Fear and Loathing in Zomlingthang

Almost every year, my wife and I ditch civilization for the therapy of the wilderness, that is to say we go camping, away from the hustle and bustle of the Thimphu City. But things didn’t quite go our way this year.

If it was just us, it would have. But with a three-year­-old daughter and a nine-year-old son, who howled and begged that we take them too, in tow backpacking into the wilderness seemed impractical. So we decided to do the next best thing— go to Zomlingthang in Punakha, a lovely patch of woods about 10 minute drive from the dzong. Me and my wife had camped there before and figured it would be a good place to acquaint our kids to the outdoors.

We headed out to Zomlingthang on a bright sunny day. My wife’s eight-year-old nephew wanted to tag along so we lugged him in the car and we asked our baby-sitter to hop in too, just in case. The car was crammed with tents, sleeping bags, cooking gear and food to last for three days. I was excited and looked forward to camping with my kids for the first time. I found myself humming behind the wheels.

We reached Zomlingthang after about two and a half hours. Located amid the tall pine trees and a grassy ground, with the beguiling Phochhu river dancing beside it, the place is, literally, an invitation to camp. And as luck would have it, we were the only campers there that day. I found us a lovely site at the edge of the ground with the valley and the river before us, and immediately went about pitching the tents.

My wife forbade me from bringing a gas stove.“Food is way tastier when cooked with firewood, didn’t you know?” she had said to me. So after the tents, I made her an open flame stove with stones and supplied it with drift woods which I bought from a nearby farmhouse for Nu. 500 an armload. It was pricey but I had no choice. The dusk was enveloping and I didn’t want to look for firewood in the dark.

While my wife and baby-sitter cooked dinner, I got the kids around the campfire and sang them songs and told them stories. All around us was pitch dark except for the sky above us which was filled with so many stars that it looked as if we were stranded in space. It was perfect. Soon it was time to eat. Maybe it was the place or indeed the firewood, or my wife’s voice in my head, but the food was scrumptious and we filled our belly to our heart’s content.

After we tucked the kids inside their sleeping bags, which was a challenge in itself, my wife and I finally got some time to ourselves by the campfire. But our eyes were heavy and our body weary. So following a vague discussion on a shared belief that what ultimately shaped us was not so much the possessions we acquired but the memories we accumulated, like from this trip for instance, we gratefully hit the pillows.

My wife fell asleep right away. I lay inside the tent tossing and turning, listening to the peculiar noise of the PhoChhu river, the sighs and fidgets of the wind and trees, the weary howl of a deer in the distant forest, perhaps it was a mother deer calling for her fawn, until at last I was falling heavily into what I knew would be a deep heavenly slumber.

But sadly it was not to be.

A violent sound ripped across the land. Music blasting. People screaming. Motors revving. It was as if someone had entered our tent and was pounding my head with a frying pan. I let out a howl and stood up. What the hell. I put on my pants and went out to check.

It was a group of 10, maybe 15, young men and women, not 30 feet from our tents. With car engines for lights and alcohol for drinks, they were bopping around the fire, and howling, much like the creepy characters vaulting around the fire from the 1990 American movie ‘Lord of the Flies’.

The fact that the place was a designated campsite and that there were campers plainly visible in the area, and that they could be sleeping at this time of the night, were clearly lost on them. Or they cared not. I had no idea who to complain about a campsite-disturbance. Besides, it was late. My phone showed it was 1:30 AM.

Going solo and requesting a drunken and probably drug-fuelled gang of young men and women to keep their noise down in the middle of the forest, in the middle of the night, was out of the question. By some miracle  my kids were fast asleep. But I had rarely encountered anything so bewilderingly exasperating, for which I was so tragically ill prepared. Every breath was an exercise in meditation not to mention patience.

“I am sure they will go away in a while,” my wife, who had by then woken up, said.

“I have no doubt that they will,” I replied, trying not to betray too much alarm. But inside I felt deeply betrayed.The snarl of the sound of music and inebriated humans in the background provided a constant backbeat, a cruel reminder that Zomlingthang campsite was no more the serene campsite that it once was.

At one point, unable to bear it no more, I rushed out of my tent and flashed my torchlight at them and angrily flapped it for added measure. An intoxicated girl yelled right back at me, in English: “It’s a free country man. We don’t give a damn.”  Then she lobbed a favorite Bhutanese expletive my way. I mumbled something in protest but was drowned by their music as they sought to amplify it.

Confounded, my wife and me lay inside our tent staring at the ceiling. This was grave. We were caught between a mountain we couldn’t climb and a ledge we had no intention of trying to negotiate. Our only apparent option was to just lie there and hope for the best.

Every place has that one wonderful attraction that draw visitors to it. Aside from the dzong, Zomlingthang in Punakha is that place for me. The tranquility of the wooded area beside a meandering river, to me, captures the essence of Punakha’s beauty and friendliness. Sadly, that impression flew right out of the window that night. And it didn’t help to find out the next day that the wild nocturnal creatures were the locals themselves. It didn’t help to know too that this happened almost every night.

The toughest part was coming to terms with the constant dispiriting discovery that there is always more songs coming out of their sound system. Each time a song reached a crescendo to what you think must surely be the last of the songs, you discover that there is in fact more songs coming, and that after that song there is another coming, and after that another and another, and after each of those more still, until it seems impossible that any collection of songs in a digital hard drive could run on for this long. I will forever loathe Justin Bieber and Minzhung Lhamo.

By KENCHO WANGDI (BONZ)

The writer is a former editor of Kuensel and is currently a filmmaker. Follow him on instagram @bonzk and twitter @KenchoWangDzi

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