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

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

Buddhist temple adventure in Chiang Mai!

If Chiang Mai, Thailand lacks for anything, it is not Buddhist temples. They’re sort of like the Seven-Elevens here – everywhere. There are over three hundred temples in the Chiang Mai region!

My personal favorite (which, you should note, the internet list did not include) is an isolated temple called Wat Palad that is hidden away in the lush, mountainous forest surrounding the city. It is, without any competition, the most beautiful place I have ever experienced in Thailand. Think about the wildest, most exotic secret temple in Indiana Jones, multiply it’s beauty tenfold, and you can probably understand what Wat Palad is like. I recently went on a hike with my friends Katherine and Maria, ATMA SEVA interns here in Chiang Mai, and we ended up in this mystical, serene place. It was also extremely quiet and empty – a plus, as it is genuinely non-touristy, and thus is probably closer to its original state and more well-preserved than most of Chiang Mai’s temples. Unlike in Chiang Mai’s most famous temple, Wat Doi Suthep, no hawkers selling food and trinkets could be found in Wat Palad. In fact, no other people could be found there either, other than one young Thai couple who were exploring the place with us, and a few monks.

This place was just…indescribable. I could have sat in one of its several meditation areas for hours, simply soaking in its beauty. The temple is situated on the side of a mountain, like many of the temples surrounding Chiang Mai, and it had incredible bird’s-eye views of the city, as well as of the surrounding forest. A large mountain brook runs through the monastery’s main complex, broken up into a few gorgeous waterfalls and meditation pools. For me, the most breathtaking thing about Wat Palad was its art and traditional Thai architecture. Stunned into silence, I had the opportunity to feast my geeky eyes on prime pieces of old, traditional, elaborate Thai Buddhist sculpture, as well as on a myriad of ornately carved shrines and pagodas. I stared for at least three minutes at one larger-than-life golden statue of the Buddha, nestled within the dim, candle-lit recesses of a shrine, awash with the flickering red light reflected from the walls. I felt as though I had stumbled upon an undiscovered piece of Thailand, as if I were the first westerner to set eyes on some secret gem of the East. That feeling of discovery and adventure was a gift, and I know it will stay with me for the rest of my life. For that, I want to thank my amazing friend and ATMA SEVA intern Katherine Devine, who lived in this city for an entire year, and took the time to show me this unbelievable place (and many others). She recently left Chiang Mai, ending her stay here for now, but I’m really grateful I got to spend time with her while she was still living here. Thanks Katherine!

We left the temple using an overgrown and little-used path down the mountainside, which wound through acres of pristine forest, all protected by Doi Suthep national park (which the monastery is tucked right inside of). In accordance with Thai tradition, many of the trees were wrapped in sashes, cut by the monks from the orange fabric of their robes. Thai people wrap sashes around trees as a sign of love and respect for the tree and the spirit(s) that reside within the tree. It is done to ensure that no one will harm or chop down the tree. Walking through parts of Chiang Mai, it is common to see large, old trees wrapped in years of multicolored sashes, tied onto thick trunks by generations of Thai people. I think it’s a beautiful tradition.

All-in-all, journeying to Wat Palad was an unforgettable experience. Out of the many temples and monasteries I have seen in Thailand, this one was the most beautiful, and the most devoid of tourists. Strolling among Wat Palad’s labyrinth of dusky shrines and arresting statues, the sound of running water trickling through my ears, I realized how much I will miss Thailand. This country is a land of rawness and chaos, existing side-by-side with instances of breathtaking beauty and quiet tranquility. Strangely, these two drastically different aspects of Thailand don’t seem to contradict each other. Instead, they fit together perfectly, making Thailand what it is today – a place that I, and many others before me, have gained a great deal from. Although in two short weeks I will leave Thailand in search of life’s next adventure, I know that a little bit of Thailand will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Brady started his gap year abroad in Chiang Mai with ATMA SEVA but to follow along for the rest of his adventures, check out his blog!

written by: Brady Gilliam

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

The Size of My Shoes and the Eiffel Tower: A Thank You to ATMA SEVA and My Monks

*Brady is an ATMA SEVA volunteer who has been living and teaching at a Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai for one and a half months*

The ATMA SEVA team picking me up at the Chiang Mai airport!

The ATMA SEVA team picking me up at the Chiang Mai airport!

Talking to my Thai friends – most of whom are my students, who are all novice monks – I find there are many things I don’t understand about the world of a Thai person. By the same token, there is much that these novice monks do not quite get about the Western World. As a result, lots of our discussions with each other are centered around the exchange of cultural and geographic knowledge, which I absolutely love. However, we sometimes hit snags in the conversation when a topic is especially difficult for one of us to grasp. I have recently encountered two such topics that shocked my monk friends to the core: the size of my shoes and the size of the Eiffel Tower.

During my first week here one of my favorite dogs – I call him Lucius – ate my shoes (scene: “Lucius, No! Lucius what are you doing? What did you do? Oh my god. Oh no. You ate them, didn’t you? Why, Lucius? Why would you do that?” *falls to his knees and shakes his fists at the sky*). It was a traumatic experience, especially to have so soon after arriving in Thailand, but my parents sent me some new hiking boots, and within a few weeks, a brand-new shoe box was sitting in my room, waiting to be opened. As my friends in orange robes crowded around me, curious as ever, I procured my new pair of shoes. Silence fell among them. They looked at the shoes, then at my feet. “I think they are wrong size,” one muttered. “Too big,” said another.

“No,” I replied, “right size for me. Size thirteen.”
“No,” said another monk. “Wrong size.” I shook my head.

What ensued was a solid thirty minutes of them inserting their feet into my shoes, which they began to call boats, and making shocked exclamations about their vastness. Eyes widened, mouths opened, and every pair of feet in the room were placed next to mine in comparison – some more than once – which resulted without fail in a round of gasps, whispers and statements of utter disbelief.

A similar reaction, minus the foot comparison, was elicited by explaining to the novices the size of the Eiffel Tower. Of course, they know all about Paris and France, but none of them have ever had the opportunity to travel there. In their minds, the Eiffel Tower is a medium-sized statue/monument, not the enormous metal monster it really is. So, when I showed them pictures of the crowds of people standing beneath its four humongous legs, their shock was palpable. “Same size Wat Srisoda?” one novice asked me in a cautious voice.
“Same size as many Wat Srisoda,” I answered.
“Oh I don’t believe you!” laughed my friend Chert.

What really stuck with me was how similar their reactions to my shoes were to their reactions to the Eiffel Tower. It’s funny what you learn about perspective when you live in another country, especially when you get to spend time with some locals. As much as you have the potential to expand their schema for understanding the world, they can do the same and more for you. What had always seemed fairly normal to me – giant buildings and even bigger shoes (or is it other way around) – turned out to be completely extraordinary for my friends. When you learn to think within the frames of other cultural contexts, it can allow you to see the world with more amazement. From now on, when I lace up my…boats, or look at a massive piece of art like the Eiffel Tower, I hope that I will be able to channel some of the shock I saw in my monk friends, and allow myself to better appreciate just how extraordinary and incredible things in this world really are.

Me with the head English teacher at the temple!

Me with the head English teacher at the temple!

Learning to see the world in new ways is one huge benefit I’ve gained from living in Thailand. I’ve been able to experience a ton of new and exciting things that I never thought I would be able to. However, I would never have gotten to have so many incredible experiences, or develop such close friendships with Thai Buddhist monks, without the opportunities provided by an incredible organization for which I am extremely grateful. That’s why I’d like to end this post with a huge thank you to the NGO I’m working with here in Chiang Mai, ATMA SEVA. ATMA SEVA, which means “selfless service for the soul” in Sanskrit, truly embodies the concept expressed in their name by promoting valuable service, as well as the development of meaningful relationships with people here in Thailand. Without the opportunities they have given me, I would never have been able to experience Thailand and Thai culture as deeply as I have. I have become very close with a group of monks, who come to my room to hang out and practice English outside the classroom nearly every night. My experience working with ATMA SEVA was summed up in a few words by my friend, Choo, when he said to me last night, “Before I met you, I didn’t dare to speak English.” Cultural exchange, English teaching, and friendship. That is what ATMA SEVA is all about.

Visiting a local cave with other ATMA SEVA volunteers!

Visiting a local cave with other ATMA SEVA volunteers!

In the spirit if gratitude, this post is dedicated to my monk friends Choo, Chert, Winachat, and Gee, who have taught me way more than I could ever teach them; as well as to David Poppe, ATMA SEVA’s Program Director, who has been around to support me and provide a constant stream of amazing opportunities and exciting new experiences since I’ve joined the ATMA SEVA community. Thanks guys!

You can see me teaching in the classroom at 1:55 in the newest ATMA SEVA video!

*Brady has just began a gap year abroad! To read more about his adventures, check out his personal blog!

written by: Brady Gilliam

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

New video – Plekwiwek Dhamma center

Check out our new video, produced by on-site intern Antoine Gratian, about the Plekwiwek Dhamma Center! This is one of the locations that the Wat Doi Saket project is working with and placing volunteers!

Watch the video to learn more about this truly unique project and location!


ATMA SEVA team

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

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. 

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Victoria Castro

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

Two months into the on-site intern experience!

I’ve officially been living in Wiang Haeng for two months. At this point one would expect the excitement of living in a new place would be wearing off, but that is far from the reality.
In the past two months I have visited numerous temples in the area, tasted dozens (if not hundreds) of new dishes, and participated in several religious ceremonies. In addition to my classes with the novice monks, two other teachers from my school and I started teaching classes at the government sub-district office this past month. I started to get into a routine – wake up, morning run, shower, eat, school, sub-district, teach English to novices at the Dharma Center, read, sleep, wake up and repeat.

IMG_3776 To some extent, I was beginning to think that I had seen it all – however, that changed recently when one of my students from the sub-district office invited me to cook and eat lunch with her and her family. We ended up having so much fun that we spent the entire day together. We cooked, ate, visited sites around the area, and met her friends and family. She then invited me to spend every Sunday together so that she can take me around to tour the area and check out the sights. How could I resist such an offer?

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Over the past few weekends I have found new beauty in the town and district in which I live. I’ve seen parts of my town that I never knew existed, fields quietly tucked away on side roads near my school, and neighborhoods hiding past the row of businesses on the main street. The sights are simply spectacular. As we coast through dirt roads on her motorcycle, we are flanked on both sides by lush rice paddies and the brooding mountains surrounding us. The rainy season is among us and the air is becoming crisp and cool, while rainbows become a common sight.

IMG_3883 These trips have also helped me feel like a more integrated part of the community. Kong Lom is a small village boasting around 400 houses. As a naturally kind and extroverted person (and a person who was born and raised in the village), my friend Toy seems to know everyone in town. Here, there is no such thing as a short bike ride, as we are constantly stopping to say hello to various family members and friends. And let me tell you, Thai families are not small! Everywhere we go we are warmly greeted and offered something to eat, which means I have eaten more than ever before but every dish is uniquely delicious.

IMG_3884 I also have to admit that I am addicted to Toy’s children’s energy. There’s nothing quite like enjoying a new site when your tour guides are 4 and 6 years old. They simply have a different taste for life and it makes you appreciate the experience that much more. The kids squeal with delight as we bump along the roads, while I close my eyes and grip tightly to my seat. They repeat what I and their mother say in English, even if they have no idea what it means. They like to hold my hand and tickle me when I least expect it. Her children, like many of the community members around me, communicate with me even if it’s not by using words – but rather, by sharing and creating experiences together.

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I’ve tried to document some of the experiences through pictures, but I’m finding it difficult to capture the sights, sounds, and emotions on camera. The views can’t be fully experienced until you feel the wind blowing in your hair as you wiz through the fields in a motorbike, hear the giggles, and see the warmth of the smiles in person. Here is a brief attempt to capture those experiences.

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Stay tuned for more pictures in the Photo Corner in a few weeks and don’t forget to ‘Like’ ATMA SEVA on Facebook!

Maria Moreno, on-site intern

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org