Picture yourself sitting on a sandy beach on an island in the Gulf of Siam, drinking delicious sangria from a bamboo cup, and indulgently dancing to the chill house beats of DJ Kevin Yost or Giles Peterson along with 300 other people. One would think this is the famous Full Moon Party of Koh Phangan, but you’re really on Koh Tao, enjoying the Turtle Island’s first international music festival – the Tao Music Festival.

The smallest of the three main islands, Koh Tao (“Turtle Island” in Thai) is famous for being a scuba diver’s certification destination – the 2nd most popular in the world behind Cairns. Still, it’s a laid-back island with an almost bohemian attitude – and a sense of nature.

Its southern neighbor, Koh Phangan, is better known for partying, being home to the various moon phase parties.  Yet on the 28th-30th March 2017, international acts such as Arrested Developed, DJs like Alex Barck, Gilles Peterson, Kevin Yost, as well as local bands including Paradise Bangkok, descended onto this small island for the biggest music festival it had ever seen.

The Tao festival is the brainchild of local architect and developer, Khun Naruepon (Pong) Charoenittikul, who moved to Koh Tao when it was a burgeoning island.  The festival actually started as a landscape and architecture design festival. It was only when Khun Pong met with local expatriate and festival co-founder, Eric Bochet, a DJ and freediver, that they noticed something was different about the scuba divers and the tourists who went to Koh Tao. Like themselves, the scuba divers seemed more “woke” about environmental issues, especially those problems facing our oceans.

A party-goer representing the Tao Fest © Drew Wong

With that in mind, Pong and Eric developed the Tao Music and Underwater Festival, infusing an underwater theme (a nod to Koh Tao’s main industry) with music performed by a mix of local and international acts.  One important aspect they both agreed upon was minimising the festival’s impact on the environment. Ecological concerns are relevant to all big festivals. The Glastonbury Festival, which claims to have “green” programs, somehow ends up with over 200 tons of trash – from cigarette butts to tents. Pong and Eric were determined to avoid such issues with the small and fragile ecosystem of Koh Tao.

The festival was held over 3 days. The format was a “Day” session – with a free beach afternoon/ sunset party at Sairee Beach’s Cabana Resort, featuring top DJs playing tunes till a little past sunset, as well as a ticketed “Night” session, which saw 2000+ tickets sold. The main stage and other cultural activities were held on the side of the hills overlooking June Juea Bay.

The beach party “Day” session featured a lot of the eco-friendliness that Pong and Eric had dreamt about. The avoidance of plastic and hard-to-degrade materials was very perspicuous. Bamboo – one of the more sustainable materials with high carbon absorption characteristics – was highly featured in all aspects of the festival. The official festival T-shirt by Rip Curl was 70% bamboo viscose. The food retailers used a Chinese bamboo steamer with a banana leaf base, making it highly biodegradable (unlike most festivals, which use plastic containers!)

Drinks were served in bamboo cups, which required a 100b deposit so that the user is more inclined to bring it back to be washed and reused, as opposed to using a new cup every time for beverages. Drinking water was free, and stainless steel canteens were available for purchase as well. The attention to detail went all the way, even to wooden forks and spoons.

While dancing to the grooves of afro beat house around the beach party, it was pleasantly surprising to see that the grounds were quite clean – even of cigarette butts, which is something I’ve rarely seen at any festival. Large ashtrays were situated all around, but the astonishing thing was that they were being used by the majority of the festival-goers. Maybe it’s something about scuba divers and the way they care about the environment, but it’s still amazing.

Bamboo was highly featured in all aspects of the festival – like the drinking cups! © Drew Wong

As the sun went down on the last “Day” session at the beach, the underwater theme took center stage with the screening of Guillaume Néry’s film, Narcose. This is a journey into Guillaume’s narcosis while diving – shot and directed by his partner, Julie Gautier. Apnea diving had recently become quite popular on Koh Tao, and Eric Bochet, a fellow apnea diver, built a 50ft outdoor screen specially for the film.

Like any startup, there were unforeseen problems. With climate change affecting weather patterns worldwide, an unseasonal storm system hit the area while the festival was on, with uncharacteristically high winds and big storms. The heavy rains caused problems for the main stage, and the first night’s activities were cancelled. They even had to get technicians from Bangkok to fly in to fix the problem.

The first “Night” session, held on the second day, opened with Paradise Bangkok, a popular UK/ Thai band that uses traditional Thai instruments to play a mix of blues, folk and roots music. Judging from the audience’s response, music is universally loved if there’s a good tune, regardless of the language. Impressively, there was a blind lead-guitarists playing a Thai electric lute guitar.

On the third and final day, festival headliner Arrested Development came on. They are one of the iconic Afrocentric hip hop bands of the 90s, responsible for hip hop classics like Mr Wendal, People Everywhere and Tennessee.  The crowds reflected their popularity, filling the area for the first time in the festival. Speech and One Love’s rhymes melded with the powerhouse vocals of Tasha L and the frenetic energy in the singing and dancing of Zafreeda, producing a wonderfully tight set. Needless to say, the crowds loved it!

The crowds came out in droves for Arrested Development © Drew Wong

However, the weather tried to dampen the festivities – rain forced the engineers to shut down the stage lights and projection equipment. Yet there was still power to the sound equipment, so while revelers danced in the rain, Los Angeles DJ Salazar Santiago played his entire set under a tent – with no stage lights or projection. As they say, the show must go on, and so does the partying – no matter what!

To make up for the cancellation on the first day, Pong and Eric decided to hold a free concert on the fourth night, with DJs Alex Barck and PillowTalk Michael Tello as the closing acts for the festival. It was on this night that the Tao Fest magic was brought to life: Arrested Development’s One Love took up the mic to rhyme for PillowTalk, setting the stage for a great night of music and festive camaraderie. I’ve been to Ultra and Tomorrowland, and I’ve hardly ever seen a bunch of musicians just come out to enjoy the art of music together. It was a special way to end a special festival.

To sum it up, despite all the technical hiccups and the unavoidable transport-logistic problems on a small island with limited vehicles, the Tao Fest turned out to be a wonderful music festival where the musicians enjoyed playing their tunes and dancing to other acts with revelers. And due to the organiser’s careful planning, the damage to the environment was minimal. The Tao Fest shows that we can have music festivals without 200 tons of trash left all over in its wake. All it takes is determination from organisers to care about the environment – and of course, that special ingredient of “woke” in the party-goers.

Article by Drew Wong

All photos © Drew Wong

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