“What about him? Do you think he looks like a stoner?”
In the kitchen of her little Bangkok indie movie theatre, Cinema Oasis, film director Ing K points at her friend Piak Lex Hip. She says they were “beach bums” together in Phuket in the ‘80s, when they could sunbathe naked without hassle. Today Piak is wearing a scraggy-baggy black t-shirt with a peace symbol design, his grin framed by a wispy white beard and mustache.
“I don’t like to judge by appearances,” I reply, as Piak carefully paints a ganja leaf shape onto a glass bong in gold paint. “But I’d hazard a guess that he smokes a fair bit of marijuana.” Piak nods and hands Ing the receptacle. “The Crystal Bong!” she exclaims, Hawaiian shirt swooshing as she raises the instrument skyward, like it’s a newborn Simba.
Stoner culture is slowly emerging from the shadows in Bangkok, despite lingering memories of the violent mid-2000s war against drugs waged by Thailand’s then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. This year saw an abrupt change in laws: Ahead of the chaotic general election in March, the junta-appointed parliament announced a cynically-timed “gift” to the public: legalizing cannabis for medical use. Authorities recently showed off the capital’s first government-approved weed labs.
Many view this as a stride towards Thailand making cannabis fully legal. For now, though, blazing up on a Bangkok street will probably see you shaken down by police for a bribe or arrested. The reality for stoners in the capital is still far from the image projected by reggae-pumping hippie bars on Thai islands, where illegal spliffs are sold over the counter.
“That’s just a tourist thing,” Ing says, screwing up her nose like she’s sniffed a sewer. To galvanize the cannabis-smoking community in Bangkok, and to address what she sees as a lack of genuine stoner culture depicted in Thai media, she announced the Amazing Stoner Movie Fest (ASMF). Given that the former journalist has had her films banned before for offending the religious and political establishments, it was a bold move.
The event has become part of a noticeable shift in stoner visibility in Bangkok, sparked by the law change. In April, the fifth annual 420 Festival, hosted by pro-weed activist group Highland Network, took place in the city. Cannabis fans wore bong costumes and held massive inflatable doobies; it was the biggest incarnation of the festival yet The following month, Highland opened a weed-themed café in Bangkok. Taking anything stronger than booze is not tolerated at the venue, but the medical-use law has given visitors confidence to at least talk about the drug openly.
Rattapon Sanrak, one of the Highland Café founders, got into weed when he was about 14, at the height of Thailand's war on drugs. At that time, thousands of Thais suspected of being drug dealers were slain by law enforcement officials, and even casual drug users lived in fear of the bullet. “Many friends died,” says Rattapon, now 32. He laughs when I ask if his teenage self would believe that he would open a weed-themed café in the city where such deaths took place. But that’s Thailand’s muddled, coup-laden politics for you.
The Highland Café team views the newly relaxing attitudes as a rightful return to tradition. Chokwan ‘Kitty’ Chopaka, a co-founder, gestures towards a bamboo bong on the café counter and points out that the word “bong” originates from Thai language. Weed has been widely smoked in Thailand for centuries.
“The older generations grew up with it, seeing their parents and grandparents using it,” Kitty says. Chaiwat Banjai, 38, another co-founder, says that when he plucked up the courage to tell his military family that he smoked weed they told him that his grandmother was a dealer.
Highland Café hosts meet-ups every Tuesday, when the public can ask questions about weed legislation and other information.. “There was no community, because everyone was so scared of what might happen,” Kitty says. Arun Avery, another of the cafe’s co-founders and a Highland campaigner, adds: “Now we get doctors, scientists… educated people who see the benefit of it.”
At the film festival, Sagar Singh Sivaraman says he’s noticed the shift. Born in Thailand to Indian parents, and having spent around half of his 22 years in Thailand, Sagar studies film production at Bangkok’s Mahudol University International College. His brilliantly tense short film 30k An Ounce, based on a friend’s experience, depicts a Bangkok police-checkpoint bust.
“No one could imagine a stoner movie festival a few years ago here,” he says, soaking in the sun on Cinema Oasis’ terrace. He adds that although smoking weed in public in Bangkok still gets you in trouble, cops’ underlying attitudes seem more understanding since the medical law was announced.
“Earlier, if they caught you with this shit they’d be like, ‘Don’t do this, it ruins your life’,” he says. “But more recently, when I got caught with my vape [without illegal drugs, just a vape] they told me, ‘Some people smoke weed – if you smoke it just keep it at home’. Also, a year or two ago every news channel was talking about marijuana, about medical benefits. Ten years ago they would have just talked about how it was ruining children’s lives.”
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As the ASMF gets underway, there are no nightstick knocks on the cinema doors. In one short film a high school student placates zombies by blowing marijuana smoke in their decomposing faces. Reefer Madness, the ridiculous 1930s U.S. anti-marijuana film, is joyously received as a comedy. Another lo-fi short, from Ramkhamhaeng University student Boonyarith Intharakopit, shows a stoner blasting a bamboo bong.
In Intharakopit’s film, the main character does little more than get baked, eat convenience store snacks and saunter around Bangkok. As an aside to a conservative Thai film culture in which drug use is rarely shown, mundanity was the young director’s aim. “It’s not about horrible or crazy experiences,” he says after his film is screened. A small red pipe attached to his necklace gently swings as he talks. “I just feel good that I can speak about the issue that people haven’t wanted to talk about.”
Ing shares his sentiment. “I just want to see what a Thai stoner movie looks like. We see drinking movies, surfing films… all these cultures, but what about ours? There are no Thai films where you see yourself on screen.”
Well, now there are. Cheers erupt in the cinema as Piak hands The Crystal Bong and 5,000 baht ($160) to Sagar, for 30k An Ounce. The main Golden Ganja prize and $1,000 goes to Christian Linaban, a director from the Philippines who made SUPERPSYCHOCEBU, a stoner odyssey about a student on a quest for a mythical strain of dope. “No other festival would take my film,” says Christian. “Posting on Facebook today, my stoner friends feel represented, finally.”
The event feels like an important step from the smoky shadows for Bangkok stoner culture, with ripples reaching as far as the Philippines—a country currently going through its own deadly “war on drugs” that presumably won’t be hosting its own weed-related movie festival any time soon. Ing shows caution amid the congratulations. “We’re really pushing it, having this festival. Usually the first person over the wall gets shot.”
She leads Christian and Sagar outside to pick apart each other’s films and the buffet, their prize envelopes safely stashed in their pockets. One wonders what they’ll spend all that cash on.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.