Wonderfruit brings something new to festival-friendly Thailand despite tepid turnout

It was on Saturday night on the second day of Wonderfruit that the crowd’s frenzy seemed to peak. As the percussion-heavy intro of Woodkid’s “Iron” rolled out, the crowd fell into that collective delirium that are defining moments at successful festivals. They clapped, they screamed and shouted and danced. Even the artist, French performer Yoann Lemoine felt it.

“This is amazing!” Lemoine shouted from the stage with a massive grin. “I think this is the best gig ever!”

There and at the many other stages hitting pretty much all the genre tastes, the music was there. The feeling was there. The sound, the landscape, the attention to details – all there. Missing the most? The enormous crowds hoped for.

As for the music, Woodkid was one of the main Western acts along with the Swedish electrokin of Little Dragon, kiwi dub from Fat Freddy’s Drop and headliner De La Soul, who closed out the event on Sunday, capping off a series of quality sets, despite too-frequent delays between them and some festival-goers turned off by the sky-high prices of food and drinks.

See Wonderfruit for yourself in our photo essay

Billing itself as “the first lifestyle festival” in Asia, Wonderfruit aimed to be more than another beer-seller drawing the kids in with stages and big speakers. It’s approach to the music – a little bit of everything fashionable – extended off-stage to offering stuff for everyone. There was dance, recycled-goods crafting, fashion merch, art installations, wellness and even outdoorsy activities.

All this spun around the appealing eco-marketing narratives of “sustainability” and “social consciousness.”

All well and good, but the focus and main draw was still the music. While the line-up leaned to the West, organizers – likely needing to increase local appeal and ticket sales – brought in gangsta-folk singer Hugo, indie darlings Yellow Fang, hipster-rockin’ 25 Hours and molam-to-the-world DJ Maft Sai, who more than delivering Thai fan-service, received warm welcomes from the international visitors. Foreigners were perplexed when T-Bone the Thaistafarian ordered fans in Thai to form a human train at the main stage while Paradise Bangkok spiced up their Molam sounds with Western instrumentation to produce exotic beats anyone could dance to.

The stage crafting was worthy. The Living Stage was decked out with full concert lighting and visualizations while the Solar Stage was for sun-worshiping hippies, offering yoga sessions and world music. The smaller Soi Stage was adorned with massive buffalo sculptures created with locally found natural materials by artist Joel Dean Stockdill. For the ecstatic dance set, a hike away from everything else sat the Quarry, where inside a thatched hut stretched a sufficiently squishy, coconut-husk covered floor to lose themselves to the trance until dawn.

When the music went silent, highlights included an astonishing dance performance by “Secret Keepers” which translated audience members’ whispered secrets into spontaneous dance, bringing their deeply held thoughts to life through art. What was in the mystery steel box sitting in the corner? The one with curtains drawn over a tiny door, beckoning curious souls to find out what’s inside? Inside the hidden photos fiends from the RMA Institute maintained a huge, vintage camera obscura. You could watch them operate it or model for them. These things were cool.

Less popular were the paid workshops, where people paid THB300 to 450 to learn woodcarving, T-shirt screening and jewelry crafting. The free ones promoting the much-vaunted sustainability? Yeah, no one went to those. They’d rather go for a massage or yoga session to relax in the sultry weather.

It was sunny. This was mostly fine for the predominantly farang crowd, many of whom were 20-somethings taking in Wonderfruit on their hippie trails or festival-circuit followers.

For the Thais, mostly from the monied class (ticket prices being out of reach to all but), dodged the skin-toning rays by arriving in the late afternoon around sunset. Dressed in the fashion of “celebrities’ festive style” seen in their live-streams of Coachella, many had that on-point American accent but still spent the night glued to their smartphones.

The biggest complaints heard were about long walks from food and beer to stage (and the prices for said food and beer). That takes us back to the biggest thing missing: more people. The space was designed for a crowd up to five times that which showed up, which at a totally unprofessional estimate appeared to be about 5,000 to 6,000 people.

Wonderfruit Year One should help raise its profile for next year, and the lessons learned should see some refinement. Until recently the festival had gained little notice in the kingdom, as it was mostly marketed abroad. Apparently when those presales didn’t add up, a renewed focus was placed on drawing locals, and the price was lowered. One week prior to the event, the organizer suddenly began offering one-day passes at a lower price to stimulate sales, which it had previously promised not to do.

“This is the first year of doing this, so we’re very happy with the feedback from the people who came to the festival,” said Wonderfruit spokeswoman Kamolrat Plodpai.

Officials turnout numbers from the organizer aren’t yet available, she added, but was measured in the “thousands.” She said they’ve been delighted by all the posts to Instagram and Facebook of happy people enjoying themselves.

Fortunately they’re not giving up, as Kamolrat confirmed there will be a Wonderfruit in 2015, though an official announcement is yet to come. The land is available under a five-year lease. It sits on an area owned by festival co-founder, Siam Motors Group scion Pete Phornprapha.

Ultimately, the high prices, delays and a few other glitches didn’t stop Wonderfruit from succeeding to bring a new art-festival experience to Thailand. There was much to see, much to do, and hopefully next time more people to enjoy it with.

Photos: Watsamon Tri-yasakda

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