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

Kathin ceremony at Plekwiwek Dhamma Center

Chula Kathin is a yearly ceremony held at Plekwiwek Dhamma Center featuring the handmade production of monk robes directly from raw cotton.  Local women from Karen and Lisu tribes turn cotton bunches into dyed and sewn robes in under 24 hours!  Six ATMA SEVA staff members and volunteers were fortunate to go to Wiang Haeng district to participate in the event, held each fall.

The roots of the ceremony go back centuries.  Historically, monks were itinerant, traveling nine months out of the year.  During their travels, they would collect scraps of cloth for their robes from charnel grounds (locations where people are layed after death).  During the three months of the rainy season, however, they stayed at a temple and did not travel.  Thus, they were unable to collect cloth during this period.  To supply them with fresh robes and gain merit, local villagers would make them new robes at the end of each rainy season.  At present, most robes are mass produced and purchased, making the ceremony where a handful of robes are still handmade at Plekweiwek Dhamma Center very special.

Step one: Pick the cotton

Most of the raw cotton came from Myanmar, however several bushes grow at Plekweiwek. Attendees honored these bushes through a flower and incense offering that celebrated their bounty and then picked the cotton.


Offerings under the cotton tree

Step two: Readying the cotton for spinning

Impurities and seeds were removed from the cotton bunches by hand.


Preparing the cotton

Step three: Spinning the cotton into yarn

Cotton was fluffed and fed slowly onto a spinning wheel (it sticks together like the pull-apart Halloween spider web decorations).


Stringing the cotton

Step four: Weaving the yarn

Cotton yarn was threaded onto a simple loom and then woven together, creating long pieces of cloth.


Taking the cotton from the wheel


Weaving stations preparing the cloth

Step five: Dyeing the cloth

The cloth was dyed overnight for twelve hours using the center bark from a local tree that was steeped in a vat of hot water.


The center part of the tree is used for the orange dye

Step six: Preparing the robes

The fabric was dried and sewn together into saffron robes.


Weaving and sewing the robes

Step seven: Presenting the robes

Robes were presented in a special ceremony. The festival attracted visitors who flew in from as far away as Bangkok.

Below are pictures from the ceremony!

Corinne Kolm, on-site intern

New Video – Teaching at Buddhist temples

Check out our latest video which features the Wat Doi Saket project! The WDSP places volunteers to live and teach conversational English at Buddhist temples in Northern Thailand.  This video is a look into the experience!

Video shot and produced by: Antoine Gratian

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!


Teaching Abroad: Back to Back English Camps

Recently, the ATMA SEVA team and our volunteers conducted a series of three English camps in five days at three of our partner schools. Each camp was centered around a different theme, following topics the students have been focusing on with each volunteer. The camps are a great way for the students to practice their English conversation in a fun and dynamic way and a chance to speak with many different English speakers. It was also a great chance for us to try out new games, learn more about the students at each school and have a better presence at each location.

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Packing list game!

Our first camp was held at Bapong School in Doi Saket district. We decided to teach about different English speaking countries around the world with a theme we called, “Passport to English”. We focused on seven different English-speaking countries, including countries that our volunteers and interns are originally from. The students were broken into groups by country, created their own passports with their country with the national flag, information about themselves, and had blank pages for the “visas” from other countries. From there the students rotated between country stations to play a game or activity at each station. The Station games included: song word grab in America, matching animals in Australia, pizza making in Italy, matching sentences in England, teaching a song in France, scavenger hunt in India and a navigation game in a “fake city” in the Netherlands.  The group leaders asked for the passports at each station and wrote a phrase or drew a picture as the “visa stamp” for each country. The students enjoyed going on the tour around the world and were excited to show their passports at every station! For the second day, we created activities around a packing list of 27 items that could easily be found at home. (Ex: t-shirt, toothbrush, wallet, batteries, etc.) First we introduced all the items as a group, demonstrating their use and had the students repeat the words out loud. Next we broke back up into our country groups and each group leader took a few items with them to review using the phrase “What is this?” “It’s a ….” The group leaders then rotated to each station with their items so that each team had practice repeating all the objects using the sentences. To review all the items, we played a racing packing game. We collected all the passports from the students to call out random names, and had 2 students come up the front. There we had a table with all 27 items laid out and 2 shopping bags for them to fill. One person wrote 2 lists of 5 items on the whiteboard, while another volunteer kept the lists covered until the race began. When we said go, the students had to look at their “Packing List”, grab the 5 items and pack their bags as fast as they can. The students enjoyed the competition and were excited to help their friends by calling out the items and pointing to them on the table. This game is recommended for a large group to review vocabulary. After lunch in the afternoon we played a series of group competition games with a game called Who’s the Best (see Wiang Hang) and relay races.

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Birds in the nest game

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Group work

For our second camp we went to Pagnew School, another partner school in Doi Saket district. For a one-day camp, we decided to focus on “Body Parts” and played games and activities relating to naming parts of the body.  After an opening group game of Birds in the Nest, we reviewed parts of the body using Antoine as a human prop and having the students place labeled post it notes with the correct words on it on him! It was a bit windy that day so some of the post it notes fell off but it was a good way to place words and body parts together with a silly game and visuals. From there we split the kids up into groups by picking different body parts out a hat; the student had to find their match and get into groups. Each group went over the body parts by drawing their own people and labeling the body. This was also a good chance to go over numbers and colors with the kids. In the afternoon, we broke the students up into two groups and played a round of Simon Says and sang “Head Shoulders Knees and Toes” and the “Hokey Pokey”! Even though they are simple games, the classics are still a great way to learn! After, we did a few rounds of “Body English” spelling body parts with their bodies! Then we had Relay races with a twist: the kids run to us and we point to a body part and they say the word before running back to their teams. Run, jump on one foot, dance, run like a monkey, were all fun relays. We ended the day with a big group game of freeze tag just for fun!

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Students with their certificates

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Reviewing vocab and new sentences

To finish out the week of camps, we headed up north to Wiang Haeng, where on-site intern Maria has been living and teaching for the last three months. There we had two days of activities and fun games to play with the students, however this camp was not focused on one particular theme, instead we played games to practice and drill vocabulary that the novices knew already but needed to practice. Since we had a large group of English speakers with us, we began by introducing ourselves, go over names and have the students repeat. Then to practice speaking, we split the students up into two teams, lined up next to each other and the volunteers stand in a semicircle across from the two lines. The first students in line run to a volunteer at each end of the semicircle and have to run to each in the circle and say their names correctly before the other student on the other team. After names, each volunteer had a vocabulary card that we went over related to questions in basic conversation, such as “birthday”, “sport” and “favorite”. The students enjoyed the competition aspect of the game and practicing the vocabulary in a fast paced game. After the game, we split the students up into small groups to practice conversation questions one on one with the volunteers. The students practiced basic questions like “What is your favorite sport?” and harder questions like, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and “What DON’T you like?”. The small groups were a good chance for the students to hear the volunteers ask the questions multiple times and to practice asking and answering questions in conversation. The next day we only had a short time in the morning before making the drive back to Chiang Mai, so we played another few rounds of Who’s the Best, and the same relay races we played with the last school.

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Group work

Thank you to all the schools and volunteers who helped to put on a great series of camps! If you have any specific questions about games and activities or more tips for putting on your own camp, leave a comment below!

Katherine Devine

Photography Corner – Exploring the Wiang Haeng District

In the past few weeks I have had the opportunity to visit various sites and temples (also known as “wats”) in the Wiang Haeng district. The Wiang Haeng district is located in the north/northeastern part of Thailand, right along the Thai-Burmese border and is home to six different ethnic groups, each with their own distinct cultures, clothing, and language. As such, each temple is a unique blend of architectural styles and carries its own traditions.

My students and fellow teachers have been kind enough to take me on tours around the district and have provided further insight into their unique histories. Wiang Haeng is also located in a lush valley surrounded by forests and mountains – providing a peaceful environment and great hiking and running trails. One weekend, my student took me to visit Mae Hat Waterfall which is tucked behind a small Karen hill-tribe village. The Karen are known for their respect for the environment and have lived for centuries in harmony with nature. Click here to learn more about the Karen and their relationship with nature.

Here is a glimpse into some of the sights I have visited in the past few weeks!

If you are interested in volunteering and would like the chance to live at this location, check out the Wat Doi Saket project for all details!

Maria Moreno, on-site intern

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!

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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