Ever Since I Heard of Bhutan….

Dragons, Dzongs and Divine Mad Men!

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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






Wat Doi Saket project – Eat, Pray, Love, Give

I found ATMA SEVA by chance online, and now I’m in Chiang Mai for 2 months, helping to teach English to young novice monks at Wat Pranon Bagatee in Saraphi.

I arrived on a Wednesday morning, and had my first lesson the next day! I was excited with thousands of butterflies in my stomach at the same time, but with the forwardness, constant smiles and support from everyone I was slowly but surely beginning to feel at ease.

The novice monks were eager to meet the new teacher from London as I was to meet them all, and there are some great characters! It feels like the lessons are full of smiles with a bubbly atmosphere, especially when games are involved!

I had my first lunch with all the students, the monks and other teachers, as well as the few dogs and cats around! But before lunch there’s always a chanting of thanks, which completely moved me to my very soul the first time I heard it. It was all overwhelmingly beautiful, the temple, the kindness, the peace and serenity of it all, I shall never forget those first feelings.

20130712_08061120130712_100101Aside from the teaching, there’s all the exploring of Chiang Mai, with the incredible history and the fact that there are more than 300 wats in this region, as well as hill tribes, mountainous national parks, hot springs, caves and plenty of markets with unlimited food stalls everywhere. It is almost impossible to go hungry!

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One of the things I personally adore is the fact that you can smile at a stranger, and in return get a great smile! This is afterall, the land of smiles, and what a great place to be!

I have now almost been in Saraphi for a week, and it already feels like I have been here longer. Everyone from the other volunteers, the teachers, and the novice monks have made me feel so welcomed and part of the team, the sense of community and togetherness is wonderfully gracious and humbling. I’m eager for each and every day, with so much to do, see and feel, it makes me think these next two months will go by too quickly for my liking!

Getting to know the students and helping them in lessons is very interesting, even just walking around the temple between lessons I will hear “hello teacher” followed by a big beaming cheeky smile!

I found it hard to imagine what it would be like here in Chiang Mai, and now that I’m here, I understand why I couldn’t imagine much, nothing could have prepared me for the genuine kindness and care from everybody here, not just for me, but for each other, everybody helps everybody. 


Victoria Castro



Photography Corner : Punakha Dzong

Pungtang Dechen Phodrang (meaning “the palace of great blissness”), most popularly known as Punakha Dzong today, was built by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal , the founder of the Palden Drukpa Zhung in 1637. It is the second oldest dzong in Bhutan. This structure was first constructed after the formation of the first official government. Its leader Zhabdrung made it the capital of Buthan. However, the capital was shifted to Thimphu (present capital) during the reign of the third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck.

This Dzong has played a vital role as a historical benchmark of Bhutan eversince its construction. The Machen Lhakhang, a temple inside the Dzong, enshrines the mummified body of Zhabdrung, who passed away in 1651 while in retreat in this temple. It was in this very Dzong that the first king of Bhutan, Ugyen Wangchuck, was crowned on 17 December 1907. Ever since, all the monarchs of Bhutan have been crowned in this Dzong.

Today it serves as the District administrative centre of Punakha as well as a winter residence for the monk body. Like every other Dzongs in Bhutan, Punakha Dzong exhibits Tshechu annually. It is a special religious and historical festival consisting in a variety of mask dances.

written by: Jigme Namgyel



Photography Corner – Wiang Kum Kam

If you stay in Chiang Mai you might want to sit in one of these lovely carriages for a stroll around Wiang Kum Kam!

Wiang Kum Kam ruins are the recently restored remains of King Mangrai’s capital. It was flooded and abandoned more than 700 years ago.  Wiang Kum Kam is located near the Ping river.

Hope you enjoy the photos!!!




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



Photography Corner – Wat Kong Lom

No two days are the same at Wat Kong Lom – I’ve come to anticipate and appreciate this fact. On any given day we are hosting visiting monks, participating in school clean-up and beautification projects, planting rice, or paying special tribute to the teachers, community, and holidays. In addition to getting a traditional “book” education, students at the school obtain hands-on skill training as well.

The temple at Wat Kong Lom is currently under construction and will be completed within the next year. Currently, workers are working every day to complete the detail-oriented decor of the building. The temple, named after the village in which it is located (Kong Lom, which is part of the larger Wiang Haeng area), is a location where ATMA SEVA volunteers live and teach.  Hope you enjoy the pictures!

Don’t forget to ‘Like’ ATMA SEVA on Facebook to see more pictures from this location!

Maria Moreno, on-site intern



Photography Corner – Wat Doi Ku

Wat Doi Ku is a very small temple located just outside the district of Doi Saket. (click here for google map)  There are only four monks who stay here, but starting next semester (June) the temple will have an additional five novice monks.  This temple offers great views of surrounding districts and lush green rice paddies.  This is also a location that volunteers from our Wat Doi Saket project can stay and teach at a local government school.

Hope you enjoy the photos and stay tuned for more Photography Corners coming soon!

Photos by David Poppe