Last weekend’s Thailand International in Chiang Mai blended music and art into the mix
Last weekend’s 10th Thailand International Balloon Festival in Chiang Mai far exceeded the expectations of organiser Sornchat “Aom” Krainara. It would seem there’s nowhere for events like this to go but up.
Confusion might offer a little ballast, though. This event, held this time at the Cowboy Army Riding Club, keeps moving to different locales and tends to get mixed up with another balloonist summit, which this year took place in Chiang Rai.
Aom acknowledges that the “other organiser” invested way more in promotion, but insists that her International Balloon Festival gives its target group more. “Fortunately, a lot of people appreciate our uniqueness. I’m just letting it grow by itself in a self-sufficient way.”
Aom is proud of the “lifestyle content” offered alongside the spectacle of magnificent giant balloons hovering in the air.
“A hot-air balloon can only be on show an hour at a time, so what’s the next gimmick?” she asks rhetorically. “You think about modern consumer behaviour – they also come here for the great-tasting food and to have fun with the music. And we appeal as much to expatriates and foreign tourists as we do local people.”
Aom explains that the event has repeatedly shifted venues because landlords, expecting to earn a profit from hot air, keep raising the rent.
The Cowboy Army Riding Club is a good location, she says, but she knew in advance that aircraft landing and taking off from the international airport just to the south posed a serious hazard for any balloons that might drift into the flight path.
“So I had a backup plan. I changed not only the venue but also the time, moving it to the first week of March, in tourism’s low season. I wanted to stimulate tourism too.
“It used to be in the first week of December, when the cool temperatures best suit ballooning. My foreign friends said I was crazy to move it to March or April in Chiang Mai because of the smog. That’s when foreigners leave Chiang Mai.
“But we have our other strengths!”
The highlight of the event was a truly spectacular wedding of ballooning skills and the fiercely dynamic music of the percussion group Tiger Drum Thailand. At one point the musicians leapt from hovering balloons onto their huge drums.
“And we had the Lanna Orchestra, whose conductor and composer improvised a show specially for the event. Thais knew the actions and music were adapted from those of khon, the classical masked dance, though foreigners usually see khon characters as just ‘monsters’. Music, though, is universal.”
The show also included Aom’s first investment in digital technology, which facilitated registration and ticket sales. Interestingly enough, she says, it fits perfectly with Thai ambitions to establish a sufficiency economy.
“First, it helps reduce global warming by eliminating the need for paper and plastic. Of course, people pointed out the paper signs around the site, and some of the entrepreneurs and artists involved didn’t at first understand the digital information transfer.”
More Thais are going to have to embrace digital technology, Aom says.
“I know a young artist in Bangkok who sells his work online. I once visited the Van Gogh Museum in Holland and found many premium products on sale related to the artist. It’s my dream to do this sort of thing for Thai artists who don’t know how to market their work.
“I can help some of them as a private businessperson. I’m not a technology provider – I’m a solutions provider, and I can blend the best of the old and new generations.”
Back to the balloons, a wonderful mountain range of tethered, bobbing colour. By evening the hues glowed in synchronisation with the music of the Lanna Orchestra, which extended to “La Vie en Rose”.
Unfortunately German opera singer Thomas Kiessling couldn’t perform this year because of ill health. But Tiger Drum’s fantastic performance of “Prahathan” compensated for the tenor’s absence.
Eight of its members wore the masks of Ramakien giants and danced to the rhythms of their own drums and the Lanna Orchestra. The climax, the leap from a balloon onto a drum, included a thrilling somersault that earned cheers and enthusiastic applause.
Around the grounds were art exhibits and artists leading workshops, fashion and jewellery shows by famous Thai designers and traditional crafts from Sop Moei Arts.
Before it was over, Aom was already feeling tired, but she spoke of persevering despite “many set¬backs”.
“I’e come to expect setbacks, so I feel I’m allowed to be arrogant next time. The festivals so far have been only hotair balloons, plus music and food from several leading hotels. Now, I’ve partnered with the Thailand Convention & Exhibition Bureau to implement a new marketing strategy based on four elements – balloons, music, art and culture.
“The balloonists and musicians take care of their own presentation, but art and culture can’t do that, so they have no inherent ‘added value’.
“But Sop Moei Arts, for example, adds value to the beautiful craft pieces made by Karen people – textiles and interior decor. Kent Gregory, who founded the non-profit organisation in 1988, told me it was late in revealing itself to the world through the Internet. So I invited him to create a showcase here and work with an Ikea interior designer from Stockholm.
“That’s how this festival became more of a lifestyle experience, with many workshops. I like to give Thais a chance to show off, like Narakorn Konkaew with her ‘Wakeup Rabbit’ products.”
Now that the Thai International has passed its 10th anniversary, Aom is reticent about what she has in mind for 2019, but she promises it will take the country by storm with “an unprecedented phenomenon”.
“I’m planning to build a permanent team to handle social media so I can concentrate on the content. But let’s just say it’s my business platform to keep growing in the future.”