Shambhala In Your Heart

Two years ago we visited friends of friends in the Northern Thailand town of Pai. Once there we discovered not only the beauty of a new place but also sincere friendship at Shekina Gardens. We kept in touch with our new friends and recently reached out to them for a return visit. They told us about a 10-day festival called Shambhala in Your Heart, hosted by a Japanese community, based in Thailand. They said that the festival happens every February and suggested we join them there. We contacted the festival to inquire about performing and they accepted our proposal. Our friend and fellow bus rider, Jeffrey, contacted us and asked to join as well. He met us in Australia and we all flew over together.

We arrived in the small town of Chiang Dao on a warm Thursday afternoon and found our way to the festival grounds. We were greeted by¬†the mighty, mist-shrouded Doi Luang mountain.¬†Teepees and tents sprinkled the grounds, prayer flags blew in the breeze and happy hippies from around the globe¬†frolicked in the stream. We met a new friend named Totto and asked her what Shambhala actually meant. She explained that in Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist traditions, Shambhala; is a mythical kingdom and suggested it was like being safe in the palm of the Buddha’s hand.

The days were filled with workshops in the arts, history, crafts, every kind of yoga that exists, sound therapy, and meditation. In fact, our friends from Shekina Gardens hosted a gentle and exploratory “Christ-centered” meditation every day in one of the Teepees. This was the¬†first year they were invited to lead and¬†we found¬†the gesture to be¬†quite progressive and affirming to our faith practice. It complimented the¬†intercultural nature of the festival and enhanced what seemed to be a core ideology of an open and simple life for all, free from greed, destruction, and¬†war.

One favorite workshop was about the history of the indigenous people, or the Ainu people in Japan. (Ainu” means “human”.)¬† Some attention was given to the plight of the Ainu people in Japan and how in 1899 Japan created a law that restricted the Ainu from participating in their own cultural activities. In other words, the Ainu people were stripped of their land, customs, and language in hopes that they would assimilate to Japanese culture. It wasn’t until 1997 that this law was lifted and the Ainu people were allowed to practice their own customs again. It was both enlighting and disheartening to learn of this considering the plight of our own indigenous friends in both Australia and the US and stirred in us an advocates heart. Most of the class, however, was on the rituals and beliefs of the Ainu people. We learned that they regard things that are useful to them or beyond their control as “kamuy”(gods). In daily life, they pray to and perform various ceremonies for the gods. We learned about the ancient practice of “stitching”. In this practice, Ainu women weave and elaborately decorate the traditional ceremonial clothing with symbols of the of the gods including “nature” gods, such as of fire, water, wind and thunder and “animal” gods, such as the bear or crow. Then we were given opportunities to learn the craft of stitching ourselves. It was a fascinating and inspiring way to spend an afternoon.

Another fun activity was just a short walk down the road to the sulfur hot springs. It was free to the public and offered a variety of tubs varying in temperature. Our new (10yr old) friend, David, from Russia, joined us one afternoon and we had a lively discussion about how much he loves fire. When I suggested he become a fireman when he grows up, he looked at me and said with disgust “I do¬†not want to kill fire! I want to make fire big! Very big! I want to be fire!” Haha!! Watch out world!

In the evenings there was music, fire twirling, and dancing. At some point during the night, there were announcements. Three speakers took the stage, one spoke Japanese, one Thai, and one English. It was fascinating to watch them translate for one another. Most of the announcements had to do with interacting with and respecting the local village and culture; things like respecting the village by putting on more clothes (not cool to run around in bikini’s or shirtless in Thailand) or quiet hours starting at midnight. It was refreshing to watch these leaders setting a tone of humility and harmony by offering us wisdom to better interact with the local culture.

There were two performance stages. The kitchen stage ran during the afternoon and featured open mics, poetry, and spoken word. The main stage was in the middle of the grounds and ran in the evening from 5:30pm-midnight. The bands varied from singer/songwriters to full-on rock/reggae bands and most were from Thailand or Japan. There were also a handful of performance art/dance acts.

The Hollands! performed a rollicking set on a Wednesday night just as the sun was setting. We shared six songs and invited our friends Ro and Aya to join us on Morning Star, our last song. The crowd was enchanting as they danced, sang and encouraged us with their smiles. It was most certainly one of our favorite performance interactions. Besides our official performance, we also spent quite a bit of the festival jamming old bluegrass and folk tunes with other muso’s. Jeffrey really stood out at the festival with his mad violin skills! He was even invited to play a haunting set during the fire spinning show. It was fire and violin, quite the beautiful combination.

On a side note: We stayed at¬†Koko Home. (There was camping at the festival but the cost to buy all the gear was about the same as staying at Koko’s, so we opted for comfort). We rented out the family room for four people, with a queen and bunks for about $1000TBT a night (That’s about $30USD) The room was clean and air-conditioned, which was refreshing as some of the days it got up to 98f. We also rented one moped from Koko and used it to shuttle back and forth. Koko and his family were amazing hosts. Koko spoke English well and¬†invited all the guest, including us, to a home cooked meal and jam one of the nights. His wife made¬†Khao Soi, which is a soup-like dish made with a mix of deep-fried crispy egg noodles and boiled egg noodles, pickled mustard greens, shallots, lime, ground chilies fried in oil, and meat in a curry-like sauce containing coconut milk. It is our new favorite and we will be looking for it on every Thia menu we¬†can find it on!

PS. If you are keen to go to Shambhala in Your Heart and want more information on logistics,¬†¬†Joanna’s “Blond Travels” blog was very helpful.

And be sure to like the festival’s facebook page.

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The Flow of Pai, Thailand

IMG_9810We arrived in the northern mountain city of Pai, Thailand, on NYE just in time to join our kinfolk from Shekina Community at their NYE party.

As we pulled into town, after our 3 hour winding and rolling van ride from Chiang Mai, we made our way,  backpacks and instruments in tow, towards our little Thai hut, at Family House Riverside. We immediately felt a festive, laid back vibe and most everyone smiled at us as we wandered the city streets. We noticed backpackers from all corners of the world and the Thai people we met, obviously impacted by these visitors, sported a mix of traditional and world markings in both fashion, tattoos, dreadlocks and speech. It was foreign enough in Pai but there was also a familiarity in this unique place, a feeling of home.
IMG_9796The breeze was cool but the sun warm on our faces as we crossed over a bamboo bridge finally arriving at our little grass hut. We were greeted warmly by the owner, an Italian man named Johnathan, and his Thai friends/family. We settled our things into our huts and were soon greeted by our friend Leaf, from the Shekina Community. She welcomed us to Pai and shared a little bit about her family and community as we made our way back across the river towards a gathering at the Ford home. At the same time, a young lady, whom we had met at a backpacker hostel in Chiang Mai, happened to be in Pai at the same time, so we invited her along to the gathering.
IMG_9797After sharing a lovely dinner and music, a group of about 30 of us began to walk into town, towards the river where the NYE celebration was in full swing. It was late and dark and we were excited about what NYE might look like in this part of the world. As we strolled through the city, the streets were filled with vendors  selling all sorts of beautiful creations. The many colors, streamers, balloons, music and food elated our senses, building our anticipation.
IMG_9801When we finally reached the water, the city lights faded, we found a sky full of thousands of fire lanterns floating peacefully in the air. Soon though, the lights of sparklers came out and eventually a choir of fireworks began to pop and crackle, dancing around the docile lanterns. There really was no officiate shooting the fireworks, but rather a vendor set up with a table full of every sort of cracker you could desire and it was every group for themselves. Parties within parties, lighting their crackers at random intervals, some shooting straight to the sky, some actually launching lopsided, a little to close to the crowds, evoking a sense of excitement and panic. All of our senses were heightened and we were filled with amazement at the prospect of the sort of organized chaos echoing around us! We found a moment of solace within our group and gathering in a circle together with a number of the peaceful lanterns in hand, we released them all in a grand ceremonial launch, wishing for peace on earth and good will towards all. Needless to say, the night ended in sheer delight!
IMG_9816The next day we began to explore Pai, nestled by the surrounding mountain side, the little town boast about 2000 for it’s local population and on any given day can accommodate just the right amount of backpackers to still feel homey. We explored a few restaurants and found a healthy dose of vegan and veggie options. One of our favorite was Art in Chai, which we ended up frequenting daily for their delicious chai and near the end of the week, we ended up doing a little spontaneous concert at the venue. After the concert we met a few fellows from Argentina and Spain, we spent some time getting to know them and were delighted by their invitation to join them the next evening at their guesthouse for a BBQ.
IMG_9795The next morning we rose and spent the day riding mopeds up into the beautiful mountains, to the hot springs for a soak. We passed some of the crude elephant farms, which actually caught us off guard and elicited a sense of sadness, but finally wound our way up into the springs. There was a guard at the gate who stopped us to look over our gear and then charged us 20Baht each to get into the grounds. We rode another 5K deepening into the forest, finally coming to the springs. There were about 40 people there, mostly backpackers but a few local families taking a relaxing bath and an older,¬†long-haired hippie, from France, who spent most of his time trying to recruit people to his Yoga class later that evening. After our swim, we decided to head back and get ready for the gathering with our new backpacker friends. On our final stretch home, we passed an open field, where a boxing ring was set up, just sitting there, out in the middle of the field. It was so hilariously¬†out of ¬†place that the unusual spectacle drew us in and we couldn’t help but to crawl into the ring and have a go.
1013332_10208234196716613_3277478518350916490_nThen later that evening we joined our new Spanish-speaking friends at their guesthouse. Their party was already underway and we met folks from all over South America including Chile, Columbia, Mexico, and Argentina, we also met folks from Canada, Australia, Spain, the US, Cambodia, and Finland. I wish I had more pictures from that evening because it was really quite special. We swapped songs, we told stories and encouraged these kinfolk to see life a little differently.
IMG_0067One thing that really struck me as we sat there swapping songs and story, was the openness that all of these young minds had towards each other, their desire to know and be known. They came from all corners of the earth, all different beliefs and struggles and probably in many of their homelands those, that they now sat with, would be considered less than or the enemy. And, yet, here in this place, there was an understanding and the deeper connectivity of humanity could be felt. As we all moved in unity, further into that connectivity, the “us and them” became “we” and for a still small moment, all felt right with the world.
As the night progressed, we began to break into smaller groups for more intimate conversation. I was encouraged to sit with a young woman from Cambodia, who was raised in California but travels back periodically to visit her homeland and people. She said her greatest struggle in going back is balancing the complexities of womanhood. I shared with her the stories of some of the strong and courageous young women whom I had met them in Phnom Penh at Alongsiders, women who¬†were doing wonderful things to reshape the canvas of human rights, especially for young women in Cambodia. She was encouraged to hear about them and hoped to one day met them. ¬†At the same time, Banjo was showing his Cajon to a few mates, teaching them some of the basics. Graciana was strumming along on her guitar, making music with a few of the friends who still wanted to sing and Craig was sitting with a group of about 7 young people from the US and Australia. I could hear him sharing intently with them, but couldn’t hear what they were talking about. When my conversation finished, I walked over to Craig and found out that the young people he was engaged with were from a religious organization called YWAM, and this was their first stop on their trek across SE Asia. It was a delight to hear their hearts desire for their generation to experience an awaking spiritually, to know the God of all gods. It was also an honor offer them encouragement by sharing stories from many our years on the road.
12509128_10153870150734028_8010103830305621202_nAround midnight, we felt it time to head home but Graciana wanted to stay out longer. We contemplated what “staying out later” might entail. So far, the group had been perfectly delightful, but they were all young loving, adventure seeking, and probably pleasure-seeking young adults and so with reluctance we obliged her. However, before we left her, we did make quite the speech, calling for all of those well chiseled and dynamic young¬†men to gather around us and listen closely. Graciana cringed with embarrassment. None the less, with Craig and his manly mustache backing me, I instructed the young men to escort and protect Graciana through the rest of the evening. They all stood a little taller and Manuel who had taken charge for the group, concurred whole heartedly to¬†honor her, with Jonatan, Ignacio and Dieguito nodding behind in agreement. I made it clear that no one was to touch her… including them, and that was when Manuel’s eyes went wide and he declared in his booming voice, all of their allegiance, proclaiming her¬†virtue would be secure. Whew!
IMG_9821
We walked away, took a deep breath, went back to our little bungalow, crawled in bed and waited until we heard their jovial voices whispering through the air, finally settling into a deep sleep about 4am.
The next day at breakfast, Graciana shared a pleasant review of the evening and we all had a fine laugh about the dramatic speech, some of the jockeying that took place with a few of the fellas the night before but ultimately, she attested ¬†to the good clean fun that was had, sitting around campfires, the light-hearted laughter and sharing music, including some old timey, hymns. Honestly, I am proud of my girl and these young people we met along the way, specially the young men who cared for and respected this mothers wishes. Well done young men! Your mother’s and father’s would be proud!
IMG_9811We only spent five days in Pai but fusing our fantastic time with all of the backpackers we met and the amazing sense of solace that came from being with all the kinfolk from Shekina Gardens, we’d have to say that Pai, Thailand was one of our favorite stops in SE Asia. The sense of community and connectivity we experienced in Pai during those five days are a true treasure and we do not take them for granted. Excited to see if more¬†times will come, where we can meet our new companions from around the globe, out on the open road, or maybe even in their hometowns. We long to see them again, share a meal, story and song and be encouraged by the tie that binds us all in love.