Posts Tagged With: atma seva

A long-overdue update!

Well hidey-o. It’s been awhile and I apologize for falling off the blogging wagon, so to speak. The problem with blogging, and journaling for that matter, is what happens after you miss a few days. As soon as you go from writing regularly to realizing that a week has passed since last updating, the thought of recapping everything that has happened since the last entry becomes overwhelming. Suddenly, a week turns to two and catching up seems even more daunting. At some point, you just need to bite the bullet and get back in the game. So that’s what I’m doing. Now!

I have just over two weeks left before my trip comes to an end and I head back to the good ol’ US of A. I’m not sure where the time went, but my pictures tell me that I did a lot. I realize that I never fully blogged about Cambodia and Vietnam as I intended. So much happened in such a short period of time that things got lost in the shuffle. Someday soon I hope to go back and write more about that trip because it was amazing and deserves more attention!

But starting with the present… last weekend I spent three days out in another district, Wiang Haeng, up by the Burmese border. ATMA SEVA was helping run an English camp for about 40 novice monks. We spent three nights at a foundation center run by this amazing monk up there who has dedicated his life to helping educate boys who otherwise would probably have no access to a school. Over 60% of the novices living at the center are from Burma, many of whom are also orphaned. The novices were absolutely adorable and a pleasure to teach, even if only for a few days. They loved all the songs that we taught them (mostly classic children’s songs with the words altered to focus on the camp’s theme, community helpers) and the kids enjoyed cooking western food.


Novices making and enjoying some waffles 🙂

Over the course of three days we made waffles, scrambled eggs, pork burgers, french fries, fried chicken and spaghetti. I’m not sure who was more excited about this, me or them. 

The town of Wiang Haeng is quite small- it does have a 7-11 and a few mom and pop shops, but not much else. It’s only about a 20 minute drive from the Burmese border, although the road here is not an official border crossing. Government traffic and other important people can cross, but from what I gather, that’s about it.  There is also a refugee camp set up not far from here that houses Burmese Shan state refugees.  I left before we had a chance to visit, but I would have liked to see more of the border area.



Another highlight of the trip was the scenery. The center where we stayed was back off the main road, nestled between a ring of hills in the distance. There was a lovely manmade pond on the grounds and plenty of green space. Adding to the scene, there was a whole litter of puppies running all over the place, which was absolutely ADORABLE. Downside? I’m pretty sure one of them ate my flip flop. I left my room around 7am on day two, bleary eyed and in need of some coffee, to find only one flip flop remaining where I’m sure I had deposited two the previous evening. After a few minutes of searching (as I said, I was only half awake) I concluded that flip flop #2 was indeed gone. RIP flip flops.


And then the sky turned black.

Anyways, I digress. The point is that the center was set in a beautiful landscape, highlighted by a late afternoon thunderstorm that came through on our first day of camp. The sky took on the eeriest half-blackened look over the hills. The winds picked up, the clouds rolled in until they hovered directly above us, and then it poured. As a total weather freak, it was one of the most visually stunning thunderstorms I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing. The pictures I took don’t quite do it justice, but I tried.

I got back to Chiang Mai on Monday afternoon and I’ve had some much needed break time back in the city: a couple casual nights out on the town, Jazz co-op Tuesday jam night, yoga, several super long walks around the city (some intentional, some accidental when I failed to locate the coffee shop I was looking for… damn you, Bird’s Nest!) and catching up on sleep have all been wonderful. Today’s big plans? A little work, a little massage and a new tattoo! Stay tuned 😉

I promise to try and write more before I return to the boring land of Connecticut two weeks from tomorrow and my life becomes significantly less interesting!



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Some Reflections on SE Asia

When I arrived in Chiang Mai back in January, I had never set foot onto Asian soil.  This city was my first exposure to Asian life and culture.  I’ll never forget my first experience riding down Huay Kaew road on the back of Dave’s motorcycle: I thought I was going to die.  Everything seemed so frenzied, with cars, tuk tuks, motorbikes and pedestrians darting everywhere.  The sights, sounds and smells of the city were a full on assault on my senses.  Despite the initial chaos, I quickly adjusted to this foreign place and Chiang Mai became a kind of home, my baseline Asian city.


Home sweet home! And our new ATMA SEVA office!

It wasn’t until I left the familiar comforts of my apartment in Chiang Mai to venture south to Bangkok that I realized just how good I have it here.  From the moment I arrived in the Bangkok train station to the great pleasure of the dozens of taxi and tuk tuk drivers vying for my baht, I realized that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, as the saying goes.  From there things only got more aggressive, heading into Cambodia where the poverty is much more prevalent and in your face.  Walking around Angkor Wat, you can’t go twenty feet without ten cries of “Lady! Fresh pineapple for you! Very cheap!” or a dozen little girls following you along the road trying to sell you postcards and other small trinkets.  At first it’s easy enough to smile and say no politely.  At 2pm when you’ve been climbing around temples since 5am in 100 degree plus heat and approximately 147% humidity, it’s much harder to put on your happy face to turn down vendor #493.  I can sympathize with their position, but at some point, it’s just exhausting to constantly have to say “no” ten times before someone hears it.


The streets of Saigon. One of the many vendors who will approach you on the street, peddling his wares. As he repeatedly told us, he didn’t JUST sell sunglasses, but he had an impressive collection of lighters too! Unfortunately, we were not in the market for either.

It’s the same with tuk tuk and pedicab drivers.  The only time you’re safe is when you are physically in another tuk tuk.  Until then, you are fair game and you will be hassled.  I remember one afternoon we were in Hue, Vietnam trying to walk around the old Imperial Citadel.  This is a large complex of restored buildings, old gates, crumbling walls, and other sites.  After spending 75% of the previous day in a car, we were ready to explore on foot.  A helpful pedicab driver pointed us in the right direction to the Citadel.  Starting to understand how the game works, I knew we hadn’t seen the last of him.  After waving and thanking him, he continued to follow us all the way to the Citadel, repeatedly offering us a ride in his pedicab for lower and lower prices.  I tried to explain to him that it wasn’t the price- we just didn’t want a pedicab ride- to which he replied, “you never try, you never know!” Clever, sir.  Unfortunately all we wanted to do was walk around and he did not seem to be getting the message.  It took us a solid ten minutes to lose him, at which point I’m pretty sure Anna, my traveling companion, was on the verge of snapping his head off.

Similar scenarios occurred in every city we visited in Cambodia and Vietnam, although this particular experience in Hue was the worst.  It really opened my eyes to comfortable my life in Chiang Mai is.  Everyone always says that Thai people are extremely friendly and welcoming and I can personally attest this to be true.  In Chiang Mai, when somebody says hello to you on the street, 99% of the time they are just being friendly and have no agenda.  When a tuk tuk driver pulls over to offer you a ride, if you say no, they nod and drive off.  I was absolutely astounded by how different the culture in Chiang Mai is to the rest of the parts of SE Asia that I visited.  Granted, I went to mostly tourist hot spots and didn’t even make it to Laos, but overall, I was amazed at how artificial the friendliness felt everywhere we went.  Sure, that lady with the basket of donuts is all smiles and cheer until you say “no, I don’t want donuts” for the fifth time, at which point her face drops and she stomps off to her next target.


Classic Hanoi. You can find everything on the sidewalk except for pedestrians!

There are plenty of things that I loved about Cambodia and Vietnam, which I’ll be writing about soon, but this feeling of fake friendliness is one of the biggest things that stuck out to me throughout our trip.  Had I started in Hanoi, I would have had a very different understanding of SE Asia.  It just goes to show how relative our impressions are.  Also, although the cultures do share a lot of similarities, this trip highlighted how different these three countries and the cities within them are. It makes me very grateful to have found such a warm, welcoming temporary home in Chiang Mai!

Cheers, J

p.s. For more thoughts, check out my latest blog entry for the ATMA SEVA organization blog, Southeast Asia on a Shoestring Schedule. Another entry with pictures coming soon!

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Just one of my favorite shots from Pa Pae. Two girls hunting for candy as part of a Scout Camp day!

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Polish? You’re Polish? Oh… PO-LICE. Like, Police.

It’s funny what you end up missing.  When I departed Chiang Mai a little over two weeks ago for village life, I thought I would miss the comforts of the city, like western style toilets and showers.  I thought I’d start craving some random farang (foreign) food like pizza.  Turns out, two weeks in, I really don’t miss any of these tangibles that much.  I’ve gotten used to my cold bucket showers, taken around the same time everyday after my late afternoon walk around the village, categorizing the experience as “refreshing” rather than “frigid.”  Honestly, they feel great.  As far as the rest of the bathroom situation goes, I’ve adjusted to the idea of the squat toilet and now the idea of sitting on a toilet seems weird.  It’s funny how quickly we can recalibrate to a new culture if we’re just open to it.  It’s human nature to initially have the knee jerk reaction of “they do WHAT? HOW? Why?? I’m not doing that!!” but eventually the question flips- we start to wonder why we do things the way we do.  Who decided that sitting on a toilet was a better idea than squatting over one?  (This is a legitimate question.)  Seeing more of the world has made me more introspective, thinking about how I do certain things and why.  The whole idea of perspective starts to become a reality instead of a buzzword thrown around by world travelers.

The things that I have missed while in Pa Pae are less palpable.  I’ve missed the comfort of being able to communicate easily.  To have a thought and know, instantly, how to convey that idea to another human being via speech.  It’s something we take for granted in daily life. This has given me a newfound appreciation for anyone who has ever left their homeland for a foreign country with no knowledge of the native language.  It can be hard as hell.

But the flip side of this, or the progression, is the realization that the experience of hitting a linguistic road block actually can be great fun.  Passing the handy Thai-English dictionary back and forth can make for an entertaining afternoon, with both parties learning a new word and laughing at the other’s mispronunciation (I don’t think I’ll ever get the “ng” letter/sound down…!)  There’s also something great about the moment when your message is conveyed.  Like the other night…

So Friday night around 6pm, a thunderstorm rolls through the hills.  It didn’t hit Pa Pae too hard, but it was enough to take out the power.  I noticed this at my tee bahn (home) and went back to a friend’s for dinner, bringing with me the news that the power was down.  Using my limited arsenal of Thai words, I pointed to the light switch and the ceiling light and said “mai mee,” meaning “don’t have.”  Of course, my hosts were confused.  Holding up a finger to wait, I pulled out the dictionary and found the word for electricity.  A-ha!  Now they understood, flipping the light switch and exclaiming in Thai that yes, the power was in fact out.  Another win for the dictionary.

The title of this entry refers to another entertaining exchange involving a 23 year old Lawa man telling me repeatedly that he was Polish.  I was confused, trying to figure out if this was possible or if he was mixing up the word (hey, how do I know, maybe a Polish person came to visit Pa Pae once? Maybe I found a long lost relative!)  Eventually, and I mean like 30 minutes later, we figure out with the help of a friend that he means police.  Not Polish.  Ahhh, bummer.

It’s little moments like these that I’ll look back fondly on, not for any special reason, just for the unique and utterly exotic experience that they represent.  My stay here has been both extremely challenging and very fun, often at the same time.  Sometimes I find myself thinking of the common interview question “tell us about a challenge you faced and what you did” and think that I’ve found my answer.  I mean, after this, grad school should be a breeze!

I have two more nights solo here before Katherine and a new friend of Atma Seva arrive on Wednesday.  Despite the fact that I’m now comfortably living here on my own, I’m looking forward to a friendly face and some English-speaking company!  And then we all head back to Chiang Mai early Saturday, where I’ll move into my new apartment!!  Stay tuned for more news as my Thai adventures continue 🙂

❤ J

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Living at Wat Doi Saket

Greetings! 🙂

Today begins Day 2 of my week at Wat Doi Saket, a decently large temple complex about a half an hour east of Chiang Mai (for those of you who like maps as much as me, click here).  The Wat Doi Saket project is the flagship program of Atma Seva, so I’m following in the footsteps of other volunteers that have come through the wat.  Most volunteers come for a month or two (or more) to teach English, but I’m only here for a week to get a taste of the experience before heading off to a remote hill tribe somewhere north of here.

Things out in Doi Saket are much quieter than Chiang Mai.  Well, maybe quieter isn’t the right word.  Calmer, less frenzied.  I guess this makes sense since my fellow companions at the wat are about 120 monks!  I’m adjusting to the sounds of the wat, which include incessant chirping, honking (what sound DOES a boar make?), the Thai chatter of teenage novice monks, and animal sounds of an unknown origin outside my window ~3am.  It’s quite fun!

The wat and surrounding grounds are beautiful, at every time of the day.  I’m doing my best to get out and explore whenever I can.  It’s amazing how different the same statue or monument looks at day break, noon and after dark.  My favorite so far is the giant buddha:


One giant buddha, Wat Doi Saket.


The giant Buddha at sunset.

It’s really hard to snap a picture that really encapsulates just how huge this thing is.  Just trust me when I say that it’s HUGE.

Besides wandering around and taking pictures of shiny things, I’ve also started some work.  Looks like my Chiang Mai honeymoon week is over.  Whomp. Dave and I went over a broad outline of my time here and some of the goals we hope to accomplish in the next four months.  I can’t really complain, though, since our work session was held at an adorable little open air cafe over an iced latte and green tea.  To give you a sense of how trusting and safe it is out here, we left our laptops on the cafe table while we took a quick drive down the street to pick up some lunch.  I was a little hesitant at first, but Dave is friendly with the woman who owns the shop and assured me that they wouldn’t go anywhere (and they didn’t!)  Back in the states, I barely trust my laptop alone in Starbucks if I have to run to the restroom ten feet away.  I can already tell that readjusting to that when I go home is going to be tough.

Anyways, it’s a new day over here in Thailand, so I should be out exploring.  I’ve been debating how badly I need a shower since the idea of washing in cold water doesn’t sound too tempting on this chilly, cloudy morning.  Yesterday it was “invigorating,” today it just sounds straight up cold and unpleasant.

I’ll leave you with one last picture that I took the other day at the “mini zoo” up the hill…


Peacock at the Wat Doi Saket mini zoo! Still loving my new 20x zoom camera.

Happy Tuesday!

Until next time,

❤ J

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An eventful day!

Well, I think yesterday takes the cake for most eventful day in Thailand thus far.  I managed to sleep in until 7:15am, quite the accomplishment since my first morning I woke up around 6:30 and day 2 around 6:45 (today I even made it to a little after 8am! I’m improving!)


My lovely accommodations in the Sunshine Guest House, home til Sunday.

I hung around my room for a little bit before heading over to Dave’s girlfriend Nid’s place to meet up with the gang around 10.  Of course, being chronically early and certainly not adjusted to “Thai time” yet, I arrived around 9:45 and took a few laps.  I made my first successful solo purchase in 7 Eleven, managed to make it rain baht all over the floor, and enjoyed a breakfast of dried seaweed and water before returning to Dave and Nid’s closer to 10.

We met up with Katherine, Alexis, Stu, another volunteer who does work with Atma Seva from time to time, and another American named Scott who just arrived two weeks ago.  After chowing down on some delicious chocolate croissants, courtesy of Stu, we headed out for the day, planning on making a loop from Chiang Mai around through Mae Rim, a nearby district in the hills, and back to the city.  The first 1/3 of the trip was great, incredible lush, green forest, relatively empty roads compared to downtown Chiang Mai which is complete chaos.  Things were going great until Dave and I (on his motorcycle) and Katherine and Scott (on her motorbike) stopped at the top of a hill to wait for Stu and Alexis.  They were suddenly nowhere in sight after we’d all been following each other at a pretty close distance.  After about 30 seconds of wondering, Dave’s phone rings. Ut oh. It’s Stu, informing us that they crashed after being forced to swerve by a songtaew, or Thai version of shared taxi, that made an unexpected turn.  We raced back to them and found the Thai ambulance already at the scene, cleaning out their wounds and bandaging them up.  Luckily, nobody was seriously injured and an awesome bystander who witnessed the whole thing actually managed to chase the songtaew, which fled the scene, up the road and bring him back!!  That guy was our new best friend.  While they were getting patched up, another local kept translating for us what was going on and how we needed to wait “just few minutes!” for the driver to return.  All things considered, it was pretty lucky that the crash happened literally two minutes down the road from the clinic where the ambulance is housed and that no one sustained injuries worse than some gnarly scrapes and bruises (thank you, helmets.)


Alexis getting patched up by Thai EMTs.. and still she manages a smile!

Needless to say, this was not how we expected our day would turn out.  Dave’s words as we eventually continued on our way, “I’m having a really hard time selling you on the whole idea of learning how to drive a motorbike…!” Um, yes.  In three days, this is the second crash I’ve seen (although I’m told by others, like Katherine, that in her entire six months here, these are the only two she’s seen as well.)  I also managed to give myself my first “tourist tattoo” or leg burn from leaning against the exhaust pipe of the motorcycle.  Oww/oops.


My new “tattoo”… really just an afterthought to the rest of the day’s events!

So yeah, right now I don’t have such a great feeling about these two wheeled beasts.  I must say, I was pretty impressed by the Thai emergency service.  Not only were they efficient, but we didn’t have to pay them a thing.  They got the contact info for the songtaew driver and he’s responsible for any charges, no questions asked, no forms to file, no waiting for claims to process.  I also managed to get a saline soaked gauze pad taped onto my burn while we were waiting, free of charge! Katherine got some iodine for a cut on her leg as well.  In America, we’d be out thousands of dollars for that little visit from the ambulance.  I’m still amazed how easy the whole process was and it reminds me of how ridiculously inefficient/cost in-effective our US system can be.  Annnnyways, I’m just happy that everyone was okay in the end and made it back to Chiang Mai in one piece.  What a crazy day.


The scene of the accident. The stand to the left is where all emergency care was administered. The EMTs were there for maybe 15 minutes tops.

Stay tuned for more updates from Wat Doi Saket, the temple I’ll be living at next week!

❤ J

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Sa wat dee ka! Hello!

Greetings from Thailand!

Great success!  I arrived in Chiang Mai safe and sound on Tuesday night, which to me just felt like the end of one really long Monday thanks to the 12 hour time difference.  I’m still working on completely reversing my circadian rhythm with limited success (day 2 of waking before 7 am!), but I’m sure it’ll get better with time.  Everything has been wonderful so far!  Here are some highlights:

  1. Some wonderful soul at Korean Airlines decided to put me in business/prestige class.  Yeah, that meant one of these.  Hands down the best flight of my life, probably ever, unless I become rich and famous.
  2. Arriving in Chiang Mai to be greeted by the Atma Seva team, the group of people with whom I’ll be working for the next four months. (Read more about Atma Seva here!) It was such a great feeling to have a whole welcome party waiting for me when I exited baggage claim.  We threw my bags in the back of the pick up truck and headed to an adorable outdoor restaurant/bar for spicy noodles and beer.  We were half successful in this goal.  Upon arrival, we were informed that the chef was “too drunk” to cook us dinner, and instead happily settled for some Beer Leo and french fries (guess he wasn’t too drunk for the deep frier?)
  3. Eating my first ever Thai pad thai.  For breakfast.  The freshness of the flavors was devine.


    Breakfast 🙂 My first (of many) pad thai in Thailand!

  4. Exploring Wat Palad, a lesser known wat, or temple, halfway up the mountain to Wat Doi Suthep, a more popular sight.  I had my first chance to go to town with my new digital camera at Wat Palad and there was certainly no shortage of incredible statues, scenery and wildlife to photograph.


    The grounds at Wat Palad

  5. Watching Thai natives drive.  Wow.  In the words of Dave, traffic laws here are really more like guidelines- no one will bother you if you have three people, an entire family, an entire family plus a chicken, or an entire family with their livestock and personal possessions precariously balanced on the back of a motorbike.  Quite the scene.
  6. My first one hour Thai massage for 170 baht, or about $5-6.  Yes, please!

After a full day of exploring, Katherine (one of the other on-site interns) and I had a lengthy dinner at sit down Japanese restaurant.  Quite the adventure.  The best part involved the waitress explaining to us what each menu item was by pointing to her body, for example indicating that the item we had just pointed to was, in fact, cow tongue.  Ooookay then, next!  Cuisine adventures aside, it was great to have a chance to just sit and chat and get to talk about all kinds of ideas for the future, both Atma Seva’s and our own.  I couldn’t be more excited to be here and I can’t wait to see what the next several months hold!!

❤ J

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