My experience volunteering with ATMA SEVA

I was preparing to embark into a 3-month trip through Southeast Asia and could not ignore the “calling” to do some volunteering work during this time. I had been thinking about that for a long time, but never had the opportunity to do so. Since I am very interested in the field of Education, it was only natural to look for positions where I could spend my time teaching (and learning!) – and that’s where ATMA SEVA came into my life. Having planned to start my trip in the South of Thailand, the prospect of living in Chiang Mai for a while was a very inviting idea.

I found ATMA SEVA through a Google search, contacted David (programs director) and got very excited about the program. He was incredibly patient to answer my endless questions and put me in contact with two previous volunteers, Hunaid and Jamie. They were both very helpful and from their descriptions I could picture the experience ahead of me. Well, sort of. You can never be entirely prepared for it: surprises and unexpected situations will happen. And that’s not too bad after all!


Maekhue Wittaya School

I was assigned to teach English at Maekhue Wittaya School in a village located approximately 40 minutes from Chiang Mai. Although I did not have much experience in teaching, Katherine, ATMA SEVA’s volunteer coordinator, gave me a lot of support and provided guides and books that immensely helped me during the classes. What I encountered at the school was much beyond my expectations: extremely respectful students, curious and open-minded teachers, and friendly staff.


Mrs. Rattana and Mrs. Kru Nam at the Art Room

My host at the school, Ms. Rattana, was a sweetheart, and did everything she could to make me feel comfortable: from bringing local (and delicious) breakfast to making sure that a vegetarian lunch was cooked for me everyday. Students surprised me with their engagement at school activities (they helped clean and organize the space for events), as well as for their English knowledge. Pronunciation, I figured, was the main problem – they were often too shy to speak and as a result, most of them had a lot of room for development. Thus, I tried to engage them in several activities that would foster communication. From videos to presentations to games, my main objective was to let them feel comfortable with both my presence and the language, so that their voices could be heard.


Public speaking practice

The main challenge I faced was not being able to speak the local language – sometimes it was difficult to explain simple things. However, it also made the experience more exciting and fun – I would often convey my message through gestures, drawings (that most of the time made them laugh) and examples. It is so interesting to understand another culture and have the opportunity to witness genuine events – I was lucky enough to see presentations for the Thai Language Day, Sport’s Day, ASEAN Day and also Mother’s Day. Each of them was unique and showed me a little bit of the habits and beliefs of the Thai culture.


Sports day!

Another highlight of my experience was living with a Thai family. My expectations were again surpassed, and I was gifted with a loving, big family that received me as one of their own. From strolls at local markets – with personal guides that gave me detailed explanations of every fruit, vegetable or delicacy presented at the booths – to visiting family members who lived two hours away – where I could experience Thai life in the countryside –, it was definitely unforgettable. I received local gifts, blessings (from senior family members), tried different foods and drinks, and learned a bit more about Buddhism, which I reckoned is not only a religion, but also a fascinating way of living.

The moment I had to say good-bye was bittersweet, as I felt time went by so fast and there was so much more I wanted to do to help those incredible people. All in all, I took home not only pictures, but also special moments that will last in my memory for a lifetime. I am grateful to ATMA SEVA for making this happen, and to Thai people for teaching me their wonderful and special way of seeing the world.

written by: Daiana Stolf

First experience with English camps!

The past five days, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in some English camps as part of my trip to Chiang Mai this summer. I am a seventeen year old senior at Phoenix Country Day School in Phoenix, Arizona. So far in my high school career, I haven’t had formal teaching experience. However in India, over the summer, I taught a group of about fifteen children of migrant construction workers who were impoverished basic English and Math. But now in Thailand, I participated (and occasionally even led) in three different English camps in five days. Three of the days were spent at two different government schools just outside of Chiang Mai. The other two days we traveled to a Dhamma center, in Wiang Haeng, with all the other ATMA SEVA volunteers.

Raghav teaching 1

This is me teaching about body parts

As I had mentioned before, I’ve never been a part of an English camp or any thing similar. Initially, because of this, it was hard to visualize what it would be like. The other volunteers and I were pretty well prepared for our first one with a theme and a game plan for the whole day. I wasn’t too nervous because of this but by the time we got there, it started to kick in that we would be teaching a pretty large group of kids. I haven’t been too good with speaking in front of large audiences so it was intimidating to be in front of a group of almost fifty kids that would be participating. At first, even introducing myself was scary in front of so many watching eyes (having a name that’s a bit hard to pronounce didn’t help). After some initial introductions, we broke into small groups. This was really awesome because I had a smaller group to get to know and do some activities with. From these, I realized that the kids were just happy about getting an opportunity to learn, and they didn’t care too much about how well we did it or whether we made a few mistakes or not. After rotating groups and spending time with the kids, I got a lot more comfortable with the bigger group because I knew everybody, and all of the students had learned my name. Now, I was even able to lead the group for some activities. The following camps went a lot smoother for me after the first experience because I could picture what the camp would be like and all the kids and teachers of the schools we went to were extremely friendly and excited to learn and get to know the volunteers.

Raghav teaching 2

Simon says!

Raghav teaching 3

Small group work with the monks

If I could make suggestions for other people going to their first English camp I would first and foremost say that one should remember that even if you don’t feel completely ready or nervous that these kids are super excited to learn and to practice speaking English with you. Its natural to feel a little nervous but just remember that the kids are probably more nervous talking to you, and once they open up it’s really a blast to spend time with them. Finally, the best part is the satisfaction of when you see the improvement in the time they were with you and to see how excited they are to have learned from you.

Wiang Haeng English camp

Group shot after our final English camp in Wiang Haeng!

If you have the opportunity to participate in any kind of English camp, I would definitely do it. This was my first experience, and I had a blast teaching the kids and participating in various activities. You may feel a bit nervous or intimidated at first, but, by the end of it, you’ll wish you could do it every day!

Click here to read my first blog entry about the golden triangle and don’t forget to ‘Like’ ATMA SEVA on Facebook

written by: Raghav Agarwal

Where are they now? – Anton

In this edition of ‘Where are they now?’ we checked in with Anton, a former volunteer with our Wat Doi Saket project who is from France.  Read his answers below to hear more about his time in Thailand with ATMA SEVA and what he’s been up to since returning home to France.

Anton after his English class at Wat Doi Saket with teacher Natch.

Anton after his English class at Wat Doi Saket with teacher Natch.

1)  How did you first get connected with ATMA SEVA?  Why did you choose to volunteer with the Wat Doi Saket Project?  

Initially, I was just looking for an internship somewhere in Southeast Asia; the country and the activity of the organization did not matter as long as their mission was in line with my own philosophy. I found a short message written by programs director, David, on a forum so I contacted him to learn more about ATMA SEVA.  After hearing about what this experience could be, I immediately said “yes”. For me, the appeal of the program was being able to explore Asia in a rural and traditional area while also teaching kids. The idea of living in a Buddhist temple was also exciting, and even if I am a mostly convinced atheist, I knew I would discover new points of view and ideas about life with the monks, which is exactly what happened.

2) Tell us a bit about your time at the temple and teaching at a Thai government school. What were some of your favorite moments? 

Anton with teachers, volunteers, and children after his school play production.

Anton with teachers, volunteers, and children after his school play production.

At first, it was hard to adjust to the temple schedule with a lot of free time, teachers living in the temple, and often changing class times.  I like teaching and it was quite pleasant to teach in these places. I had a lot of freedom in the classroom and I could talk about whichever subjects I chose. The hardest thing was that so few people spoke English at that time in both the temple and the school.  This meant that I really had to make an effort to learn the Thai language, which is difficult to learn, in order to integrate and communicate.  Despite the challenge, it was really interesting to get into it, and very valuable for my work with the kids. Some of my favorite moments were bonding with the kids in both the government school and the temple. I also really enjoyed a theatre project I worked on at the government school.

3) What was it like being the first volunteer?

Intense! I was glad to be the first volunteer and help to continue building relationships with these monks and teachers who are continuing partners with ATMA SEVA. It was a challenge to figure out how to communicate and work with so many new people, but I enjoyed sharing our ideas about education and teaching.  I hope my work has been beneficial and that the links between ATMA SEVA and its partners continue to grow and strengthen.

4) How did you find your transition back to France after being in Thailand for several months? 

Anton with a teacher from a Thai government school

Anton with a teacher from a Thai government school

Actually, after Thailand, I spent two months in South America and then five months in Quebec.  The whole year was crazy for me. The transition between Asia and South America was really a shock because these two cultures are quite opposite in many ways: quietness and meditation, “soft human contact” for Asia; intense social life and passionate feelings for South America. The difference was pronounced and it was incredible to see how diverse human life and culture can be.  Once I got back to France, it took me about a year and a half to get used to French people again and appreciate them, but that’s part of traveling!

5) What are you doing currently?

I am actually finishing my master’s degree in political sciences in the cultural field. I am on an internship in the French countryside, working on a theatre project involving an equestrian show mixing classical text and modern direction with hip hop music.  I manage the administration of the project by looking for funds, places to perform, and setting up partnerships to communicate about the project.

6) What are your plans when you finish university? Would you consider any more work internationally?

My plans are still tentative, but I would like to finish this project that runs up to summer 2014, and find another job in the cultural field. After this, I would like to go to Quito, Equator, for a master’s degree in video documentaries. Eventually I’d like to get back to Montreal, a city that I love, and spend a part of my life there.

Anton with some mons from Wat Doi Saket

Anton with some mons from Wat Doi Saket

7) What did you learn from your time in Thailand volunteering with ATMA SEVA? 

I learned how to integrate to the unique Thai culture and how to communicate with people who don’t share a common language. I learned about how to teach effectively, what life is like in a Wat, that French food is not the best in the world, how to drive a motorbike… and more! I learned so many things that I can’t list them all!

8) What is your advice for anybody interested in volunteering or traveling abroad?

First, make sure to get enough information about the country and the organization that you are considering working with. I didn’t do as much research as I should have. I was lucky that ATMA SEVA was a good NGO, that David was so helpful and that Thailand is such a welcoming place. I have a few friends who landed on an unfriendly territory, and had a bad international experience. It’s good to know a little about where you’re going and what to expect before committing to work abroad.

Once you’ve arrived abroad, I recommend forgetting about what you know or think you know. Everything is relative, and it’s really dangerous and inappropriate to think your culture and your ideas are the one correct way. Understanding a country and its people doesn’t depend on simply the language or politeness, but on your capacity to think as others do and understand perspectives other than your own.  Always keep in mind that your views derive from a history you did not choose. Meeting different people is a great opportunity to challenge your ideas and beliefs in a search for your own personal truth. And don’t forget to have fun with the people you meet and enjoy your time!

Anton helping set up for a temple festival at Wat Doi Saket.

Anton helping to set up for a festival at Wat Doi Saket.

Wat Doi Saket project – An action packed month!

My arrival into Chiang Mai

When I arrived to the Chiang Mai airport, I had no idea that I would be seeing more in just one week than most people do in a month.  The beginning of my trip was full of daily activities, which consisted of touring local Wats around Chiang Mai, cruising through the countryside on the motorbikes and going to local artisan markets in the city.  Needless to say, I didn’t let the jet lag get in the way of having fun and exploring my new home.  I absolutely love Chiang Mai!  The vegetarian restaurants, the juice bars on every corner, the coffee shops… it’s like I landed in paradise!  Not to mention everyone is smiling—all the time!

Getting ready to leave for the village

My favorite part of the trip so far was going to Ba Pae, a Lawa hill tribe village, about six hours from Chiang Mai.  As we hopped in the bed of the pickup truck, I knew this was going to be quite the experience.  After climbing the swerving dirt roads into the jungle for a few hours, I was excited to see this village that I’ve heard so much about.  The people of Ba Pae are so friendly and welcoming.  What amazed me about this remote village in the jungles of Northern Thailand is how happy and connected they are to each other.  It’s like one giant family.  I learned how to make Lawa food, various handicrafts, I made a tiny basket out of bamboo, and even helped harvest rice!

Nid, Nina, and Katherine getting ready to help harvest rice

The dam near Wat Doi Saket

After being here for just one month, Doi Saket is starting to feel like home.  I’ve been driving the motorbike through the countryside everyday, passing rice patties, ponds and mountains.  Our favorite place to visit is the local dam, which is a beautiful location to watch the sunset.  I’m getting used to my routine living here at the Wat.  Every day I wake up to monks chanting and walk downstairs to say hello and make tea with the rest of the teachers.  Since I have the mornings off, I like to ride my motorbike to a nearby botanical garden and go for a swim in the salt-water pool.  After I make my way back to the Wat, I usually eat lunch with the teachers before class starts at 12:30.  I have six classes, the ages ranging from 11 to 17.  It’s really fun teaching the novices.  I’ve figured out they really like two things – playing games and candy!  So, I try to make class fun by playing games where they have to speak English and become engaged in dialogue.  And of course, the winner usually gets candy.  It’s working out well so far, and I’m eager to see how the rest of the semester turns out as we move into harder material.

Me with some of my students after class

Don’t forget to check out ATMA SEVA on Facebook to see more about my daily adventures!

By Nina Tedone

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

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

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

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

One of the novice monks who is from a Karen village

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

Afternoon gathering of all novice monks at the school

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

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

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

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

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

The English teacher and I in the classroom

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

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

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

By Katherine Devine

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