Ever Since I Heard of Bhutan….

Dragons, Dzongs and Divine Mad Men!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Danielle

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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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Loi Krathong and Yi Peng 2013

Yi Peng and Loy Krathong are traditional festivals that happen every year in Thailand.   Loy Krathong is celebrated on the full moon of the twelfth month in the Thai Lunar calendar.  Yi Peng is a Lanna (Northern Thai) festival and is based on the Lanna calendar and is on the full moon of the second month of this calendar.  However, the two festivals fall at the same time and are celebrated in similar ways with similar meaning.

Loy Kathong is traditionally celebrated to pay honor to the goddess of water and Lord Buddha and as a way to send away misfortune and ask for good luck in the future.  Many people will make krathongs (small floating offerings) out of the leaves and trunk of the banana tree and decorate them with candles, flowers and incense.  They will then be floated down a river as a way to pay honor.  In modern times it is also celebrated with parades and many fireworks and sky lanterns which can be seen and heard all over Chiang Mai.

Yi Peng is a time for paying respect to Buddha and sending away worries and asking for good fortune for the year.  It is often celebrated by releasing Kom Loi (Sky lanterns) and decorating houses with lanterns and candles.  One of the most amazing places to see this is near Mae Jo University outside of Chiang Mai.  Thousands and thousands of people gather together to simultaneously release their lanterns for a sight that is like no other.

ATMA SEVA took a team trip to the Mae Jo lantern release and we have to say that it truly was a spectacular evening for all of us.  Here are some of the pictures from the night!

Written by: Amy Kaylor, on-site intern

Photography by: David Poppe, Programs Director

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Photography Corner: One year in Thailand

Katherine Devine was an on-site intern with ATMA SEVA from August 2012 – 2013. Below are photos from her year in Northern Thailand!

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Photography by: Katherine Devine

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Photography Corner: Street Food of Chiang Mai

ATMA SEVA generally uses our Photography Corner as a way to highlight smaller and lesser known places around Thailand, usually including temples and cultural sights.  These are all wonderful insights and amazing places to see and I am so glad to have seen them through the Photo Corners.  However, I have seen a noticeable lack of the wonderful, amazing, beautiful…. delicious street food that Thailand has to offer!

As an on-site intern in Chiang Mai I have been partaking in many of the street foods and food stalls that can be found around the city and have found many hidden (or not so hidden) gems.  The foods range from fresh fruit and smoothies to grilled meats and fried snacks.  There are noodle stands with the ever famous pad thai and noodle soups to salad stands with deliciously fresh papaya and other fruit salads.

The options are endless! And cheap!  With a smoothie running you about 20-30 baht (less than a dollar) and salads and noodle options in the dollar to two dollar range I have been able to try so many items and yet feel like I have barely scratched the surface.  I generally go to a few main places near my house but you can find food on just about any corner in Chiang Mai at any time of the day (or night!).

Some of my favorite locations include a market for students right across from Chiang Mai University, the Sunday night walking street, the Chiang Mai Gate Market, and a night markett off of Huay Gaew on the way to Chiang Mai University.  One of my absolute favorites is at Chiang Mai gate where you can find Mrs. Pa’s smoothie stand.  She makes the most ridiculously delicious smoothies I have ever tasted!  She lets you chose any amount of different fruits from her smorgasbord of options, sugar or no sugar, and then blends them up to perfect consistency while smiling, chatting and working on the next smoothie in line at the same time.  And all for 20 baht! Her smoothies are SO good that she has had several articles written about her including one on CNN’s travel site which you can see here:

http://travel.cnn.com/explorations/life/best-smoothie-chiang-mai-887475

A huge part of what makes Mrs. Pa, the smoothies, noodles, soups and all of the other food so great is that I am always greeted with a smile 🙂 and even though we may not understand each other completely every person has been so gracious and so willing to make sure that I walk away happy with some delicious food in hand.  It is a win-win situation: great food and great experience!  Needless to say I am quite in love with the street food of Chiang Mai and its vendors!

So without further ado, here are some pictures of my favorite foods and places to get them in Chiang Mai!

WARNING: All pictured foods are very delicious.  Drooling on your keyboard may ensue.  We take no responsibility for damaged keys.  Thank you and enjoy!

Amy Kaylor, on-site intern

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My view of Chiang Mai: from the seat of a Motorbike

trafficDoes this look like harmony, togetherness and peace to you? Is it an ugly rush hour nightmare, or something rhythmic and strangely beautiful?  On the surface, most of us would say the former.  When I arrived in Chiang Mai and took my first tuk-tuk ride, another volunteer Victoria was exclaiming how the traffic here really was special.  All of the different vehicles worked together in a beautiful, harmonious flow.  I naturally took one look at the noisy chaos of traffic around me and thought, “Wow…are all of the people at ATMA SEVA out of their minds?!” But now I have realized that while the traffic may seem stressful and chaotic on the outside, if you actually take time to observe and experience it, like Thai culture itself, it really is quite special.

As ATMA SEVA’s newest on-site intern, I will be helping with social media, volunteer coordinating and anything else ATMA SEVA needs!  I am living in Chiang Mai city close to the office, not at a temple or outside district.  I think that, because of this location, I have had a slightly different view of Thailand than some of our other volunteers.  Living in the city is definitely louder and more hectic on the surface but, even amongst the masses in the city, the underlying principles and values such as community, warmth and friendliness make Thailand what it is.

I have been here for almost a month now, but I have to say that I didn’t have a full understanding or appreciation of Thailand and its culture until about a week and a half ago.  So what happened a week and a half ago you ask?

My awesome motorbike!

My awesome motorbike!

It was my first day on a motorbike!  This is the first time I saw harmony in the city.  I don’t like to admit this, but I was pretty scared to get on a bike in Chiang Mai.  At first glance, the motorbikes, cars, tuk-tuks, and songtaews seem to be haphazardly zooming around the city without any mind to other motorists or traffic laws, an intimidating prospect for someone coming from a fairly civilized driving country.  I took it slow at first on smaller streets and almost immediately realized that they have a method to their madness here.  Everyone shows respect for each other, and all types of vehicles on the road work together to create space for all.  It is definitely an environment where you have to be very aware of your surroundings, but I think that this awareness also creates a sense of community.  I have been courteously allowed into traffic countless times as I fumble around the many one-way streets of the Old City.  This mindfulness of one another on the road alludes to the welcoming and kindness I have felt from all of the people working with ATMA SEVA.

As an intern, I have been fortunate enough to see almost all of ATMA SEVA’s locations for our  Wat Doi Saket Project in the time that I have been here through various volunteer set-ups and visits.  I feel so lucky to see all of the places that we work with because we have a huge network of truly unique locations and spectacular individuals.

From government schools to Buddhist temples and Dhamma centers, and from principles and English teachers to novices and monks, everyone I have met is enthusiastic about volunteers and teaching English to their students, and teaching Buddhism and Thai culture to us.

I have met principals who take in volunteers as if they were their own children… a monk who was a chef in the Cheesecake Factory… novices who love Liverpool Football Club…

Novices playing English games

Novices playing English games

I have done circle dances with the local ladies preparing for Loy Krathong and watched cotton being made into beautiful, dyed robes in just one day as a donation for a Kathin ceremony.

Process of creating beautiful robes!

Process of creating beautiful robes!

I have seen a temple nestled in the foothills of the Suthep Mountain in Chiang Mai city and a beautiful Dhamma center in the mountains near the Myanmar border.

Dhamma Center in Wiang Haeng district

Dhamma Center in Wiang Haeng district

At first, I was a little bit nervous about going to so many new places so quickly but, at each and every place we have visited, they have welcomed us with open arms and treated us like family.  I have been overwhelmed by the sense of community and openness from everyone I have met in Thailand.  All of these people and places truly amazed me and are just a few examples of my experiences with the ATMA SEVA family.  I have been here only a short time, but I am SO excited to continue to experience and learn about Thailand and its people through this extended family.  And you know what? I am even excited to continue experiencing the “harmonious” Thai traffic jams on a daily basis 🙂

Amy Kaylor, on-site intern

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Photography Corner: Day Trip to Fang District

Prior to wrapping up my on-site internship in Wiang Haeng, I had the opportunity to take a short day trip with a fellow teacher and some students from grade M. 4 (the equivalent of 10th grade in the United States) to the neighboring province of Fang. It was an interesting time to travel as the rainy season was in full swing, threatening to keep us confined to the indoors. We left early in the morning and, due to my tendency to get very car sick, I spent a great deal of the three hour drive in a Dramamine-induced sleep. But as I began to fight off the drowsiness I realized that the rain had stopped and the landscape had transformed into a vibrant sea of green. While the rainy season can be draining, with its lack of sunlight and grey skies, it also creates some spectacular sights. As soon as the rain stops, the fresh planted rice turns technicolor green, the sky a radiant blue, and the mountains in the distance covered with a misty haze. As the views unfolded in front of me, I quickly reached for my camera and tried to capture the beauty of northern Thailand with its expansive rice fields and surrounding mountains.

Our first stop was Wat Thaton, a large temple filled with Buddha relics from around the world. The novices and I enjoyed exploring the hundreds of statues and the variety of designs – some were very modern looking, while others were very old and traditional. Afterwards, we walked up the naga-style ramp to the top level of the temple where we paid respect to an ancient, and very well respected, Buddha relic. The views from the top of the hill were amazing as we looked over the town of Thaton and neighboring hill tribe villages and the Maekok River. By this time, the sky had fully transformed from grey to brilliant blue and the air felt crisp and fresh.From there we headed to the Fang hot springs where we marveled at the park’s geysers and beautifully maintained park. The park had ancient trees with raised, knotted roots that added to the mysterious beauty of the park.

I think the students enjoyed the trip as much as I did – it was great to get a change of scenery and explore different landscapes. I had no idea Fang district had so many outdoor activities to explore. I hope to return in the near future to explore the area further and all it has to offer!

Maria Moreno

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