The first time I saw him was in 2014 at the Arcadia festival in Bangkok’s Khan Na Yao district. I saw him again at 808. Several times I spotted his hirsute figure bopping to the music at Kolour parties. Then at the Together Festival. I’d even seen his very wet fur at super-soaked events such as Waterzonic and the Songkran S2O fest.
Years passed and my fascination grew with this man in a bear suit who had become a fixture at every electronic dance music that I attended. He seemed so optimistic. So easy going.
It wasn’t until this past December that I walked up to say hello.
“It’s fucking hot,” he said to me through a wide grin.
That was an unsurprising observation coming from a man dressed head to toe in a shaggy bear costume at a sweaty rave. But no amount of heat or sweat slows his stride. As I talk to him, he keeps on the move as festivalgoers approach to greet, hug, and take photos, like some kind of VIP of the rave.
It’s at EDM festivals such as these, when the beats are thumping. When everyone is in a state of euphoria, losing themselves to the music with a beer gripped in one hand. When the pop hooks come in and lasers are flying everywhere. When the mind is racing through altered states, that’s just the right moment for a man in a bear suit to grin at you and start to boogie along, embracing you in his moves and his furry, welcoming aura.
That’s the effect that 43-year-old graphic designer Kittisak “Gum” Ampornviwatt, aka P’Mhee (Bear Bro), has on ravers.
Thai ravers tend to keep to their cliques rather than join in the shared communal euphoria of Western dance fests, where strangers become fast friends through their shared love of music, and often pills.
“Thai people would be with their friends, not anyone else,” Bear Bro said. “Different from foreigners. Foreigners, when they are tired from work for five days a week, they open up and go looking for new friends. We have to understand that Thai people have walls.”
That’s where Bear Bro comes in.
“My costume is an experiment in which I help break down these barriers,” he told me late last year at the three-day 808 Festival.
Bear Bro goes to festivals alone. But, each time, as sure as the bass will drop, he always makes friends. Partly because everyone already knows him.
“I know everyone even though I’ve never met them before,” he said. “If I wear the costume, I can bring other groups of people together. It destroys the invisible wall and space between groups, building a sense of community.”
He said that his presence as a kind of rave mascot in a hot, stuffy bear costume puts people at ease.
“Some Thai people have no confidence,” Bear Bro said. “Once they see me in costume, I smile at them, and it cheers them up. I build happiness. I’m no joker or clown, but a friend to all. If anyone feels sad, I lift their spirits. It makes me feel good.”
Over the course of several festivals, Bear Bro told me repeatedly how he is always taken aback when international ravers spot him in the crowd and tell him that he’s also well-known in their countries.
“I was surprised when a group of Koreans came to tell me they recognized me from a festival two to three years ago,” Kittisak told Coconuts as we walked to sit down. “That was cool.”
On Facebook he goes by the name Festival Monster. There he checks in at many of Thailand’s large, mainstream EDM parties. Most photos depict him with a large smirk and clearly smashed after a long night of raving.
In most of his posts, his fans flock to add selfies they took with him and recount their own festival bear sightings.
What is Bear Bro’s origin story? When did Kittisak end and Bear Bro begin? Just 10 years ago, he had no idea what EDM was. Not until he attended Thailand’s annual Big Mountain Music Fest, where his life was changed forever.
“It opened my world, I learned that there were many genres of electronic music,” Bear Bro said. “I was impressed by the elements, the productions, the people, and the culture.”
Through his research into rave culture, he was fascinated by people who dressed outrageously. That’s when he started dreaming up his own. Fur. Definitely fur. But what was he?
“I didn’t want to be a dog or sheep,” he said. “So I called myself a bear.”
But, yes, it’s very hot.
In fact his first outing as Bear Bro was when I’d first spotted him: At the tail end of 2014, when Arcadia set up a fire-breathing spider stage at Siam Park City. For his debut, he had lined his suit with an additional layer of linen cloth to insulate costume from skin. It didn’t go well.
“I fainted that day because it was so hot,” he said, still with the same wide grin.
He removed the additional cloth and that made the costume slightly more, well, bearable. So, yes, he is pretty much naked under that fur.
Today, he has costumes in brown, white, and green. He wants to make a rainbow version.
Since then, he makes sure to notify festival medical staff to keep an eye on him in case he passes out.
“I can survive, but I know my limits,” he said. “Most of the time I would talk to first aid, I tell them if I get heatstroke, please help pump my heart so I don’t die!”
Ten years after he first suited up, people greet the Bear Bro everywhere he goes. Bear Bro, who passes unnoticed as Kittisak when out of the suit, has remained humble despite his alter ego’s fame.
“I don’t believe I’m popular, but if that’s the case, I can be a kind of soft power. If I’m popular like others have said, then Thai raver costumes aren’t bad!”
It’s a trend he hopes catches on.
“I want others to wear costumes and have the most fun they can get from festivals,” Bear Bro said. “I often go up to those wearing costumes and make friends.”
Asked if he ever gets any negative attention, Bear Bro said that some people accuse him of being a paid entertainer.
“Occasionally, people suspect that festivals hire me. That’s not true, but I really wish someday someone would,” he said, laughing.
The thick shades always covering his eyes give the impression he might be masking his own recreational pharmaceutics.
“I never touch chemicals,” he said. “I only believe in the power of plants for medical purposes.”
So, yeah, if a man in a bear suit approaches you at your next rave, he’s probably a bit stoned. And that’s totally fine.
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