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Festivals

Wonderfruit Is So Much More Than 'The Burning Man of Asia'

Why this growing festival in Thailand is the future of eco-raving.

by Michelle Lhooq
25 January 2019, 8:36am

All photos by Michelle Lhooq and Alison Tan

When friends described Wonderfruit as “The Burning Man of Asia,” I cringed. It’s impossible these days to separate the techno-hippie festival from the Silicon Valley billionaires who’ve gentrified it over the past two decades, turning a once-radical social experiment into a naked networking event. I’m honestly too broke to embark on a thousand-dollar spirit quest, but I do know that Burning Man has become somewhat of a dirty word in recent years.

Today, when someone says “Burning Man,” I think of white people swinging in drop-crotch harem pants and puka shells, pretending to be shamans and preaching polygamy while tripping on fifty tabs of acid. I think of private chefs and helicopters and glamping. I think: this is not a place for me.

Still, one thing about Wonderfruit piqued my interest: now in its fifth year, the Thailand-based event has grown to become one of Asia’s most popular festivals with its singular strain of eco-conscious hedonism.

Environmental damage is a huge problem for music festivals around the world, and it’s hard not to feel sick when you leave behind mountains of plastic bottles and trash after a hedonistic weekend. Some green-minded festivals, like Communité, in Tulum, and Lightning in a Bottle, in California, have taken steps like not selling meat or having a team of volunteers walk around picking up trash and educating people about recycling. But for the most part, eco-consciousness at festivals always seems like an expensive clean-up act, or like guilt dressed up as accountability.

Wonderfruit

Wonderfruit’s approach seemed different. Sustainability appeared built into the festival’s brand, driving it both creatively and economically. For example, all the stages were architectural marvels constructed out of biodegradable materials like bamboo and rice. $25 USD sleekly-designed steel cups were sold as festival merch to use for drinking water, since plastic bottles were banned. You could also buy tickets to lavish, locally-sourced feasts with famous Thai chefs, take workshops on fermenting kombucha, and attend seminars on topics like “optimizing your cannabinoid potential.” This vision of eco-conscious partying was far from the crunchy vegan or sleazy backpacker vibes I associated with full-moon parties in the Thai jungle— it felt like modern New Age luxury for jet-setting crazy rich Asians. (According to the festival, Wonderfruit 2018’s 17,000-person crowd is roughly split between locals—meaning Thais and Thailand-based expats—and people from other countries.) I wanted to find out if environmentalism could be a viable mainstream festival brand—and if this version of eco-friendly partying could be cool, or just more yuppie Burner bullshit. Knowing that many of my artsy friends in the region were going to Wonderfruit, I decided to forge ahead in spite of my reservations and just throw myself into the unknown.

On a humid December night, I flew into Bangkok, then took a taxi for two hours from the airport straight to the festival grounds near Pattaya—the notoriously sleazy Thai city known for attracting “sexpats” from around the world. Sprinting through the festival gates five minutes before they closed at midnight, I stumbled past a thatched-roof hut called the Thai Pavilion decked out with displays about the country’s cultural destinations. It was sponsored by the Tourism Authority of Thailand—the first of many instances of strong local representation.

Wonderfruit entrance

Wonderfruit is a proudly Thai festival; it was co-founded in 2014 by Pranitan “Pete” Phornprapha, scion of a wealthy automobile family, and Jira “Jay” Montonn, a musician and producer who was described to me as “Thailand’s Justin Bieber” because of his boyish good looks and fame. Montonn and Phornprapha used to plant trees together as kids, under a corporate social responsibility program run by Phornprapha’s dad called Think Earth. When Phornprapha was given the opportunity to rebrand Think Earth, he decided to launch with a music event inspired by Burning Man and The Secret Garden Party in the UK. “It became a bigger thing than what it was supposed to be,” said Montonn, who I met later that night at a colossal stage built from five tons of hemp branches, bundled into a minimalist cubic tower. A collaborative performance between a Tuvan throat singing quartet and a Grammy-nominated, LA-based producer had just finished, and he was sitting on the grass draped in flowing robes and basking in the set’s powerful afterglow.

When I asked Montonn if the success of Wonderfruit—which saw its attendance grow by more than 50 percent since last year—means that mainstream audiences in Asia are ready to embrace sustainability, he shook his head. “I don’t think so—yet,” he said, describing Wonderfruit’s tactic for bringing eco-consciousness to the masses as a bait-and-switch. “We lure them in with the entertainment, art, and food, then they realize it’s a no-plastic festival site, the water is filtered and free for everyone, and structures are made with recycled materials,” he continued. “We don’t want to make sustainability a chore.”

Still, it was refreshing to attend a festival that made you feel good—where you could take a moment for self-care by slipping into a sunset yoga class, basking in a gong sound bath, or dipping into a lake for a swim in between dancing to pounding techno sets by German DJs or Thai bands playing '70s folk music. Later that night, I scrambled down a steep dirt path and pushed past stalks of bamboo to venture into a hidden after-hours stage called The Quarry.

Designed by Bangkok-based design team all(zone), the sunken cove was an enchanting hybrid of futuristic lasers and jungle lushness. DJs curated by UK legend Craig Richards mostly played tech-house with organic textures—distorted synthesizers sprayed insectoid chirps while pattering kickdrums landed softly like raindrops. Strobes streaked over tangled web of canopy branches, rendering them into nature’s psychedelic decor, while fog floated through the trees like a mysterious mist.

The Quarry Wonderfruit

This was the moment when Wonderfruit’s magic suddenly clicked—when I fell in love with the festival’s high-tech yet organic vibe, which my friends and I half-jokingly identified as the “tropical rave aesthetic.” It felt like a world away from the rigid lines and concrete walls of warehouse parties, or the carnivalesque parking lot atmosphere of EDM festivals. Instead, this was a celebration of tropicality and technology. At another stage called Polygon—a massive dome built out of bamboo and outfitted by 3D surround sound and flashing LEDs—I mentioned all of this to Phornprapha, who nodded and replied, “We have a lot of depth and culture in this region, we just have to showcase it in a clever way.” With Wonderfruit, he continued while clutching his walkie-talkie to his hip, he wanted to spread the ethos of environmentalism in a creative way: “Not shoving it down your face—just showing people it can be done beautifully, and can be quite hedonistic as well.”

I realized that Wonderfruit’s eco-consciousness is not a marketing gimmick tapping into the eco-tourism wave to ride the public’s growing interest in climate issues. By positioning Wonderfruit as a lifestyle instead of a musical lineup, the festival is able to inspire thousands of people every year to stop killing the planet every time they want to get fucked up and party for a few days. Also, while inspired by the art and ethos of Burning Man, Wonderfruit cannot be framed as some diluted appropriation of the West (even as so much modern Asian culture is falsely contextualized as such). Rather, it is a celebration of the creative energy radiating out of the Southeast Asian diaspora, and hopefully, a glimpse into a new way of living.

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Wonderfruit 2018