by: Katherine Devine

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Photography Corner: Street Food of Chiang Mai

ATMA SEVA generally uses our Photography Corner as a way to highlight smaller and lesser known places around Thailand, usually including temples and cultural sights.  These are all wonderful insights and amazing places to see and I am so glad to have seen them through the Photo Corners.  However, I have seen a noticeable lack of the wonderful, amazing, beautiful…. delicious street food that Thailand has to offer!

As an on-site intern in Chiang Mai I have been partaking in many of the street foods and food stalls that can be found around the city and have found many hidden (or not so hidden) gems.  The foods range from fresh fruit and smoothies to grilled meats and fried snacks.  There are noodle stands with the ever famous pad thai and noodle soups to salad stands with deliciously fresh papaya and other fruit salads.

The options are endless! And cheap!  With a smoothie running you about 20-30 baht (less than a dollar) and salads and noodle options in the dollar to two dollar range I have been able to try so many items and yet feel like I have barely scratched the surface.  I generally go to a few main places near my house but you can find food on just about any corner in Chiang Mai at any time of the day (or night!).

Some of my favorite locations include a market for students right across from Chiang Mai University, the Sunday night walking street, the Chiang Mai Gate Market, and a night markett off of Huay Gaew on the way to Chiang Mai University.  One of my absolute favorites is at Chiang Mai gate where you can find Mrs. Pa’s smoothie stand.  She makes the most ridiculously delicious smoothies I have ever tasted!  She lets you chose any amount of different fruits from her smorgasbord of options, sugar or no sugar, and then blends them up to perfect consistency while smiling, chatting and working on the next smoothie in line at the same time.  And all for 20 baht! Her smoothies are SO good that she has had several articles written about her including one on CNN’s travel site which you can see here:

http://travel.cnn.com/explorations/life/best-smoothie-chiang-mai-887475

A huge part of what makes Mrs. Pa, the smoothies, noodles, soups and all of the other food so great is that I am always greeted with a smile 🙂 and even though we may not understand each other completely every person has been so gracious and so willing to make sure that I walk away happy with some delicious food in hand.  It is a win-win situation: great food and great experience!  Needless to say I am quite in love with the street food of Chiang Mai and its vendors!

So without further ado, here are some pictures of my favorite foods and places to get them in Chiang Mai!

WARNING: All pictured foods are very delicious.  Drooling on your keyboard may ensue.  We take no responsibility for damaged keys.  Thank you and enjoy!

Amy Kaylor, on-site intern

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Kathin ceremony at Plekwiwek Dhamma Center

Chula Kathin is a yearly ceremony held at Plekwiwek Dhamma Center featuring the handmade production of monk robes directly from raw cotton.  Local women from Karen and Lisu tribes turn cotton bunches into dyed and sewn robes in under 24 hours!  Six ATMA SEVA staff members and volunteers were fortunate to go to Wiang Haeng district to participate in the event, held each fall.

The roots of the ceremony go back centuries.  Historically, monks were itinerant, traveling nine months out of the year.  During their travels, they would collect scraps of cloth for their robes from charnel grounds (locations where people are layed after death).  During the three months of the rainy season, however, they stayed at a temple and did not travel.  Thus, they were unable to collect cloth during this period.  To supply them with fresh robes and gain merit, local villagers would make them new robes at the end of each rainy season.  At present, most robes are mass produced and purchased, making the ceremony where a handful of robes are still handmade at Plekweiwek Dhamma Center very special.

Step one: Pick the cotton

Most of the raw cotton came from Myanmar, however several bushes grow at Plekweiwek. Attendees honored these bushes through a flower and incense offering that celebrated their bounty and then picked the cotton.

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Offerings under the cotton tree

Step two: Readying the cotton for spinning

Impurities and seeds were removed from the cotton bunches by hand.

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Preparing the cotton

Step three: Spinning the cotton into yarn

Cotton was fluffed and fed slowly onto a spinning wheel (it sticks together like the pull-apart Halloween spider web decorations).

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Stringing the cotton

Step four: Weaving the yarn

Cotton yarn was threaded onto a simple loom and then woven together, creating long pieces of cloth.

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Taking the cotton from the wheel

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Weaving stations preparing the cloth

Step five: Dyeing the cloth

The cloth was dyed overnight for twelve hours using the center bark from a local tree that was steeped in a vat of hot water.

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The center part of the tree is used for the orange dye

Step six: Preparing the robes

The fabric was dried and sewn together into saffron robes.

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Weaving and sewing the robes

Step seven: Presenting the robes

Robes were presented in a special ceremony. The festival attracted visitors who flew in from as far away as Bangkok.

Below are pictures from the ceremony!

Corinne Kolm, on-site intern

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What Else Could I Ask For?

Experiencing different aspects of ATMA SEVA’s programs, especially teaching and interacting with monks, is an amazing part of my experience here in Chiang Mai. However, my working experience at Doi Saket could not have been amazing without the improvisation from a colorful life style that any intern may live in during their time at Wat Doi Saket.

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Me at Wat Doi Saket!

Doi Saket temple is very beautiful and enriched with amazing decorating styles. The paintings on the walls of the Vihan, the entrance to the temple, and the statues all truly reflect the long, glorious and vibrating culture and history. Every day at Doi Saket is a happy day for me. For each day, I spend at least 20 to 30 minutes for an easy walk or a hike around the mountain and the temple with my music. There are a lot of quick ‘hi’ back and forth between myself and the people around the temple, as well as those who pass by. Starting my day by waking up early for a quick chat and breakfast in the Wat’s kitchen has become my favorite habit at the temple. It reminds me of a lot of my childhood when my mom would wake me up early in the morning of a normal school day for a quick breakfast and rush to school. The kitchen ladies, like my mom, basically want to feed me to death every morning.

I feel so fortunate that ATMA SEVA put me to work with a group of teachers in the same office at the temple. Though I felt like a new comer to their place, in just a short while I was made used to the place and made to feel at home. They are like brothers and sisters to me. Being caring and concerned about your well-being is how they are. I foresaw myself very homesick after having been there for a long while. But no, I was just right there at a place I could call home. The friendliness, hospitality and emotional support they gave to me are immeasurable. Every lunch time, there are always jokes around the lunch table. We talked, and we made jokes. Even though there were a lot of language barriers in our communication at first, we always tried so hard to learn and get to know more about each other. This is a really unique chance for me to get to know more about Thailand in terms of its culture and the commonalities between Cambodia and Thailand. I taught them Khmer, they taught me Thai. As time went by, our cross-cultural communication skills improved quite significantly.

Downtown is within a walking distance from my work place. You have access to almost any kind of necessities you may need. It’s a small beautiful town, full of friendly people. I made friends with so many people in the market, in the stores and in the small restaurants. When you look like a stranger to them, sure you’ll catch their eyes. All you need to do is to say a simple ‘Sa Watt Dee, Krup’ to them. They will sure greet you back, and with an additional smiling face. In the evening, one could always find cheap and fast foods to eat on both sides of the street. The social environment is just perfect for those who are tired from work and looking for a spot to seat and relax with amazing Thai food. I was very lucky to get to know a very friendly Thai family who has their shop nearby the market. I got invited for a visit to their garden family and for a cooking session.

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Me with my new friends in Doi Saket!

What’s most fortunate of all, they have a Muay Thai training camp that I could have free access to training with boxers and a trainer. There, I got to practice a lot of Muay Thai, my most favorite martial art/cultural sport, with other interns from ATMA SEVA as an evening exercise. Just five minutes away from town, there is a beautiful fish pond where I spent a lot of time at. It is a great place for refreshing one’s mind with fresh air. You can go for a quiet walk or a run around the pond; and it is also a great place for reading.

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Muay Thai training!!!!

This is what an intern’s life would look like in their off duty time at Doi Saket. Of course, there are still so many other places and more activities to be explored and get involved in, depending on one’s personal interest. The point is: no matter what life style one may be used to before coming to Doi Saket, experiencing a different way of life in Doi Saket during one’s internship is truly a worthwhile one. In addition to getting involved with interesting and enjoyable education programs, the internship truly gave me a chance to be surrounded by amazing people, colorful natural and social environments, and delicious Thai food. So what else could I ask for?

Click here for more information about internship opportunities with ATMA SEVA!

written by: Kimhean Hok

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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