We speak to Wonderfruit founder Pranitan “Pete” Phornprapha about how the progressive festival celebrates people and the planet, and demonstrates how the two can co-exist
Exhausted yet elated and covered in dust, I sat in the back of a jeep en route back to my hotel as the rising sun began peeking through endless rows of palm trees. It was my first Wonderfruit experience, back in 2017, and I knew it wasn’t going to be my last.
The four-day festival situated in the lush Thai jungle is conscious hedonism. Through art, music and food, it has managed to find that sweet spot of being serious about sustainability, while creating an environment where people don’t have to take themselves (or anything, really) too seriously.
“My vision for Wonderfruit’s evolution is thinking about how we can create a sense of awe and wonder. How we can ignite that childlike curiosity,” says Wonderfruit founder Pranitan Phornprapha, better known as Pete, who says that people don’t really notice until they arrive that music isn’t the festival’s main attraction.
Sure, music line-ups that include the likes of Nicola Cruz, Roots Manuva and Richie Hawtin draw the crowds, but it’s a kind of “come for the music, stay for the lessons in life and sustainability” situation. There’s a strict ban on single-use plastic, and the days are packed with wellness- and sustainability- focused activities. Think yoga, meditation and sound baths, expert-led talks and workshops including fermentation, plant-based cooking and even the sensual Japanese art of shibari bondage.
When the sun sets, the field lights up in a spectrum of colours, the stages scattered across the grounds’ 48 hectares come to life and elaborately dressed party animals roam—the festival prides itself on being a safe place for self-expression and inclusivity.
“I had never wanted to do a music festival. I wanted to find a way to use the things we love, like art and culture, to create dialogue on the environmental issues that we’re experiencing. That gave birth to the seed, and that seed became Wonderfruit,” explains Bangkok-born Pornprapha, whose family owns Siam Motors Group and property businesses, including the Siam Country Club just outside Pattaya, where Wonderfruit has taken place since it was founded in 2014.
Instead, Phornprapha’s initial vision was something akin to the world fairs that took place in the Sixties and Seventies. “I had no experience in events. I guess my innocence really propelled the enthusiasm in me. I didn’t really understand the magnitude of it; of what it’d be like to create, essentially, a city,” he says, laughing at himself and the sheer ridiculousness of his bamboo-clad jungle Frankenstein.
Like a four-day mirage, the mostly self-sustaining utopian city appears once a year. Sculptures and structures by artists and architects from around the world fill the fields, showcasing innovative displays of sustainable architecture and design.
"My vision for Wonderfruit’s evolution is thinking about how we can create a sense of awe and wonder. How we can ignite that childlike curiosity."
In 2017, Los Angeles architect Gregg Fleishmann designed the festival’s iconic Solar Stage, made from pieces from his famed Temple of Whollyness structure he built for the Burning Man music festival in 2013. Like a puzzle, it’s designed to be easily dismantled then rebuilt and reformatted each year.
Also in 2017, contemporary Filipino artist Leeroy New built Rhizome Colony, a biomorphic alien structure situated over the on-site lake, from which water used throughout the festival is drawn and filtered. In keeping with his design, New was spotted wandering the grounds wearing a costume of woven bamboo baubles, fashioned from leftover building materials.
In 2018, Marvel Comics artist Adam Pollina designed the Living Stage, a monolithic 15- by 30-metre stage made entirely from five tonnes of bundled hemp branches. In 2019, the Forbidden Fruit stage, a red-lit bamboo boudoir, hosted an open-for-all vogueing competition before the tent was taken over by French music collective Ed Banger, where Breakbot, Irfane and Busy P (also known as Pierre “Pedro” Winter, the guy who launched Daft Punk) had crowds roaring until sunrise.
It’s a theatrical display that proves sustainability doesn’t have to mean sacrifice.
“It’s really not that hard to do if it’s planned out from the beginning. It’s hard when people realise they’ve created a mess and they want to do a U-turn, which a lot of people tend to do,” says Phornprapha. “Doing Wonderfruit as sustainably as possible came very naturally. I’ve always had an affinity for the natural world and felt some sense of harmony or duty to protect it and to engage it.”
Helping others cultivate that sense of harmony with nature is central to the Wonderfruit brand, and in creating that aforementioned sense of awe and curiosity amongst their loyal “Wonderers”.
“[The pandemic] was a [time] of deep introspection, for us and for so many others. We really reassessed where we are and what we stand for,” says Phornprapha. “We wanted to do something to encourage a fresh new way of self-exploration and mindfulness.”
Hence Wonderfruit's impressive tribe of deep thinkers and creators, including monks and visual artists, who impart their wisdom by way of digital content and workshops at the festival “to explore the limitless terrain of the human journey” for the purpose of “a cultural reform of priorities”.
“If we really want to make a meaningful impact, we have to start with ourselves. Change starts with the individual. There’s nothing we should do more as humans than spend more time with our minds,” says Phornprapha. “With that relationship, ecology comes naturally. It’s almost an extension of it, as you realise everything in the world is in connected, in harmony. From there, sustainability becomes a very basic prerequisite. Fundamental, even.”
Touting sustainability and universal harmony is all well and good, but Phornprapha means business when it comes to putting words into action. When the pseudo-city that is Wonderfruit packs up and the last partygoer departs, the team gets to work calculating the festival’s overall environmental impact before releasing an annual sustainability report.
Wonderfruit 2019, the last edition before the pandemic hit, was a resounding success. Nearly all waste—95.4 per cent—of waste was diverted from landfill by composting food waste and compostable packaging, sending all recyclables to be recycled. It’s a particularly impressive feat considering less than 20 per cent of Thailand’s overall waste makes it to recycling plants. Even the sustainable water cartons provided throughout the festival were flattened and transformed into roof tiles.
Compostable cups have been used at Wonderfruit from day one, but waste is waste, and 2019 saw the introduction of a “no cup, no service” policy, where festivalgoers were required to bring their own cups or buy reusable metal ones on site. It’s a move that ultimately saved 200,000 single-use cups.
Over 1,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, mostly generated by festival-goers flying in from around the world, were offset, marking the second year in a row that Wonderfruit had a net positive effect on the atmosphere.
Now, with Wonderfruit finally making a comeback this year, we can't wait to see what Phornprapha and his team will do next.
“We’ve done a lot of things wrong, but the thing we definitely got right, and the thing that keeps us going, is that our intention has always been pure,” says Phornprapha. “And that intention has always been to do things for a greater purpose beyond ourselves, to feel connected to that. That’s never been lost—it’s only been intensified.”