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

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Photography Corner: Shan Cultural Festival

Northern Thailand hosts amazing cultural diversity. I find the Shan people to be of particular interest because all of the novices at Plekwiwek Dhamma Center where I am living are Shan. Most Shan reside within the borders of Myanmar (formerly called Burma) in Shan State. Myanmar has experienced decades of ethnic and political strife. Many Shan people seek independence from Myanmar in recognition of their unique cultural and language identify from the Burmese ethnic group. Although recent years have found relatively stability in Myanmar, the area where I am living continues to host many refugees who fled the violence between the different ethnic groups in the region.

In early November I was privileged to attend a Shan cultural festival that was located at a nearby temple, Wat Phra Wiang Inn. This temple is literally on the border with Myanmar. During an armed conflict in 2002, the temple grounds were divided between Thai and Burmese control. Today a fence runs through the traditional temple compound with various buildings located on separate sides. There are now Thai and Burmese army bases on opposite sides of the fence. For the past decade the temple has also hosted a refuge camp for Shan people who fled the war in their home state. The future of Shan State and the Shan people living in Myanmar and Thailand, including many of the novices who came to the Center directly from Myanmar, is unclear.

Corinne Kolm, on-site intern

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Custom travel – Three week learning adventure Part VI

Below is part VI and the last entry of Raghav’s custom learning adventure from 2012! If you missed it, here is Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, & Part V.

23 July 2012 

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Comparing ID cards

Today was a pretty simple day, with my conversations with the group from Shan State being the highlight. We had a very interesting conversation today, comparing cultures. They got an American – Indian perspective of my life and I got a Thai outsider perspective from them. We compared each other’s problems and challenges in life. Compared to them, mine seemed very insignificant. Most of their comments ranged from how to find work, finding and relocating their families from Burma, living with segregation, and more. This conversation was definitely an eye-opener for me to appreciate the opportunities and privileges my background offers, and the challenges that others face in their daily lives.

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Group discussion!

24 Saturday 2012

Today, on the whole, was a very cultural day. I started the day off with a lesson in the National sport of Thailand: Muay Thai. David and I had two guys teach us some different techniques of the sport such as kicks, punches, and blocks. It was really fun learning the sport that I had seen people here watching so often, even in the remote hill tribes.

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David and I with our Muay Thai teachers

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The whole group getting ready for food!

After our lesson, David and I headed over for our next discussion to the Best Friend’s Library. A lot of people didn’t show up today, so I was able to have a much more intimate conversation with the ones who were there. Today, each person brought their favorite dish from their origins. One girl was so excited, she brought three full dishes of food! The food was very similar to Thai, just with a little more meat and seemed a lot spicier to me! It was really fun trying all their types of food and hearing that they all love pizza and pasta, most said they could it every day! In addition to the food, we continued our comparison of perspectives of each other’s countries. This conversation seemed to be, universally, the most interesting for me and for everyone else.

With our discussion coming to a close, we all decided to go out to dinner as it had been awhile since we had gone anywhere as a big group. We decided to go for Mexican. It was a fun dinner with everyone!  After dinner, Natch and his girlfriend Im dropped me to my hotel. We shared some local fruit and talked a little. Then it was time to go to sleep!

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David, Nid, Marcia, me, Ji, Natch, and Im ready for Mexican food!

25 July 2012

Today would be my last full day in Chiang Mai. It is amazing how quickly three weeks flew by! I started off the day with a cooking class. When I first heard the idea of cooking, I wasn’t too excited about doing it, but I tried it anyway. A guy came to pick me up in a car and took me to the restaurant I would be learning at. A nice lady greeted me there, and we both went to a small open market very close to her restaurant. We bought all the things we would need to cook with and brought them back. It took me about three hours, but in the end, I was able to learn how to make three different curries, papaya salad, mango dessert, and much more! I was glad that I took the chance at doing something I hadn’t tried before!

After they dropped me back to my hotel, it was time for my last discussion at the library. Today was a pretty short discussion because most of the people had to leave early for work and other things. We had a very informal conversation with everyone about their lives, parents, romantic interests, and very simple conversations. At this point, only about 5 were coming to the discussions, but I felt very connected and comfortable with each one of them, more so than I probably would have been if it had been a large group. We did some closing activities and took pictures there with Garrett. As always, it was kind of a melancholy goodbye as we had gotten to know one another.

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Last group shot with Garret at the Best Friends Library!

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Nid and I wearing traditional Thai outfits!

Everyone was pretty tired from going out to a late dinner from the previous day, so we decided to end the day early because I also would have my long flight back tomorrow. We did however first go to Nid’s costume shop and tried on some of her elegant costumes. After, I went to the hotel and fell asleep for the big day back the next day!

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written by: Raghav Agarwal

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Custom travel – Three week learning adventure Part V

Below is part V of Raghav’s custom learning adventure from 2012! If you missed it, here is Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV.

Interested in custom travel? Click here for more information!

20 June 2012 

Today, we woke up at the farm around 9 in the morning. Dtee had already left to go to work in the fields. Heading out in the light rain, we rushed back to the village because we were slightly late for our talk with the kids. We reached the village and freshened up quickly and went to the school. The kids were in their classrooms. When the students leave the classroom, they chant “thank you teacher” in English. We went to the room and the kids come in one by one. While I start looking up some more pictures on my iPad to show the kids, Moi brings me a cup of coffee, showing that she also has opened up to me (she was one of the shyest ones).

We start off the discussion with a funeral presentation from the kids. The two explain the process once someone in the village passes away. It was interesting to note that funerals here were not a one day thing. There were many ceremonies, and the burden was not just on the family, but everyone in the community participated. It was a rule that within three weeks (approximately) a family who has lost someone will not be left by themselves lonely for a single day. When it was my turn, I presented briefly on Hindu funerals as I didn’t know too much about either American or Indian funerals.

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Relationship discussions

After our funerals presentation, we started talking about relationships (boyfriend/girlfriend). Both the guys and girls were shy and laughing throughout the discussion. When my turn came, even I was a bit uncomfortable because everyone was giggling. It was a fun topic though, and it was one of the most interesting things that we talked about with the kids.

We then went to Nid’s uncle’s house to hear a few more presentations, with the principal also joining us. I noticed that everyone presented something except one. Upon questioning him, we found out that he came from a different village (Karen); a village that was converted to Christianity and had lost its culture with time. It was kind of disappointing to see such an ancient and rich culture destroyed by another to get some followers.

After all the presentations, we said goodbye as this was our last day of discussions. We took a few pictures with all the kids. We exchanged Facebooks and emails IDs. It was so cool to think that I could keep in contact with kids so far off from my home. We then met up with the principal again and took some pictures with him. He gave me a guestbook to write in and I wrote a note of thanks to the people and the kids.

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Group shot!

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Me with the principal and Nid.

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Me with Nids Dad.

Upon arriving home, we got ready to learn how to work with bamboo, with Nid teaching us. I made a lot of mini baskets, but I got her dad to make most of the harder parts. It was nice of him to teach and help us. When Nong Beau came home for the first time she asked me for help with her alphabet. We practiced together, and I was amazed at how well she knew it! I was also glad that she had finally opened up to me!

When Moi came home, I asked her whether she wanted to go play volleyball. We went and some of her friend’s came with. It started to rain, and we played for a long time in the rain. It was a ton of fun! After her friends leave, Moi and I played badminton with Nong Sai (one of the children of our house) watching.

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Me with Nong Beau practicing the ABC’s!!

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Trying on the traditional Lawa attire

Tired from playing for such a long time, Moi and I headed home. When we got to the house, the family surprised me with a traditional Lawa costume. I tried it on (with Dtee’s help), and we took pictures with Nid’s family as this was the last opportunity we could. I was taken aback by the kindness of the family throughout my stay with them.

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Me in the traditional male Lawa attire

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Hunting for eels in the rice paddies!

Once we were done with dinner, Dtee decided to take David and me out eel hunting because this was something typical that farmers do that I hadn’t seen. We went to some nearby farms to do so. We looked hard for some eels but we couldn’t find any. At one point, my flashlight ran out of batteries, which was the scariest experience being on thin steppes in the pitch dark. Ultimately, we couldn’t find any because apparently they hide when it is raining. Coming home, I was exhausted from the day’s events so I just fell asleep after getting killed in some arm wrestling matches by Dtee.

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Arm wrestling with Dtee!

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Group shot with Nid and her family!

21 June 2012

Today, we had to get up early in the morning because it was the day we had to go back to Chiang Mai. Everyone was already up waiting for David and me. Moi and Nong Sai said bye because they had to go to school early today. Nong Sai gifted me with a Lawa bag. I was surprised because my communication with her was minimal, so it was really nice of her! I decided that next time I come to the village, I will get her something. After they left, everyone started giving me gifts; I was very appreciative of their kindness! I got a ton of Lawa bags. Pee bit even gave me several handmade hair-clips for my sister. After receiving such hospitality, I did not feel like leaving the village at all.

After saying bye and promising to come back soon, I set out with a truckload of people (me, David, Dtee, Nid’s dad, two of Nid’s uncles, oo, some other Thai girls, and of course Nid) and things to drop off at the village. This time along the bumpy road, we only had to get out of the truck once. Along the way, I started talking to some of the Thai girls on the truck. I learned a lot about them. They were all Catholic, and they told me about the many churches that we saw on the way. I also told them a bit about my own religion because they seemed very interested in that there were many other religions practiced in the US other than Catholicism. During our conversation, it started raining very heavily, making our ride so much more enjoyable!

We reached Mae Sariang and Dtee dropped the girls and our suitcases off at the bus station. Then, we went to go get a Thai massage and said bye to Nid’s dad. It was kind of sad saying bye because it had been such a good time with him. I got ready for the massage by putting on some massage clothes. It was an interesting experience. It was extremely painful (my left calf hurt for days) but it did have a refreshing and healing feeling to it. After our massage was over, Dtee came to pick David and me up while Nid finished her massage. He dropped us all at Leelawadee restaurant, and we said bye to him as well. This was also sad because we had spent so much fun time with him!

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Getting ready to go back to Chiang Mai.

At the restaurant, I got some noodles (I was pretty tired from the trip there). After lunch, we left for the bus station. We got into the van after packing everything. I went into the window seat and enjoyed the long ride back and also slept for a while. Upon reaching the city, we took a taxi to the hotel where I would be staying (Rainforest Boutique). David dropped me to the room and left for his own home. I took a hot shower. For the first time ever, I started appreciating ‘luxuries’ like hot showers after the freezing cold bucket showers in the village.

Natch then came to pick me up, and we went on his bike to the shopping mall to fix a camera. We had dinner at Pizza Hut (we chose this because it had been awhile since I had had something not Thai!). We talked about my experience at the village and continued our previous conversation about how people can be truly happy even if they are poor. After, we left the mall and drove around the city. I saw a really cool temple on the way made of wood and gold. We also a ton of bars and even more lady-boys than I could imagine. After a quick drive around the city, Natch dropped me off at the hotel. I soon after fell asleep.

22 July 2012

Today, I started my discussions with Burmese refugees from Shan State at the Best Friend’s Library NGO. (Find them on Facebook) Before we started our discussions, I was given a briefing about the political situation in Burma at present because, to be honest, I didn’t know much about the military dictatorship there. I was shown pictures and books, and David and I talked a bit with Garrett, the director of the organization. This day was ice breakers and introductions, as all the first days had been. It was a bit intimidating this time because they were all older than I, mostly in their twenties. They were also pretty independent and much more mature than the others had been.

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First day of discussions at the Best Friends Library.

After our late discussion, we headed out back to the hotel and got ready for dinner. We decided to go to Khun Churn restaurant, a vegetarian Thai restaurant that my dad had really enjoyed when he was here. The food was alright and the ambience was really awesome!

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At the night safari!

After our dinner, we decided to go to the Night Safari that night. There, I got to hold and  feed a baby white tiger! It was actually pretty scary because, even as a baby, this guy was strong and aggressive! Before the actual safari, we got to see an awesome show with lights, dancing, and waterworks! On the safari itself, we saw other bigger tigers and many other animals on our safari. We even got to feed some of them such as giraffes and monkeys.

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David, me, Marcia, Nid, and Natch at the night safari!

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written by: Raghav Agarwal

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Photography Corner – Wat Pa Pao

Wat Pa Pao is small Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai, located just outside of the old city walls in the North West corner. Built in the late 19th century, the Wat is one of the main cultural and community centers for Shan people. Shan State is the largest state in Myanmar, located in the North East corner of the country, bordering Thailand. Also known as Tai Yai, there is a large population of Shan people living in Chiang Mai, many who have fled from civil war and human rights abuses. The temple shows remnants of Shan architecture, including level tiers above the pagoda instead of classic Thai points and Shan script written on the temple walls. To see another example of a Shan temple, check out our photography corner from Wat Ku Tao.

Wat Pa Pao got its name because it was built surrounded by a forest of “Pao trees”. “Pa” translates to “Forest” in Thai, and so it is the temple of the Pao Forest. The inside of the temple is only open to the public on Buddhist holidays and special ceremonies and festivals, including Poi Sanglong, where young Shan boys become ordained as novice monks in a extravagant event lasting a few days to one week.

The Wat Pa Pao Foundation to Support Education, Art and Culture was set up in collaboration with funding from the Japanese Embassy to create programs and run a school for Shan people and youth, including classes for novice monks. The school has over 180 students, and although the classes are conducted in Thai, the school supports Shan culture, history and language through a variety of other activities and events. The Foundation also works with the Thai Freedom House, a community learning center working with Burmese refugees. Through the “Hill Tribe Assistance Program” the Thai Freedom House places volunteers to teach language and skills classes at the Wat.

Katherine Devine, on-site intern

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ATMA SEVA – First impressions of Wiang Haeng

Welcome Maria

Me (center) with two other ATMA SEVA on-site interns

When I was first told that I would be spending the next four months living in Wiang Hang, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I studied the tiny speck on the map and wondered what life would be like there, what stories the people had to tell, and what new adventures lay ahead. The past two weeks here have indeed been an adventure with no two days the same. But this is exactly the type of adventure I was hoping for. After living in Bangkok for 3 months, I was eager to move to a more rural area where I would have an opportunity to learn more about Thai culture and challenge myself to learn Thai.

The area I am in is actually comprised of multiple townships, each with its own distinct culture, language, and story to tell. Within a 15 minute car ride, you are able to visit a Karen village, a refugee camp that has an expansive solar-power project, and a village with Chinese roots (complete with traditional dress and red Chinese lanterns hanging from every home). The majority of the people in the region, however, are from the Shan State in Myanmar. In spite of the diversity in the area, the one aspect that is universal is the importance that Buddhism plays in each of their cultures. Every temple and pagoda is different – each one reflecting the stories and culture of its members.

novices construction Wiang Haeng

Novices helping with the construction

I am currently living in Pleekwiwek Dhamma Center, along with thirty novice monks and three monks. Pleekwiwek serves multiple functions: it is a dhamma center and meditation retreat, the home and training center for the novices, a community center, and a model for self-sufficiency. The founder of the center and current director, Dr. Phra Ajarn Thanee, received a master’s degree in agriculture, a fact that very much shapes the way the center is run. The novices grow a majority of the vegetables and rice they eat right here at the center. In addition to learning about farming, they learn how to make bricks out of mud and cement and have built a number of the cabins on the grounds. Novices learn to value the homes they have built for themselves, the food they have grown for themselves, and even the cotton they have grown to make the robes they wear. Therefore, the boys who have lived here have not only had the opportunity to attend school and learn about Buddhism, but also learn valuable life skills that they can apply to future life endeavors.

Pleekikweewak

Shot from Pleekwiwek Dhamma Center

In spite of my efforts, I still struggle to pronounce the name of the Center correctly (at least, the locals don’t seem to know what I’m saying), however, as soon as I say that I am teaching at Wat Kong Lom and am working with Dr. Thanee, everyone kindly reminds me of the correct pronunciation: Pli-wih-wehk. It’s clear from their reactions that Dr. Thanee and the work he does is an integral part of the community. This is also evidenced from the number of training camps that have taken place here in the past few weeks.  The trip here started with an English camp which was followed by a weekend retreat with over one hundred students from the local government school learning about Buddhism and sufficiency economics, a few days later we had a flock of women working frantically to prepare decorations for blessing a new construction site, then we received a group of soldiers who helped plant numerous trees on the grounds, and then we hosted a large retreat for all of the students from Wat Kong Lom.

I am excited to be here and see all of the activity taking place around me. I never would have expected that that little dot on the map could be so full of life and yet so peaceful.

I have been working in the field of community organizing and event planning for many years, but I decided to come to Thailand to learn more about how community development takes place in developing nations. Pleekwiwek has been a great experience in teaching me more about sufficiency economics and the way that a community that is so diverse can come together as neighbors to help one another.  In the short time that I have been here I have learned more about Thai culture, language, and Buddhism than I have in the previous 3 months living in Thailand!

Buddha view Wiang Haeng

View from Wat overlooking Wiang Haeng

I am eager to continue learning – learning about northern Thai culture and all of the diverse groups in the region. I have already learned three new ways of saying “hello,” I’ve been anointed with a Thai name, and have heard numerous folklore stories from the region. I am also excited to begin teaching English. The people in the region and the novices I am working with are just as eager to learn about me, my culture and my language as I begin to teach at Wat Kong Lom temple school.

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Maria

maria@atmaseva.org

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Photography corner – Wat Ku Tao (Chiang Mai, Thailand)

Wat Ku Tao is a temple located near Chiang Mai municipal stadium, close to Chang Phuak road.  It is most famous for its Chedi which is shaped like ‘melons’ or ‘alms bowls’ stacked on top of each other.  It is rumored that there are ashes of Burmese royalty (Prince Saravadi) buried inside of the Chedi.

This temple also hosts many Shan State events, including the Shan New Year.  Shan is an ethnic group within Burma.  In Thailand Shan people are refereed to as ‘thai yai’.

The temple is located in a quiet Thai neighborhood with lots of small ‘mom and pop’ shops.  It is worth a visit to see the unusual Chedi and to absorb the quaint surroundings.  Shan state new year falls around the middle of November (based on lunar calendar) and if you are in Chiang Mai, it is a festival you do not want to miss!

 

Photos by David Poppe

david@atmaseva.org

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