Ever Since I Heard of Bhutan….

Dragons, Dzongs and Divine Mad Men!

Ever since I heard of Bhutan, I have wanted to visit. It was 2009 and I was studying for my Masters of Intenational Health when I came across a paper mentioning Bhutan’s development measure of Gross National Happiness. I was intrigued. Then over the years I became more fascinated by Bhutanese ideas, culture and development. Bhutan was declared the first country to be 100% organic in 2012, declared to maintain 60% forestation across the nation and a rich Buddhist tradition spanning thousands of years.

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It was by chance that I was fortunate to be able to visit in December this year. I had already planned a substantial overseas adventure with a cycling trek from China into Myanmar and beaching in Thailand, I was all set. A work colleague and friend from another town happened to be visiting when I was just firming up my plans and mentioned that she would be in Thailand at a similar time to the end of my trip and really wanted to organise a tour in Bhutan, but had no-one to go with…..Wow!

What was I going to do? My leave was already approved and I didn’t have enough holidays banked up to take any extra time, not to mention the additional cost on top of my already pricey trip! It seemed like too good an opportunity to forget about though. An ATMA SEVA tour with a slant on traditional medicines in Bhutan, na-hu, no way was I going to miss this! Untitled

Thankfully I have a very understanding boss who was more than happy to extend out my leave for another 9 days at half pay so Stef and I could gallivant amongst the clouds, drinking tea and smelling lemongrass and ginger all the way.

We met in Bangkok the evening before our flight into Paro. Both of us were exhausted from our respective travels to that point. I’d been on busses and ferries for the previous 10 hours and Stef had just arrived from a boozy family wedding weekend in Phuket (beats the ferry anyway)! Words cannot describe the anticipation. I was psyched! I had already been to Myanmar earlier in the trip, another bucket list dream that ended on a slightly sour note.  So I was determined that this would top it. And it did!

Stef and I were blown away by how accommodating the ATMA SEVA team (Sonam, UntitledGyembo and Sangay) were. I certainly wasn’t used to travelling in this style, with this much genuine interest in what I desired to do each day. I feel like anything I have to say, or any photos I share will not do justice to the fabulous job each of these 3 did in sharing the Bhutanese culture with us.

We were met at the airport terminal by the whole team and whisked over the mountains and through the valleys to the capital Thimpu. There was never a moment of silence from the second we arrived. So many questions, so much information and people so willing to share their culture and personal thoughts and feelings! After having travelled in China and Burma earlier in the month it was refreshing to not have to ‘read between the lines’.

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A visit to the National Institute of Traditional Medicine was a special treat as our guide Sonam was an old friend of a professor of botany there so we were able to Untitledexplore every aspect, even the pharmaceutical unit. Stef and I were like children in a candy store in the library. I could’ve spent the entire day reading, touching, smelling the books!

Stef was a bit worried about how the altitude would affect us. I had been as well as I hadn’t coped well initially in China. The excitement of being in the mountains was too much though. I wanted to throw myself into every experience, even if it meant freezing my nose off at the Dochu-la pass overlookingUntitled1 the Himalayas, puffing my way up to the Tigers Nest or immersing myself into the steaming hot stone bath. I was captivated!I was more concerned that I wouldn’t fit into my wardrobe anymore. Bhutanese food is amazeballs! Rich and cheesy, buttery and chilly-ee… In the words of my dear friend George, every morsel was like ‘Jesus rubbing your belly’. Ahem…. Perhaps I should rephrase that the say Buddha rubbing your belly. Except perhaps for the dried yak cheese…. Not big on that one!

It’s so hard to discern a highlight for this aspect of my trip. Every day was unique Untitledand held its own delights and challenges (physical and personal).Stef dubbed Bhutan ‘the land of surprises’.  Each day held an auspicious moment that told us that we were exactly where we were meant to be every moment. From brief glimpses at the King and Queen, sightings of other Royalty, to blessings from young reincarnates of enlightened monks years gone by. I was mesmerised by the mountains, the architecture and nature. The culture, peace and serenity with which people conducted themselves….. I think I was drunk on “Gross National Happiness’!

Danielle

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

 

Photography Corner: Art in the Concrete Jungle

While it may not come as a surprise to most, but many people view Bangkok as a dirty, crowded and grimy city (except perhaps the Siam Center area, with the extravagant malls and decor). But it is usually not recognized for its art. However, within this large and chaotic city, you can find some beautiful, and maybe sometimes misunderstood, art just walking along the streets.

When walking around a lot of neighborhoods in Bangkok you can easily stumble upon art that may represent some factor of Bangkok life and culture. It may also be completely random and confusing. But either way, it is a representation of this city. In many cases there is a stark contrast between the amazing art you see in front of you and the slums it is surrounded by. It is also fascinating to see this kind of art with grand skyscrapers in the background – which really tells you the story of how Bangkok has grown and is still growing.

Street art is quickly becoming an embedded part of Bangkok. As a result, the very first Street Art Festival was held earlier this year. It was such a major event that the Bangkok Arts and Cultural Centre gave over 400 square meters of exhibition space over to street artists, which was the biggest exhibit of its kind.

So while Bangkok may not be well known for its art, when you’re in the city always take a look at your surroundings – you never know what you might stumble upon.

Katie Davos, research intern

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

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

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Photography Corner: Koh Tao, Thailand

Koh Tao is a small island in the gulf of Thailand, just beyond Koh Samui and Koh Pha-Nang on the western shores of the gulf. Also known as “turtle island”, Koh Tao is a tourist hot spot known for its amazing snorkeling and diving in the crystal clear blue waters surrounding the island. The marine life and coral reefs are still surprisingly healthy despite the steady stream of people, and dive sites range from lush coral to looming rock formations and even a ship wreck. Whale sharks have even been known to make appearance around Sail Rock, a world class site for advanced divers. Although Koh Tao is close to the full moon parties on nearby Koh Samui, this island has a more relaxed vibe with people focused on outdoor sports like diving, hiking, rock climbing and biking. There are of course bars and good night life around Sairee beach, the largest stretch of beach and main hangout on the island, but the best parts of this island off of its shores.

Getting to Koh Tao is pretty easy but can be a lengthy trip depending on your budget. If you are short on time, there are flights into Ko Samui and Chumpon from Bangkok, which take only an hour but can cost considerably more. From there ferry services run to Koh Tao daily.  If your traveling on a budget like I was, I would recommend taking the bus from Bangkok down to Chumpon and then the ferry to the islands. I booked both my bus and ferry tickets in one package with Lomprayah, and the cost about evened out if I booked each separately. I would highly recommend them if you are looking for an easy reliable service! (http://www.lomprayah.com/E/index.htm)

Once on the island there are dozens (if not hundreds!) of places to stay ranging from small hostels, to beach bungalows to 5-star resorts. I went to the island with no reservations and found a cheap little bungalows on the southern tip of the island for only 300 baht/ night. However if you are looking to travel during the high seasons I would definitely recommend booking ahead as little island paradise fills up fast. If you are looking to scuba dive, and you absolutely should be, there are dive shops all around the island where you can sign up for course for open water certification, advance your existing certification or just dive for fun in shallower waters with a guide. You can also just rent a snorkel and go out and explore for yourself!

Below are photos I took from my trip to Koh Tao in August. Unfortunately even with an underwater camera I wasn’t allowed to take the camera diving but I hope you can still get a sense of the beauty of the island. If you have any questions about traveling to Koh Tao please leave a comment below!

Katherine Devine

info@atmaseva.org

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ATMA SEVA photo exhibition in Cabo San Lucas!

Hello everyone, I am back on the blog again…and as most of you know I was in Thailand volunteering in 2012. I had received so much while I was in Thailand, that when I got back to Mexico I began working towards a fundraiser event. It all started as a small family and friends get together, and slowly progressed to a lovely event held at the Cultural Pavilion in Cabo San Lucas.

Over my nine months stay in Thailand I had taken over 14,000 photographs. I decided to print some of them thinking that maybe I could sell some and raise some money for scholarships and ATMA SEVA.  It took months to select just a few among thousands. I wanted to show all of them lol, but that just wasn’t happening. I learned that digital photos and printed photos are two very different worlds. I had to learn about aspect ratio, printer profiles, sizes…etc. It was indeed a lot more work that I could have possibly imagined, but the thought of giving something back was a great fuel for my engine. I was very excited to organize this and in the end it all paid off.

After looking at my photos over and over and over again, selecting…I got a bit overloaded so I asked my niece Daniela and my friend Karena to help which was an excellent idea; their input meant all the difference; looking at the photos from a different perspective helped me narrow the thousands to hundreds. After months of planning and working I was able to constrict the topics to only six: The beginning of the story, Thailand: Landscapes and People, Daily Life Style, Temples, Monks and Novices, and ATMA SEVA. It was a story told through photographs; what had taken me to Thailand and what I had seen there. The exhibition was called “A taste of Thailand through my lens”.

A lot of people got excited with the project and helped me. My mother took me to all the places I needed to go (I can now drive but not as much as I would like) she also helped with all the errands and supported me anyway she could. My niece Daniela, from Love Ideas, helped with all the planning and logistics.  My friend Mirna (from MX producciones) helped with all the permits and locations. My friend Heidi invited me to her radio talk show. The local radio station, Cabo Mil, helped with spots during the days prior to the event. My friend Adaisa donated all the photo framing from Marco Framing; her employee Aldo was an amazing help framing and handling all of the photographs. Nico, one of my students from ‘Bonaria carpentry’, helped with the set up and construction of the blackboards and display boards. My nephew, Luis Fernando, from Cantoya Studios helped adjust the ATMA SEVA logo for the event. My friend Nivea donated the cloth for the display boards and all the tablecloths. The Faraway Restaurant Lounge, in Cabo San Lucas, donated some food for tasting during the event. My friends Martha and Josefina helped at the photo selling station. Also, my friend Indalecio, from Los Cabos News came to the event to photograph and published an article about my story and how I got to Thailand! Many of my students helped that day with whatever I needed. So, as you can see this was a wonderful and successful volunteer-team work!!!

The team in Thailand led by David Poppe had set up a video to show at the fundraiser. The video was excellent!! I had been showing our YouTube videos during the exhibition and at the end we showed the video where David explains about ATMA SEVA and the monks chant a blessing for all the participants and donors at the event. Everyone loved it! Prior to showing the video I spoke a little about the experience, shared some anecdotes and I was shocked to see  how people showed great interest in what ATMA SEVA does, the monks, the food, and asked many interesting questions. One little girl asked about the girls in Thailand: “Why aren’t there any girls?” she said….I had displayed many girls but most of the photographs were of novices and monks. I was happy with her question which gave me the chance to speak about our huge project: the building of a school.

The day of the event Cabo was hit by a storm and we considered canceling it but in the end we thought best to continue and opened it anyway. We had a great turnaround, over 90 people showed up regardless of the heavy winds and rain.

A lot of people got involved and learned about our work. Many were intrigued by the culture and Buddhism. A very nice couple arrived early, while I was still getting things organized but they didn’t mind, they waited and stayed till the very end, wanting to hear me talk and watch the video.  During the set up as well as during the event I could hear people calling other friends telling them about what a great exhibition it was and asking them to come to the photo event.  I will forever be grateful to everyone who helped and believed in me and the project.

Planning and organizing this fundraiser was a unique experience, I am planning on doing it again someday when I go home. We would love for you to organize something like this and be part of our worldwide community; you can help us spread our work and raise money to help us for the school we are planning on building for kids less fortunate here in Thailand. If anyone is interested and would like more details please send me an email! (marcia@atmaseva.org)

Thank you sooo much to all of you who helped, believed in us, and made of this event such an incredible night. May you all be blessed with abundance and love!!!

I hope you enjoy the photos!

Again, huge thank you to all supporters and friends who helped make this event a true success!!!

Bonaria Carpentry, Nico Marchesi

Cabo Mil

Cantoya Studios

Faraway Restaurant Lounge

Heidi Von Der Rosen

Los Cabos News

Love Ideas

Marco Framing

MX producciones

Pabellon Cultural Cabo San Lucas

Platicando con Heidi

 

 

Marcia Somellera

marcia@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

Photography Corner – Tshechu: Festival of Mask Dances

Once there lived a boy, who had enormous faith in the gods because he spent most of his time praying. Another part of his daily routine was to sit beside his father, a painter. The boy watched his father jabbing the paint brush into his mouth every now and then, while painting different forms of art that resembles the mask dances that we see at different Tshechu (a festival of mask dances). However, the boy died a premature death in few years. There is a Bhutanese vernacular, “tshe ma zou lay metshe zo”, which means unfortunate death without completing his destined life. His spirit wandered in Bardo (according to Buddhism, the spirit of the deceased goes through a process lasting forty-nine days called ‘Bardo’ whereupon  the departed spirit either enters nirvana or returns to Earth for rebirth) where he witnessed all the characters in the mask dances. The only difference was that they were real ones. They displayed their dreadfulness in their demeanor; yet, the boy didn’t feel a moment of being afraid. Instead he watched them with great enthusiasm with their familiarity coaxing him. This is because while he was alive he saw his father draw their faces countless times. “They are just characters that my father used to draw with his spittle brush”, thought the boy.  It is said that this very incident led the wandering soul of the boy to find his way to the path of heaven.

This story highlights the importance of having the festival of tshechu in every part of the country. Tshechu are held in dzongs and monasteries annually. This is one of the most colorful festivals in the country where people from all walks of life don’t want to miss it. It is often seen as an opportunity for the people to gear themselves up with their best dresses, usually the bright, colorful and expensive ones. Apart from that the event also propels the people to have a great time to get together, socialize with one another.

Wangduephodrang Tshechu attracted thousands of people in its three days (12th-14th September) period. The unfortunate fire in 24th June burned the entire Wangduephodrang dzong to ashes, since then the annual tshechu has been held in the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) ground which is located a few kilometers away from the town. However, the open ground provided more space for the people to watch the mask dances than the courtyard in the dzong did. One of the most important and interesting features of the mask dances here is the Raksha langgu chham. It was first introduced in the 16th century by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. The myth has it that while constructing a cantilever bridge across the tshangchhu river during the day time, the people tried laying foundation for the bridge while the mermaid destroyed them at night. Thus, Raksha Langgu chham was introduced in order to distract her. It has been said that the mermaid disguised as an ordinary citizen went to witness the dance. She was mesmerized by the chham that she totally forgot about the on-going construction of the bridge. Meanwhile, people hurried their work and erected the bridge in her absence.

It is not just what people see these days that attracts them to come and watch the mask dances but the background stories and myths that each of them carries like Raksha Langgu chham, giving a very meaningful purpose of their existence. Similarly, every masked dance is introduced with a consequential message. Most of them deal with what happens after death to wandering souls. While some mimic the dances which are found in the paradise, one of such chhams is, Pa chham. Pema lingpa, a very renowned treasure discoverer in the 15th century was said to have visited Zangtopelri (paradise) in his dream. He saw a dance performed by yogis there. He then introduced the same dance here what is known today as Pa chham.

Enjoy the photos and for more details about ATMA SEVA’s travel options in Bhutan, please click here.

Jigme Namgyel, research intern

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

Photography Corner – Chao Mae Tuptim Shrine

The Chao Mae Tuptim Shrine is a small fertility shrine, located in a hidden area behind the Swissotel hotel in central Bangkok. The shrine is named after a tree goddess – a female spirit that is said to bless those that worship her. Within the shrine there are many (numbering over 100 in total) phallic carvings spread throughout, a symbol that is widely known as good luck for fertility. Women across Southeast Asia come to bless and worship at this shrine in the hopes of becoming pregnant.

Finding the Chao Mae Tuptim Shrine can prove to be slightly difficult if you do not know where to look. The easiest way is to go directly to the Swissotel hotel, which is right on Wireless Rd., off of the Ploenchit BTS station. If you ask one of the very friendly security guards where the shrine is they will happily point you in the correct direction, down next to the garages where you might just miss it if you don’t keep your eyes peeled.

The great thing about this location is that it is right next to the Chao Phraya River. Close by there is a pier where you can hop on a river boat taxi to other beautiful destinations throughout Bangkok.

Katie Davos, research intern

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org