Where to begin?
At the beginning I suppose.
When I was at Dreamtime, Benji told me about this festival just north of Chiang Mai called Shambhala In Your Heart. He had such an amazing experience last year that upon returning home to Vientiane he promptly quit his job and has been living life ever since. It just so happened I would be in Chiang Mai at the exact time the 10-day festival was taking place, so I decided to check it out.
At my hostel I met Gina, who had also heard of this festival and was curious to see what it was all about, so we decided to take on this adventure together. On Monday we boarded a bus for Chiang Dao. It was a very full bus so they placed the only other Western girl in the seat with me and Gina. She introduced herself – Kel from Oakland – and somewhere in my mind I recalled what Simo had told me before we parted ways: “An awesome girl I met in Don Det from Oakland might be going to the festival too. You should meet her.” So I asked, “Do you know Simo?” She looked at me like a crazy psychic person and responded that yes, she did in fact know Simo, how do I know Simo? Long story short (that we love to tell people), Kel had been to Dreamtime and told Simo about it when they met in Don Det, then Simo met up with me and we went to Dreamtime where I met Benji who told me about Shambhala, who had also told Kel about Shambhala when she was there, and now we were sitting next to each other on the way to the festival. The world is mind-blowing sometimes.
Kel was with Johannes, who had also been part of the Dreamtime/Don Det group, and a new friend Josh, so all five of us jumped on a tuktuk and entered Shambhala together. It didn’t take long to find Benji, Mike, and Michelle (from Dreamtime), and the 8 of us – plus new friends Till and Romina – became one happy Shambhala family. These people are the main reason I had such a fantastic time there. They all mean a lot to me, and are missed daily.
Shambhala as a whole felt like one happy family. The festival is all on one field; from across the river you can see pretty much all of if. There was one main stage, a second music area for daytime acts next to the kitchen, stands of incredible cheap food (my favorite was the place that served curries and rice in banana leaves, but the avocado burrito place was very popular), a dorm building, a bathroom building, a few teepees for daytime shade lounging or warming up by a fire at night, and scattered hang out spaces around the river, in the field and by the campsite. Tent villages were set up in two areas; the larger one down a hill behind the stage was where we called home. In the afternoons people set up bamboo mats near the food, creating a little shopping gallery where you could buy amazing handcrafted pieces from wool scarves to essential oils to the silver earrings I picked up, as well as Thai massages and Kel’s by-donation Neck Up Check Up neck massage. Despite the small size of the festival we were still discovering new food places and chill spots every day. It never ceased to amaze me.
We quickly met many congenial festival-goers who we would greet like old friends as we continued to see each other around the grounds. People from tents next to us or nighttime campfire singalongs or attempts at acroyoga or just sharing a table for a meal – everyone was a friend at Shambhala. It’s this atmosphere that made the entire experience so incredible.
It’s hard to explain the days at Shambhala, and I’m not even sure I want to try. It was 6 days of doing whatever it was that felt right at the time. I hung out at camp with the family; Kel led Gina and I in some morning yoga; I learned how to juggle, spin poi, and do acroyoga with Kel; we relaxed in the hot springs, and cooled off in the river next to them when they got too hot; I played in the river with a Thai girl, even though we had a terrible language barrier; I listened to didgeridoo and drum circles by the water, and chill daytime acts near the kitchen; I read in the shade; I stared at nature, wondered at the colors and the movements; and I snacked on all the delicious offerings. It was relaxed, it was blissful, it was the kind of experience that’s impossible to share through words.
After the sun set the music would start. Most days I almost forgot we were at a music festival till someone would start playing on stage. The music was incredibly varied, and pretty much all Japanese and Thai performers. We saw a solo experimental guitarist who blew us away. We danced like no one was watching to a didgeridoo/brass/guitar/drums band who got everyone on their feet. We cheered for Johannes and Josh when they took up the offer of a solo act for anyone who can play music to join them on stage. Every act was a guessing game, no night had a theme of music. It could go from a shaky sounding trio to a professional level full band. That was the fun of it – we knew none of these bands or what they would play, so nights were filled with new discoveries.
When the bands stopped the festival kept going. One night there was a fire performance show that I watched with jaw dropped. They were incredible. Most nights people simply wandered around with their guitars and drums looking for whatever campfire had something going on. Impromptu drum circles or jam sessions would pop up for a while, and whoever knew a song would sing along. We were the main camp one night with probably 30 people at our tiny little campfire enjoying the spontaneous music of anyone who felt like playing. Till took it upon himself to make sure that we would never have such a small fire again, and Benji picked up tea and coffee to give out next time. Everyone just wanted to make the festival better for all. I never knew what time we went to sleep. I never cared.
I went to Shambhala for 1 day. I stayed for 6.
I had planned to go to Pai for two days then back to Chiang Mai to do the things I’d heard I should do but didn’t get to yet. Everyone said I had to go to Pai, it was the best. For me, Shambhala was the best. Pai, the elephants – these things aren’t going anywhere. But what I lived for a week at Shambhala can never be duplicated, replaced, or forgotten. That mixture of the atmosphere of the festival, the people I was with, and the excitement of what I had discovered outside of and within myself is something truly special.
I didn’t get why it was called Shambhala In Your Heart and I haven’t looked it up to find out why. I just know that to me it makes sense. Shambhala is in my heart, forever.