Pranitan Phornprapha of Wonderfruit on how to champion sustainability through fun
When I first heard through the grapevine three years ago that the organisers of The Secret Garden Party in the UK were collaborating on a music festival in Pattaya, the avid festival goer inside me kept a constant eye out for any official information. When the news finally broke that it was really happening and was going to be called Wonderfruit, I rallied the fruitiest crew of friends to go. As luck had it, the event dates clashed with my Christmas plans and said friends went ahead having the time of their lives, leaving me waiting for another full year to pop my Wonderfruit cherry at its second installation in December 2015.
Why the eagerness, you might be thinking. Aren't there plenty of festivals in Singapore and across the region to attend? Sure there are, but Wonderfruit is not your typical festival. At its core lies a value to spread the message of sustainability and social responsibility. Besides an eclectic music lineup, they pursue this responsibility through five other central pillars: The arts, farm fresh dining, talks and workshops, wellness activities and family-focused fun. No other South East Asian festival offers the same breath of experiences. It's a place where you can wake up and join a group meditation or drumming circle, dine banquet style, be fed by the chefs from one of the world's top 50 restaurants, cannonball into a pond and then dance through the night by the light of a giant mirror ball amongst the trees. The open space and ideal weather conditions offer camping onsite, which does wonders for the round-the-clock entertainment and bohemian charm of Wonderfruit.
The three-day festival takes place every year at The Fields at Siam Country Club in Pattaya's Bang Lamung District. Located about a half hour drive from Pattaya's main shopping and hotel stretch, the land is owned by the family of founder and creative director, Pranitan "Pete" Phornprapha, who ensures that the grounds are well kept and that the staging and props are built with evolution and reuse in mind.
Instead of relying on big name DJs to draw the crowds like most other festivals in the region, Wonderfruit focuses on championing its ethos of sustainability to transform the sprawling grasslands into a colourful and whimsical playground of recycled and natural materials, suitable for adults, kids and even pets alike. To add to the already vibrant atmosphere, the majority of attendees — who are mostly Thai — are often dressed in their festival best, rivalling Coachella's more rehearsed audience.
To observe the mourning period of Thailand's beloved King, the festival's been postponed from its December date. This gave me plenty of time to speak with Phornprapha, founder and CEO of Scratch First — the company that produces Wonderfruit — to find out more about the next installation.
Congratulations on putting together such a great festival. I went for the last one and now count it as one of my favourite festivals in the world, not just Asia. What inspired you to start Wonderfruit?
Thanks! The spark for Wonderfruit came in 2012 when I went to The Secret Garden Party in the UK. I had been working on a project advocating social responsibility and sustainability and it struck me what a great medium a festival would be to promote these pressing issues because everyone can relate to arts, music and having fun, and if we can tie a sense of social consciousness to it then it will be worth doing and be positively disruptive. It democratises these issues and makes it accessible.
The event started out in 2014 in partnership with Secret Productions, the team behind The Secret Garden Party in the UK but now the event is now solely organized by your company, Scratch First. Did you have a different vision for the event?
We brought them on in a consulting role, just for year one. In terms of our vision, though, I think we shared and still share a lot of the same values, especially with their director, Jo Vidler.
You and Thai musician Montonn "Jay" Jira are known as the founders, how do you split your roles?
Montonn mostly looks after the music side of things and I look after everything else. But we bounce ideas off each other all the time.
You're committed to making Wonderfruit sustainable and a contribution from ticket sales goes to the Rimba Raya Biodiversity Reserve. However, festivals are notoriously wasteful, amassing trash and a huge carbon imprint from the number of people driving and flying in to attend. How do you reconcile this and what are the biggest changes you've made to how you run the event to keep to your green ethos?
You could say festivals are wasteful, but at the same time, they bring people together and that's how you make change happen. Wonderfruit finds ways to actually demonstrate our ethos, rather than just talking about it. Since the beginning, we had our water filtration system, the on-site farm and a no-plastics policy. Our stages, artworks and structures have a low impact on the environment since they are mostly made of recycled or natural materials. We're investing in the Rimba Raya Reserve in order to offset our carbon emissions and we're also giving guests the chance to plant a mangrove tree in Myanmar by buying a special drink.
While I'm not saying "Sure, burn as much energy as you want and then just offset it," it's definitely a better solution than not doing so. This year, we're grouping our generators by zones to be as efficient as possible. But it is a balance of course, because when guests come to Wonderfruit, they want the full blown experience, and we couldn't deliver that if we shut down all the power! To sum it up, we don't want to be known just as a green festival but more of a platform for people to engage and bring these topics to life in a creative way.
You're Thai and your festival is held in Pattaya, so how important is it to you to promote Thai culture through the festival? Do you see Wonderfruit travelling to other countries?
I think it's important to promote Thai culture, but not so much just because we're Thai, but more so because it's so interesting! Content like this year's Farm Stage is inspired by really fascinating age-old farming traditions. We consider ourselves lucky to have grown up here in Thailand because there is just so much culture and so many traditions like that to draw upon. Wonderfruit will always stay in Thailand, because we think there can only be one Wonderfruit, but we do see other branches of it spreading elsewhere in the future, under different names.
The aesthetic of the festival — the stage design, the art installations, the stalls — feels Asian and well-crafted. Who do you work with to conceptualise the event and bring it to life?
We're very blessed to work with such amazing people. Our team is made up of creatives from Thai fashion designers, architects and farmers to Burning Man artists. I think that's what makes Wonderfruit so unique and we plan to continue working with more people locally and regionally in the future. Wait till you see what our in-house creative designer, Adam Pollina is working on in full swing!
I know some of the Robot Heart guys and saw they were involved in the festival last year. What exactly was their role? And was Burning Man one of your main inspirations in creating Wonderfruit?
Jason Swamy, the director of Robot Heart is a big part of our team. He's in charge of international content. Robot Heart really started the sunrise party phenomenon at Burning Man and since year one, Swamy has been heavily involved in our Solar Stage concept, where the content is really focused on sunset and sunrise.
Your range and mix of musical acts is atypical of a festival in Asia, which often relies on big EDM names or bands. What music policy and direction does Wonderfruit want to be known for?
Montonn and Swamy really helm the music curation and the direction that we've established is that it should be unique and diverse and not necessarily rely on headliners. We actually have a formula we use to try to get just the right balance of bands, DJs and acts, all on the right stages. It's the hardest part of the programming for sure.
The food curation of the festival is outstanding and it's one of the things that makes Wonderfruit stand out from other festivals. You even brought in regional chefs (like Singapore-based Dave Pynt of Burnt Ends) and have hosted Asia's best restaurant and chef, Gaggan Anand. Are you a foodie? How do you decide who you want to collaborate with?
Yes, I'm definitely a foodie and actually, food is such a central part of Wonderfruit — that's why we have always had the farm at the heart of the site. It takes a particular kind of chef to get involved in Wonderfruit; not all want to work in a makeshift kitchen environment, so they have to be into the spirit of it. Fortunately, many of them love what we're doing and our ethos and purpose, including the likes of Gaggan.
Obviously, we love having those kinds of big names but we're excited about the opportunity to highlight really interesting stories, traditional food processes and sources, which are becoming more difficult to find. Watch out for FACT collective this year, it really fits in with our ethos and will be really inspiring and delicious.
Tell us some of your personal highlights for the upcoming festival.
The food and the direction we're taking with that; the stages — Farm Stage in particular is going to be great — and the eco-heroes theme under Scratch Talks. We are trying to crowdfund an amazing artcar so please look out for it and support! But most of all, being climate- and biodiversity-positive; taking that step is my personal highlight and I think we're showing that you can be sustainable in a creative and engaging way.
What has been the biggest challenge and the greatest reward?
The challenge is explaining to people what Wonderfruit is. It's a new concept to this region so it's always difficult in the beginning to get people to take a risk and come. Luckily though, there are loads of rewards. Most of all, it's been working with this amazing team and seeing a real community being created and hearing from them and the press that it feels like a genuine movement that is unique. We get to make something that we feel is creating real and positive change and have lots of fun doing it.
What do the Wonderfruit team do once the event is over?
We get asked this question a lot; maybe people think we show up two weeks before the event! The reality is, we don't take any of this content lightly and putting a program like this together truly takes all year.
What's been the funniest moment in your Wonderfruit journey?
It's not especially funny, but we tell it a lot. The first year, the delivery of our boutique tents was held up and we were still feverishly putting them up as guests were arriving. It's the first time anything like this had ever been offered in this region and I was hammering stakes into the ground, taking abuse from every corner. But the whole team pitched in and in the end we pulled it off. It's sort of a metaphor for the whole process, all year, because there are so many moving parts and some of them are out of your control, but you always have to meet everything with dignity, integrity and humour. Actually, that's also my motto!
Wonderfruit takes place from 16 to 19 February 2017 in Pattaya, Thailand. For all-in travel packages from Singapore that include flights, accommodation, entry tickets and transfers, check out Giglife Asia here.