Shambhala Music Festival: An Unaltered Tale of My Altered Journey

Featured Image | Shambhala Music Festival

It’s 10am on Tuesday, I have just awoken from a nearly 19-hour sleep. I left Shambhala at around 5:30am Monday morning, although it felt more like Sunday night. I walked straight to my friend Steve’s car after spending the entire evening roaming the festival under the guidance of MDMA, LSD and watered down liquor, more on this later.

The first few days after Shambhala are always a little strange, I had just checked out of real-world living for the better part of four days. “Normal” doesn’t feel normal at all, at least not yet. I haven’t cut off my festival wristband, I’m not ready to.

Before I get too deep into the experience, I must present a disclaimer. I am telling this story to the best of my memory, highlighting things that stood out to me as it relates to my personality. Shambhala is a unique experience for everyone. As much as the festival is about connecting with others and the world around you, it’s also about deeper connecting to yourself and how you react to the situations and stimulus that cross your path. I try to garner a lesson out of every Shambhala and always feel a bit more in tune with myself when returning from each trip. I’m still reflecting on the experience as a whole, but I’m slowly discovering the theme of this year’s journey.

That being said, substance use is mentioned in this article. The last thing I want is for you to read my work and use it as an excuse to try drugs without proper research. Though I am somewhat experienced in experimentation, I am not an avid user and only submerge myself in psychedelic euphoria on rare occasions as a way to exercise my mind beyond its sober constraints. A clear head is extremely important, but escaping the grips of reality for brief moments in life can push the horizons of your personal boundaries. Sometimes that can aid our growth. Be wary of succumbing to over-consumption and falling into a murky pit of reliance. Abuse is dangerously possible, always educate yourself before digging.

Shambhala is a dry event, meaning drugs and alcohol are prohibited. Despite this being common law, drugs and booze can find its way into any festival ground. As a precaution, ANKORS, a free-of-charge drug testing site is available on-site to make sure that if you are choosing to do drugs, you are doing them safely. Nobody NEEDS drugs to enjoy Shambhala, but I explore them to layer the experience. To see through an altered lens.

I arrived to Shambhala around 5pm on Thursday. Steve and I were trying to find our friends in “Camp Lurk,” a collective squadron that consisted of us “Canadian homies” and the “Colorado fam.” The Colorado fam were originally a neighbouring camp I met at Shambhala 2015 through my close friend Daniel, who is also responsible for opening me to this outworldly festival. We connected with our American neighbours through a shared love of heavy bass music. We’ve kept in contact ever since, opting to camp with each-other annually, always picking up exactly where we left off without skipping a beat. There’s so much love and good vibes in this group, I couldn’t be more grateful.

We shared great stories with each other throughout the weekend. Some that stick out are Darling’s ghostly experience in Taiwan as well as the one about Steph’s son who cried when she wouldn’t let him name their new puppy Bassnectar. Seraj also has me convinced that I need to check out Burning Man.

The first artist I witnessed was Crywolf at the Amphitheatre the night of my arrival. He performed mostly melodic, poppy, wavy dubstep, yet his stage presence was almost punk-rock esque. He thrashed across the Amp, headbanging and wailing like G.G. Allin on speed. He ended his set smashing a guitar on-stage, a unique choice for a performer of his genre. I went to sleep fairly early this night.

We spent Friday morning at Muscle Beach, which, in our group, is also often referred to as the “river” or “creek.” Shambhala promotes body-positivity and freedom of judgement. Many people disrobed completely as they walked the sand and submerged their naked bodies within ice-cold water, free from shame, comfortable in their true skin. Our group met a cute little baby frog, no bigger than a toonie, as we calmly chilled along the shore.

After grabbing a bite and returning to camp, I soon ingested some MDMA given to me by a trusted friend. MDMA promotes feelings of euphoria and has tendencies to strip you of social anxiety. Quite dangerous if over-ingested, a nice amount will deeply connect you to the music and turn you into a bit of a chatterbug. Expect to hug complete strangers. And sweat a lot (stay hydrated.)

The most memorable performance on Friday night for me was BC’s own Excision. Celebrating his 10-year anniversary at Shambhala, he played a mammoth two-hour set that went straight to the punch as soon as he hit the jungle-esque Village stage. It was everything you’d expect from an Excision Shamby set, with the added touch of ending the last half-hour with guest mixing by his Kelowna brethren Datsik and Downlink, playing wubby classics dating all the way back to 2008. Camp Lurk was out in full-flex to catch the entirety of this highly anticipated set, raging together from beginning to end.

Saturday morning started off fairly chill. I had breakfast and went to the beach to meditate. Because of the hot musk from the smokey BC skies due to wildfire, the river was packed with people and I couldn’t easily find a nice, quiet spot to relax. Instead, I opted for 10 minutes at the Oxygen Bar located near the Living Room stage. It was classical-music hour, so I was calmly listening to 1800s symphonies as I breathed in a mix of scents that were meant to promote healthy and uplifting mentalities. It was a pleasant combination.

After the Oxygen bar, I was met with an extreme calm. The tonality in my voice softened and the speed vastly slowed down. I felt clear headed. I returned to camp and was eventually met with some horrifying news. Due to the heavy smoke and approaching BC wildfires, Shambhala will stop at 9am on Sunday morning, a full day early. You could feel the heart of the festival sink upon the announcement. It was as if the deep grey smoke had sucked the energy from the festival. Suddenly, the dusty air of Shambhala was fragranced with melancholy. We wouldn’t let this destroy our spirit. There was one day left, we were gonna make it count.

Saturday is usually the day I like to go hard. Yesterday I gave myself a small taste of MDMA to ease myself into substance experimentation. Today I wanted to completely disassociate myself from reality by dropping the psychedelic hallucinogen “Acid,” properly known as LSD. I usually start off with a microdose, only putting half of the tiny paper-square on my tongue. After fumbling it in my mouth for a bit I washed it down with a straight shot of cheap vodka that I mixed with some MDMA.

I was feeling good. My vision was in HD and the colours popped. People in their costumes felt like they really were the characters they portrayed for the night. In these magical lands, I couldn’t be convinced otherwise. It was hard rubbing the feeling that this was unexpectedly going to be the last day of Shambhala, but I couldn’t let it consume me. I jumped from stage to stage with a friend for a bit, but couldn’t fight the itch to want to wander alone.

I believe everyone should have at least one point in Shambhala where they roam by themselves. It gives you a chance to fully take in everything around you, letting it all sink in. You can be whoever you want to be and do whatever you want to do, guided by winds of your choosing. I feel it’s times like this where you have most opportunity for growth and self-discovery. I told my friend my feelings and they completely understood. We walked back to camp to spend a few more minutes together before separating. We drank, talked about the experience thus far. We then ate some magic mushrooms before parting ways. I truly hoped they would get consumed by Shambhala the same way I did my first year.

I recall soon seeing French artist CloZee drop some glitchy tracks at the Grove stage around 1:30am, she always slays. After the set, I somehow stumbled upon a woman painting an abstract space-like piece along a trail. The blue hue of the canvas’ background glowed from afar, drawing me closer in. I watched the woman wash her paintbrush in a jar of water and dip it into some paint. She slid the brush along the surface, creating a thick white line that seemed to dance to the music as colour met canvas. It looked like she was painting a reimagination of a bridge heading towards a moon. I was stricken by the art. When she took a small break, I approached her.

“Can I ask you a question?” She glanced back at me with a nod and a smirk. “What do you think about while painting something like this?” She thought for a moment. “I don’t really think about much, actually. I kind of just flow with the music.” This response struck me deeply. I am generally an over-thinker and feel it’s been a result of many downfalls. The fact that she could create something so beautiful without too much thought opened my eyes to the beauty of acting on impulse when it feels right. I asked for her name, it was Lindsey. I transferred a bracelet with a Yin-Yang charm from my wrist to hers. For a brief moment our hands blended together as one, the mushrooms were making their presence known. We gave each other a hug goodbye and I journeyed on.

Rumours started floating around that Shambhala might not be cancelled after all. It brought a level of excitement in some but dread in those who needed firmer answers. Many people had already started leaving early. I hoped for another day, but was open to the rumour being just that.

I ended up at the Pagoda stage with some friends. Herobust dropped trappy, bassy, heavy tunes. My eyes soon locked with those of a petite brunette, our hands clasped together and we started grooving. We stared at each other without a blink and soon our clasping hands turned into fingertips pushing against each other, a feeling of energy jolting between our prints. Her name is Lola and she works as a mechanic, which caught me as a surprise given her tiny stature. Her dream car is a 1972 Skyline GT-R. We talked for a bit as we danced, I suddenly felt the urge to kiss her. I asked her if I could and she told me she had a boyfriend. Surprisingly enough, this didn’t knock my confidence. We still danced together for quite some time. We thrashed our heads towards one another like a couple of headbangers at Ozzfest and clasped hands one last time during the buildup to an epic dubstep-drop. Soon, we went our separate ways.

I ended the night around 4am after seeing drum n’ bass group Calyx & Teebee at the Village. If one thing is for sure, I have to catch a late-night Village DnB set every year no matter what. For some reason my dancing becomes tribal and I feel like a wild caveman paying homage to the stars as I become one with fast-paced electro-punky beats. I’m a free-spirit in the Jungle, dancing beneath moonlight. After the set, I went to camp and laid in my tent, contemplating getting up to watch the sunrise. I told myself I would rest my eyes for five minutes to regain energy. We all know how this ends up.

There was a pattering against my tent the next morning. I took a peek outside, it was raining. I could hear music from one of the stages. For a small moment I was in awe, the rumours were true! Shambhala wasn’t cancelled after all. I looked at my phone to see that it was 8:57am. I then remembered announcement saying things would end at 9am. Before I knew it, the music went quiet. I was alone with the rain.

I laid in my tent for a few more hours. When I eventually had to go to the bathroom I asked a security guard if the festival was truly over. They said it was. I returned to camp just as the rest of the homies were waking up. We had a great night, but the bummer of no more Shambhala was still apparent. We slowly packed our things, chatted and hung out. I gave everyone a massive lingering hug before Steve and I decided to make our leave around 11am.

It was a slow and grey walk to the car. We were approaching the Sunshine lot gate, the point of no return. 50 more steps and Shambhala was officially over, we’d be heading back to Surrey. Suddenly a man with a megaphone stepped a few feet in front of us, his message went something like this:

“Dear attendees of Shambhala. After much deliberation and after talking with the local government and BC fire department, I am happy to inform you that Shambhala’s final night will continue as scheduled! Shambhala is no longer cancelled!”

My body filled with joy! Steve and I went back to camp to deliver the amazing news. Everyone was still confused, for all we know this was some random with a megaphone being silly. It was not the case though, we received an official notification from Shambhala on our smartphones. Party as planned. Many people still ended up leaving, as they have mentally checked out and were ready to go home. I’d guess at least a thousand people, if not more, left the festival grounds by the time Sunday night began. It didn’t matter, I knew I was sticking around.

A few of us headed to the Pagoda stage to watch Dimond Saints at 8pm. While there, an extremely sweaty man gave me a hug and told me I could accomplish anything I put my mind to, as long as it’s done with a good and pure heart. He hugged me and other strangers several more times before exiting the stage. Another man on stilts in a kind of Yeti-esque costume roamed the Pagoda grounds, towering over festival goers. At the front of the stage, I witnessed a woman stand directly beneath him. She let him rub his genitals all over her face. It was a strange site, but hey, to each their own. My crew ended up heading to the Amphitheatre whereas I stayed at the Pagoda.

I poured the small bit of MDMA powder I had left into my almost empty liquor bottle. To try and get more out of it, I filled the bottle with water, so I can nurse this minor concoction for the night. Not my proudest moment, but also not my least proud.

Deeper into the night I watched Terravita destroy the Pagoda stage. Can’t really say much about it aside from that. I somehow found myself get from a wretched pit of dubstep headbangers to mysteriously stumbling into the Living Room stage where a performer was playing the Violin over very chilled out electronic beats. There weren’t many people there, but I was astounded by his sound. Everyone was sitting on the ground in front of the stage, just chilling out. The ground was nice and spacey, I took a seat in the dirt.

This was probably the most intimate live performance experience I have ever gone through. I’ve never literally just sat directly in front of the stage like that before. I relaxed and watched him play a few songs before journeying on. The artist and I exchanged eye contact as I got up. I smiled and flipped him a peace-sign with my fingers. He nodded and smiled back. Very cool.

I found a tree with a bunch of poems nailed to it. In my state of mind it was hard for me to really ingest what I was reading, yet somehow at the end of each poem, I felt like I knew what it was about. One poem did stick out a lot. It was about a man drinking alcohol outside on a moonlit night. The man, the alcohol and the moon all felt like characters in this piece. It reminded me of my mother, who has suffered from alcoholism since as far back as I can remember. Like most, her consumption put a hefty strain on our relationship growing up.

I didn’t concentrate on the negatives, however. Instead, after reading this poem, I thought about my mom outside of the alcohol. A sweet and gentle lady with a unique sense of humour. I was unable to shake the image of her warm smile. In that moment, I wanted her to appear in front of me so I could give her a hug and say I loved her, something I don’t do enough. I carried on.

I bumped into a man at the Grove who gave me a hug and a bunch of stickers that said “You Are Beautiful.” I gave him a bracelet in return. Later on in the night I got lost and asked a lady at a service desk for directions to one of the stages. She was pleasant, so later that night I went back to give her a You Are Beautiful sticker and one of my last bracelets. She was overwhelmingly happy and reached over the counter to give me a very tight hug. She blew me a kiss as I walked away. I felt a very happy energy surrounding me for the rest of the night.

After finishing my watered down liquor I noticed the vibrant colours of acid wearing down. It was roughly 3 in the morning. I went to the Pagoda stage and it started raining violently. I could see people running around trying to find cover, many posting up in the coffee shop. Coffee didn’t seem like such a bad idea, I could use a warm up. I only drank about half of it, the caffeinated bitterness did not mix well with my psychedelic comedown. The intense rain only lasted about 10 minutes before coming to a sudden halt. The freaks could roam once more.

I went to the Amphitheatre stage because I figured I might find members of my camp there. I never did see them, but I discovered a new artist: Proko. Super dank bass music, they were extremely sick. Liquid Stranger was supposed to play a back-to-back set with Space Jesus, but unfortunately they couldn’t make it due to wildfire. Another DJ, I believe his name was Yheti, opted to spin tracks from their set. I spent about two hours at the Amphitheatre before heading back to camp.

Nobody was at camp when I arrived, so I sat and reflected. Soon, a couple fellow Camp Lurkers, Darling and Ezra, rolled in. We had a small chat and I gave them both the last of my bracelets before heading back to Steve’s car, where I presumed he was waiting as we had packed our stuff in it before the night began. It took me awhile to find, but in my dissociated stumble I eventually found the car around 5:30am when he answered his phone and honked his car horn. We drove out. Upon exiting Salmo River Ranch, Shambhala volunteers smiled and waved us goodbye.

This was only a portion of the experience, it’s far too large to write in full. I cannot express how many interesting and friendly people I met and interacted with as well as the little mini-adventures that came across my path. There is a genuine sense of love and openness at Shambhala. It’s beautiful to see that there are still so many amazing people in this world.

Johnny Papan
Jonathan Nicholas “Johnny” Papan is a Canadian writer, filmmaker, and musician born in Surrey, British Columbia to a Guyanese mother and half-Hungarian, half-Trinidadian father. Aside from film and music, Johnny also enjoys performing standup comedy. His interest in journalism surfaced after watching documentaries on influential writers Nora Ephron and Hunter S. Thompson. -