Thailand’s Wonderfruit festival
Driving through the congestion of Pattaya on the Gulf of Thailand I get the feeling that we’re in one of the least likely places in the world to find a hippified festival with a focus on sustainability and personal responsibility. With its dubious reputation as one of the sex tourism capitals of the world, the Green Fields at Glastonbury it is definitely not. But after an hour of bumper-to-bumper traffic on the slow-moving highway out of the city, something along those lines is exactly what we find.
In the lush and bucolic countryside of the Siam country park, Wonderfruit is in it’s inaugural year and bringing a new flavour to the backpacker heartland of south-east Asia. Walking through the palm tree-lined entrance to the site, I feel like I could be walking on the manicured lawns of California’s upmarket Coachella festival. When we reach the festival’s main hub I get an overwhelming sense of familiarity. The festival’s pop-up structures and hay-bale seating recall the scenery of one of the UK’s many boutique festivals, which makes sense as Wonderfruit is a collaboration with Secret Productions, the people who previously ran Secret Garden Party and now run Wilderness, two of the festivals responsible for shifting the focus from lineup to overall experience in the UK.
While the UK festival model has spread through the world, festivals taking place in countries such as Croatia can often have a “Brits abroad” feel with promoters making little or no concession to local culture or a local audience. But at Wonderfruit, there’s an appetite for collaboration and exchange between the two cultures, with the likes of the Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band and Thai architect Duangrit Bunnag sharing equal billing with a strong international lineup that includes De La Soul and Woodkid.
The seed for Wonderfruit was planted when event co-organiser Pete Phornprapha attended Secret Garden Party in 2012. Never having camped at a festival before, he quickly fell in love with the event and decided he would like to introduce his country to the concept of a “lifestyle festival”. A plan was hatched with Secret Productions’ Jo Vidler to host the event with less than a year to plan.
At 3pm on day one of the festival, there’s the buzz of last-minute preparations on site. We wander to The Quarry, the dance music arena on the edge of the site that will host two of the world’s biggest DJs and Secret Garden Party regulars, Jamie Jones and Seth Troxler that night. Girls hang giant lanterns on the sunken venue’s jutting bamboo roof between chats about their travels to Nepal and India. “This was all meant to arrive on Monday but got stuck in a shipping container for five days,” we’re told by one before being quickly enlisted to hold stepladders steady.
At around 5pm, as the festival starts to fill up with Indian headdress-wearing UK festival regulars and Bangkok hipsters, we watch Yellow Fang on the festival’s Soi Stage. A female three-piece from Bangkok, reminiscent of the Cocteau Twins with their sweet harmonies, they provide the perfect accompaniment to the sunset.
One of Wonderfruit’s major selling points is its focus on sustainability and self-sufficiency in a part of the world not renowned for its green policies. There’s the organic farm, which is already providing crops for some of the food stall holders, and the water filtration system that allows festivalgoers to refill biodegradable corn starch bottles throughout the weekend. The plan, organiser Jo Vidler tells me, is to be self-sufficient within five years.
By day the festival has a laid-back, family-orientated atmosphere, magnified by the fact it has purposely started small this year with around 5,000 people on a site capable of hosting over 20,000, but at night an air of debauchery creeps in. Hercules and Love Affair bring their brand of exuberant camp New York house to the Living Stage before the crowd filters in to the smaller venues for the night. We wander over to Maggie Choo’s bar, a spin-off from the carnivalesque Bangkok club of the same name where a bikini-clad dancer is joined by two dwarves for a burlesque-style routine. We sip on strawberry mojitos out of necessity. The fact that the festival has already run out of beer before midnight on the first day is a telling sign that the Thai organisers may have underestimated a festival crowd’s appetites.
After the majority of the festival spends the wee hours at The Quarry, Saturday means either lounging around on lilos in the on-site lake or pulling seemingly impossible yoga poses at the Goddess Camp. At 8pm we go to one of the feasts where for 2,000 baht (around £40) we gorge on suckling pig and shaved raw asparagus salads cooked by Paolo Vitaletti, the Italian owner of Bangkok restaurant Appia. The lambs’ liver skewers, cooked over a fire pit is possibly the most tender meat I have ever eaten.
By Sunday afternoon, the sense of unity that can only be conjured by a couple of nights’ bad sleep and a few unforgettable days has fallen over the festival. We watch an enchantingly intimate set from José González, before rounding things off with an incendiary set from Gaslamp Killer on the Soi Stage, his 10-minute diversion into the molam music of north-east Thailand met with ecstatic cheers. “We weren’t sure if Asia was ready for a festival like this,” says Jo Vidler. Wonder no longer.