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

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

Custom travel – Three week learning adventure Part II

This is part II of Raghav’s custom learning adventure from 2012! If you missed it, here is part I.

Stayed tuned for part III coming soon!

10 June 2012 

Today, waking up I was very tired from the activities of the previous day. Shortly, it was time for our daily monk chats. Milan and a few other monks came to say hi and pick me up from where I was staying, a two minute walk away from where we talked.


Notes from our discussions

Today’s discussions went deeper than the previous day. Today, we started off with a scavenger hunt. The monks and I had to find a certain number of things they use in daily monk life (in two teams). After finding the things, we later talked about them. One of these included the robe of a monk, and we even learnt how to put it on. After, our discussion went into deep analysis of Hinduism and Buddhism. We talked about the roots and most importantly the concept of time as a linear and circular concept, tying in dharma and dhamma. Also, we talked about some of the questions I had about monks. I wanted to know why many of them decided to be a monk. I was surprised to learn that most of them had done it for the free education. Also, disrobing was a concept I had not heard of (a monk can choose to stop being a monk any time he wishes, I thought that they were monks for life). I wanted to know whether they wanted to stay or disrobe. I learned that most of them wanted to disrobe after their education: in fact, only two wanted to remain a monk. Today the discussion seemed to go really fast and before we knew it, it was time for them to go for lunch (some of them seemed to want to stay and talk more).


Milan and I talking about Buddhism


At the dam!

After our monk discussion, David, Natch, Marcia, and I decided to have lunch out at the dam. We went to the dam on our bikes. On the way, I even got to drive the bike! The dam was extremely beautiful (as most of things have been). We had lunch at a restaurant right on the side of the river. Seeing the river and many boats, we all felt like going boating. We talked to the restaurant guy, and he led us to go to his boat. We went on the river, and it felt like bliss. It was one of the most beautiful things I had seen so far in Thailand.


View from the boat!

We then decided to go to other districts just to see and cruise around. I got to drive with Natch on the back. We saw beautiful scenery. We even fell into a rice paddy after stopping to take a look at it! We then stopped at a local shop and got drinks and snacks. Then, we had to take the route back. I drove the bike up till the highway, where Natch took the wheel.

Coming back to the Wat, I was scheduled to meet one of the wisest monks there, Phra Ake at the main temple. There, I talked to him for about an hour about Buddhism and the paintings on the walls on the ceiling. I learned a lot from him and started respecting him a lot. I could almost sense the spirituality flowing from him. Unfortunately, we had to cut it a little bit short to go along with the schedule.


Learning about Buddhism from Phra Ake

We (sans Marcia) headed out to Nid’s costume shop for dinner. Nid sold all types of costumes for everyone. David told me about the concept of a ladyboy in Thailand. They were men born feeling they were supposed to be women and dress and like women. Some take it far such as hormonal implants and some just occasionally dressed up as women on the weekends. Nid got a lot of ladyboy clients because she sold costumes (clothes) for them.

My dad showed up in a while and immediately left to get his first Thai massage next door. We waited for him for dinner and eventually started eating. Nid was an amazing cook! After dinner everyone decided to go to the night bazaar. Anchille, Nid’s niece who was staying with them for college, also came with us. Natch and I roamed the market while everyone else made their way slowly. We eventually found some nice Thai shirts for me that we bought. My dad bought my sister many things.


Sunday walking street

12 June 2012

After we finished breakfast at the hotel, David, Nid, and many monks came to pick us up in an open van vehicle. David said that Natch would be meeting us at the foot of the mountain we were going to with most of the novices that were also coming. We got in the car and soon reached the foot of the mountain in about 30 minutes. During this time, it was nice to stick my head out from the car because it was beautiful weather and beautiful scenery.


At the waterfall

After reaching the foot of the mountain, Natch was yet to show up so we decided to walk around and see the waterfall we were at. En route the waterfall, we saw many shops. For the first time, I saw a bunch of cooked bugs that people were buying. It seemed absolutely disgusting to me, but Nid said some tasted alright and were similar to chicken.


Snack anyone?

We started trekking up a little where the waterfall was. We arrived, and I started climbing the rocks immediately. My dad joined me after a minute (although he didn’t even get close to how far I got!) and even David came up a little ways to dip feet in. I learned that the wet part of the rock is much more slippery than it looks as I almost slipped! One of the novice monks came with us, but he decided to stay and take pictures (so many people in Thailand who I had met were interested in photography).

We headed back after Natch gave us a call that he had arrived. We greeted him and split into groups again. I decided to go with Natch and Marcia and more of the novices because the pickup truck was much more open, and we could sit outside (enjoying the beauty!).


On the way to Wat Doi Suthep

This trip in the car was probably the most I was able to bond with the monks. Milan started the conversation with politics. We discussed the democratic republic of America, communism of China, and the constitutional monarchy of Thailand. All of these names for everything seemed meaningless when it all boiled down to the same thing. On lighter notes, they told me that they loved my hairstyle. We even started discussing American rap and pop songs. We all sang along to some popular ones like Jay Z and Eminem.


My Dad and I at Wat Doi Suthep

We reached Doi Suthep after a beautiful ride while we were literally in the clouds. We were supposed to climb up around 3000 steps to get to the temple, but I decided to go with Nid and Marcia in the elevator to “accompany” them. The temple itself was very beautiful. There were Buddha statues surrounding all the walls. To pay our respects, we had to take some lotuses and walk around the center Buddha three times. Each of the three times we had to think of three things: the Buddha, The dhamma (the teachings), and the sangha (the disciples) respectively. Although it seemed a little odd at first, I realized the power of it after we were done. We then lit an incense stick and put it at the feet of the Buddha for respect.

After paying our respects, we just walked around the main temple and saw different things. I went into this mini temple where Natch told me it was considered good luck if you picked up this heavy object with you pinky finger. Although it was painful, I was able to do it! I was excited for the luck. We all walked around and saw many Ganesha statues (again showing the Indian influences on the Thai culture). We also saw a string of different-sized bells where it was auspicious to go and ring each one. My dad did it. We also saw another gong we had seen before. We could not get it ring with our bare hands though (which Thai people thought of has having a bad karma!).

Going down the elevator, we met this Thai tour guide who asked if I were an America. He said he could tell from my mannerisms. I was surprised because most people can guess that I am of Indian origin but most people don’t know I’m an American because of my brown skin.

Going down the elevator, we met this Thai tour guide who asked if I were an America. He said he could tell from my mannerisms. I was surprised because most people can guess that I am of Indian origin but most people don’t know I’m an American because of my brown skin.

Marcia arrived at the foot of the temple. While waiting for everyone, we went into the market area, and I bought a little Buddha statue. Everyone then came, and we went to go get some lunch. I got some delicious noodles with egg and tofu. It was nice seeing the monks eat something as they barely ate (they weren’t allowed to eat anything after midday). Most of them even enjoyed some ice-cream.


Group shot at Doi Pui

After lunch, we set out for Doi Pui, a hill market type place. There were many, many interesting shops. David and I even tried our hand at shooting a crossbow. Each time I would miss by centimeters, and the one time David tried he hit the target straight on. As we moved on, my dad, Natch, and many of the other monks disappeared. The place when we got in the middle of it was beautiful and full of flowers. I went to the restroom there and it was one of those toilets that are dug into the ground. Not bad for a hill market, I guess. We then found this shop where you could try on some of the native tribe clothing. Nid, Marcia, and I got into the clothes and took some pictures.

After browsing around shops and seeing a bunch of clothes and other things, we stopped for a little nut snack. Then, we headed into the waterfall area. This was a very manmade area, yet it was extremely natural looking. There were beautiful flowers and bamboo plants all over, and of course, the waterfall was as beautiful as ever! We even saw a gigantic green and red snake sleeping on top of the hut!

We headed back, realizing that half of the crew was gone. We arrived at the car and saw that everyone was waiting for us at the car. My dad told me that he had seen some good Thai shirts for me so we went and got them. We then got back in the truck and set out for a meditation center that most people don’t know about.


At Wat Palad

Arriving there, the quiet of the center was noticeable. It was completely natural and outdoors. The only noise was the waterfall. We explored and saw some of the oldest Buddha statues in Thailand. Natch and I even ventured, climbed, and slipped up the big waterfall. It started raining so we had to hurry back to the car and head back to the Wat as everyone was very tired! I came back to spend my last night at Doi Saket.

13 June 2012

Today’s day started off with a discussion with the monks. Everyone was high off the excitement of yesterday’s trip, and everyone had opened up much more since the first day. Everyone was feeling kind of sad that this would be the last day for discussions.


Group shot of the novices from our daily discussions

We started by showing the monks pictures of my family and friends on my iPad. This interested them a lot, and they got excited recognizing my dad from the trip. We then started talking about the different types of rules novices, monks, and I had at home and at school. This discussion took us through the entire two hours and before we knew it, it was already time to say goodbye. After some quick pictures, the monks were off to get their lunch.    After getting lunch with my dad, we all, picking up Sapphire, went to see the hot springs. This was my first time visiting anything else like it.

Right when we reached it, we saw a normal-looking stream type thing. Natch told me that it was part of the spring. That seemed ridiculous because it seemed like completely normal water. As soon as I put my feet in I realized that it was extremely hot (I think the sign said 103 degrees). Natch and I went to the source of the water: the spring itself. We bought some eggs and put them in the water nearest the spring where they could cook. The whole place smelled like eggs, but I realized that it was the smell of sulfur. We went into the spring. There were two. We didn’t drench ourselves in the hot one because that was way too hot, but we did get wet in the cold spring. Our eggs also got cooked, mine were cracked, but Natch’s looked good, and we had a little bit of them. We then went into a naturally warm pool straight from the springs, except this was comfortable to swim in. After about an hour or so, we left and set out for the caves.


Hot springs

1Unfortunately, when we got to the caves, they were locked up by a little gate so it would be impossible to get in. Instead, we decided to just hike up the

mountain we had already partially climbed. It was a long hike up. I was most surprised because Sapphire was so extremely skinny yet she was ahead of all of us, with the most energy. After reaching the top, we saw the dam and trees we had passed through many days ago. We saw two gong instruments, and David and I started playing on them, and we even had a beat going! The Buddha statues at the top were beautiful as they were the main reason that monks came up here to meditate. It was beautiful. Again, we saw a Ganesha. I had a conversation with Sapphire when she told me that she meditated on the image of Ganesha because she had learned about him in the temples of her home in London. She was twenty-four years old and had already been to 68 countries already! She was probably one of the most interesting people I had met so far!


Tired after a full day of activities!

After reaching the bottom, we took the truck back and dropped Sapphire at the place she was staying. We were also extremely tired. I went back to the Wat and packed all my stuff as the next day I would be leaving for Nid’s village so it would be convenient if I had stayed at the hotel with my dad. Tomorrow would come the next adventure!

Click here to read part III

Written by: Raghav Agarwal

Custom travel – Three week learning adventure

During June of 2012, ATMA SEVA hosted a custom trip for a father and son, Rajeev and Raghav.  The father, Rajeev, would be touring and meeting with various traditional healers and learning about traditional medicine in Northern Thailand.  The son, Raghav, who was seventeen, had his trip designed to learn about teenagers from three different backgrounds.  Novice monks, teenagers from a Lawa hill-tribe village, and youth from Shan state.  He lived one week at a Buddhist temple, one week in a remote Lawa hill-tribe village, and one week in Chiang Mai city.  Each week there were daily discussions and the goal was to compare and contrast cultures, history, interests, and what it is like to be a teenager from each perspective.

Below is a day-by-day breakdown written by Raghav about his experience.

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Arriving in Chiang Mai!

Wednesday June 7, 2012
When I arrived to Chiang Mai I was a little nervous to leave the baggage claim because it was going to be my first time meeting David, who I would be spending the rest of the three weeks with. He was waiting for me outside with his girlfriend Nid, and a Thai guy I would get to know well : Natch. They were holding a big ATMA SEVA banner. David already seemed like a nice guy, and so did the others, based on the way they greeted me and my dad. He handed us our homemade Lawa bags, which he had gotten from Nid’s village. Inside were our itineraries and phones.

After the airport greeting, we all got into Doi Saket’s special pickup truck. David and I started talking immediately. He asked me questions about myself and my family, India, what I do there and other things. Our first stop was the Rainforest Boutique hotel, where we would be staying that night.

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Everyone meeting at the night bazaar

After that we headed towards Chiang Mai’s famous night bazaar, where you can buy almost everything at a cheap price. Ellen and Ji, the two people my dad would be spending a lot of time with during his healing tours came to say hi to us.  I walked around with David and Natch, admiring the items like knives and t-shirts. We decided to have Thai food at the night bazaar. We stopped at a local, nice-looking restaurant. This was my first time having authentic Thai food. I found myself liking the coconut-milk soup, fried rice, and Pad Thai, pretty much almost everything. Thai food was great!

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First Thai dinner!

I was very tired after dinner, because of the long day in both Bangkok and Chiang Mai, so we decided to go crash at the hotel. David said he would meet me there and take me to Doi Saket. I fell asleep almost as soon as they left.

Thursday 8 June 2012
The day started with my father and I having breakfast at the hotel buffet. Natch came to get me after my breakfast. I packed my bags as I would be staying at Wat Doi Saket for the next five days while my dad would be at the hotel. I got in Natch’s old Suzuki and headed towards the Wat. This was my first one-on-one interaction with Natch, with many more to come. We had an interesting conversation about Thailand and India, Hinduism and Buddhism, poverty and riches. The main discussion was about how the poor work a lot and make nothing yet the rich barely work and make much more, all because of greed and corruption. The system is made so that only 2% are the ones prospering. I also learned a little bit about Natch’s background. He was a novice monk for eleven years of his life. Now, he wants the repay the Wat for teaching him by teaching the young novice monks (I had not learned the difference between a novice and a normal monk) for eleven years. So far, he has worked there for eight years. I assume that Natch’s years at the Wat have taught him this very Buddhist way of thinking of the system such as conquering anger and feeling that these little things do not really matter in the long run.

After arriving at the Wat, Natch showed me the room where I would be staying. Being used to air-conditioners, I was definitely apprehensive that there wasn’t one in the room, especially since it was Thai summer! Instead, there was a little fan which looked like it might not make it another three weeks. Aside from that, the bed and room itself looked pretty comfortable. Marcia was  also there waiting to see me along with David. Marcia was a volunteer who had been working with ATMA SEVA for around 6 months and was staying at the Wat with me, in the room across the hall.

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Views from Wat Doi Saket

David decided to show me around the Wat a little bit for an introduction to the place; so we cruised around the Wat with Marcia on a different bike. I had imagined the monastery to be a grim type of building (as old Christian churches appear to be in the movies). I saw, however, that Wat Doi Saket was more than just a building. It had its own district where people were living and working in places such as restaurants, garages and markets among many others. The Wat has its own grounds where there were various offices (Natch’s included), the temple itself, and numerous Buddhist statues. We started by going up the mountain where there were amazing views of the city. Up on the mountain, the grounds were amazing with Buddhist statues and lotus ponds. This was paradise.

We first saw a very interesting part of the Wat: they had their own animal zoo! Apparently, people donated many animals to the Wat to make merit, so they decided to make a little ecosystem to support them. The zoo has a variety of animals including peacocks, cats, dogs, chickens, pigs (wild and farm animals) tropical birds, and most surprisingly some crocodiles! After, we took a look at all the statues there. Here, I got a sense of the Thai culture based on the statues they kept at their Wat. Basically, Thai culture seemed like an intense blend of Indian and Chinese influence matured over hundreds of years. They had Ganesh statues, dragon statues, Hindu gods, Chinese myths, etc. I also felt that David was very interested in learning about me and my culture. As we walked around and cruised on the motorbike, we shared our first conversations about Hinduism: its ideals, its philosophy, and its influence on Buddhist culture. We walked farther to a place where the footprints of the Buddha were present. This was one of the holy sites of the area. David told me that many of the Wats claim to contain a piece of the Buddha’s body (finger, hair, etc). Although he did not seem to believe that this was reasonable, he seemed very respectful towards it, saying he takes it with a “grain of salt.”

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Awesome statues at Wat Doi Saket

We saw the rest of the grounds and then we decided to leave them as Marcia had to leave also and go see the school where another volunteer (Sapphire) worked. We met up with Nid, and she led us to the school as we followed on the motorbike.
When we arrived at the school, we were greeted by many smiling little students running after the bike. In the grounds they were preparing for some special ceremony. The elders offered us some food being prepared, but I did not want to try because it looked extremely spicy! We saw the kids studying with Sapphire playing a game in which they had a letter, and they had to come up with an object that started with that letter and make a picture of it. David and I joined in for a little bit of it. One thing that surprised me was the kids’ enthusiasm for learning. They also had respect for their elders and their teachers which they showed by folding their hands and bowing. It was amazing to see kids wanting to learn, as opposed to what I was used to in the US where going to school is the “worst” thing.

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Visiting an ATMA SEVA volunteer

After their class they said goodbye to us as we left for lunch. We started looking for random places to eat and eventually just settled on some noodles and rice. While we were driving around, we saw many gas stations and little family-owned shops selling food and other things. We stopped at one of them, and we saw some massive beehives and jack-fruit. We talked to the lady there with the little English she knew and the Thai that David knew (I had also picked up a miniscule bit by then). After talking to her about random things like where we were from (Thai people never talked about business for leisure as a rule!), she was kind enough to give us a humongous jack-fruit for free, and she told us to share it with the monks. This was one of the first tastes I got of Thai people’s extreme kindness. This was one of the things that struck me the most about Thailand, and I was getting a feel for it already: people were selfless, giving, and kinder than I had ever experienced.

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Cutting open the huge jack-fruit

After our little adventure on the motorbike, we started our main activity for the day. It was the first day we would be talking to the monks. As we arrived David went to the office to get something, and I was there alone with the monks. It was awkward there because they were as shy as I was hesitant. Fortunately, the monk with the best English, Milan, approached me and started asking me questions about myself. I was surprised by his courage to talk to me and his ability to speak English very well. I learned from him that he, before becoming a monk for educational purposes, was from Nepal. Therefore, he spoke a little bit of Hindi, my native language. In fact, he loved Indian music and movies as well. His favorite movie songs were some of mine (specifically Emraan Hashmi and Jannat)! He was one of the monks who struck me as very educated. He was the main novice talking about Buddhism at a high level (the most probably didn’t because of the language barrier).

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First discussion with the novice monks

The discussion consisted mostly of icebreakers. For me, it was very hard to learn everyone’s names so I gave them names based on their interests (for example, there was NBA monk, NFL monk, Sunny, etc). I learned a little about them and their way of life on this first day. They would open up to me more on the following days.

After our discussion with the novices, we met up with my dad and had dinner at the lake/pond. It was truly a most beautiful picnic spot. Our dinner consisted of random things David and I had bought from the market.

After our dinner, we (Me, David, Nid, Dad, and Natch) were scheduled to talk to the highest monks of the area (the abbots and others) and have tea with them. We were greeted warmly. Everyone started talking to each other about life in general (again, no work!). I was surprised to see Milan among these high monks, realizing how knowledgeable he really was talking and conversing among the highest of monks. Phra maha Kom Jon prepared many glasses of tea for us. Seeing his tea set and style of making and serving the tea, we could tell he was a true tea aficionado. I was also offered many different sweet fruits, which I was trying for the first time. They were really good!

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Group shot after our evening discussion with the monks

After taking a few pictures it was time to go even though everyone wanted to talk further. As soon as David and Natch dropped me for my first night at the Wat, I fell asleep. I was so tired I didn’t even feel the absence of an air conditioner for my first night!

Saturday 9 June 2012
By the third day, I woke up surprisingly early. I got all my things and brushed my teeth and went to take a shower. At first, I was extremely hesitant because the bathrooms here were very, very different from the ones I was used to, and this was one of the things I had a hard time getting used to. Thankfully, I got through it alright.

When I got out, Marcia was waiting for me. She told me the cookers from the Wat or Natch had left breakfast on the table, so we both dug in (in Thailand, they eat regular food such as rice and soups for breakfast). After a little chatm David showed up and it was time for our second monk chat. This time, the monks were much more open and having fun at the same time. I had more interesting conversations with them. The main idea of today’s discussion was comparing and contrasting America and Thailand in their and my own eyes. We topped all the deeper discussion with a fun game similar to telephone.

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America vs Thailand impressions

After our discussion with the monks, David, Natch and I decided to go have a market lunch and see the pond and another school ATMA SEVA is working with.

First, we had lunch and then we went to the pond where we had had dinner at the previous day, except a little further down the way. There were many people selling food to feed the fish. We decided to buy some and feed the fish. As we started throwing food, the seemingly quiet waters started rumbling and huge fish started fighting for the food.

Near us a couple had a whole humongous bag of fish food, and they were feeding it all to the fish. I asked Natch why they would spend money on a whole bag to feed the fish. He told me that in Thailand the fish is a holy animal, and after one gets married or any other auspicious time, they feed many fish near temples because it calls for good luck or ‘making merit’. The pond had many kinds of fish, mainly catfish. While we were feeding the fish some of the stray dogs came to have some food also. These strays were very nice and tame-looking: no one could guess they were stray dogs. My reaction was something like “wow, even the dogs are nicer here!”

When we were done feeding the fish, we all decided to see the school where ATMA SEVA was preparing to expand their English project. We visited the school and the second-in-command of the near-by temple. We then set out to explore the grounds and ventured off. We walked through flat rice crops and landed up in someone’s farm. The view from there was amazing. It was one of the most beautiful sites I have ever seen. It was flat grassland, with majestic mountains in view, with ponds, little canoes, lotuses and houses that just blended in. We walked through various plants (keeping an eye for snakes!) and saw many different Thai fruits and vegetables being grown in the fields. Natch, who I thought was an expert after this, would pick up random things and tell us what they were and tell us whether they were “delicious” or not.

After we ventured through the fields, we saw a pond with a canoe. Without thinking we started to get in the canoe for a little ride, and we got yelled at by some people from the house. Apparently, they were the housekeepers. They told us that the house was owned by an old, rich foreigner who married a young Thai girl and settled here. I thought it was weird that he married a young woman. However, David told me that it was very typical for this to happen here as many foreigners come to Thailand with the intentions of settling down and finding a partner. The housekeeper started leaving with a pack of buffalo (tied to a rope through their nose). Out of curiosity, we decided to follow him. He led them to a pond, and they went in to have a bath! It was interesting and funny seeing them bathing because some of them were giving us threatening looks. We took some pictures with the buffalo and then headed back towards the motorbikes.

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Water buffalo’s!

When we got back, we saw many young monks (maybe as young as 7) watching movies on a computer. Seeing this solidified some thoughts I had been having about the monks I was interacting with. Being in the United States, the idea of a monk was so ‘mysterious’, because we don’t have anything similar to it here. When we think of monks, we picture serious people who are meditating all the time. I was beginning to realize the humanity of monks: the fact that they like the same things we do (movies, music, etc.) and are just humans in a different situation in life.

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Checking out the detailed painting process

After stopping at the Wat, our plan was to visit a ceramics factory. We arrived there after picking up Nid to go with us. We started by seeing the whole process of making the shape out of clay and the things they do to it to get the finished product. The whole time I was thinking of the concentration required to pull this off: one mistake and it would be all for nothing. It looked hard! We then saw all of the finished products including clay work, paintings, and furniture. I was extremely scared to break anything. Besides the work itself, the architecture of the building was beautiful. Also, for the first time I got to pet a wild rabbit (I guess they weren’t terrified of humans because the people were kind to the rabbits). After we were done with our tour, our extremely nice tour guide gave us a little elephant. This was the second item I had received out of kindness here. After thanking her, we left for our next activity, the last for the day!

We headed from the Wat to Nid’s friend Dang and her husband Tar’s house for dinner. We first went to the market and bought the vegetables that we would cook. My dad met us there. When we arrived at the house, they both greeted us very warmly. These people were probably the nicest people I had met yet. David and I went to the backyard while everyone else prepared food. They had the most varied fruit trees I had ever seen! Mangoes, Leechi, bananas, and other exotic fruit grew from the branches and vines in their backyard. We then went back and helped a little bit with the food (I crushed some peppers). After dinner, we took some pictures with the family and Dang surprised me with a warm hug and request to come back to their home again. We shared goodbyes and left.

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My Dad and I with Dang and Tar after dinner!

On our way, we dropped my dad off at his hotel. David and I sat at the back of the truck and had a random discussion. I heard his views and found them similar to mine: about how much disparity there is between the rich and poor. The battle between rich and poor is so “in your face.” People in the States are shielded from it all and are in desperate need of perspective of what’s going on in the world and even in their nation. We also talked about how political and corporate powers can sometimes be corrupt to either make more money or remain in power.

Click here to read part II

written by: Raghav Agarwal

Photography Corner – Wiang Haeng trip

ATMA SEVA went to Wiang Haeng to meet with a new Buddhist school we will be working with.  We visited the Thai/Burma border, a Shan refugee camp, local temples, Chang Dao caves, and a Dhamma center.

Hope you enjoy the photos!


Photos by David Poppe

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