Thinking about dreadlocks in North Thailand

Pai reggae festival

Originally uploaded by jonckher

Over the last few years living in Australia where the majority of the asians are ethnic chinese, I’d gotten used to being one of the very few asian guys with dreadlocks. I’ve got used to standing out.

As I travelled north in Thailand, I started noticing more and more thai men with dreads and nicer dreads too. They tended to be musicians or artists in the main and weren’t all young either, many of them seeming to be around my age especially those who looked reasonably well established in their field.

As the prevelance of Thais with dreadlocks increased, so too did the percentage of Thais mistaking me for being a Thai and either an artist or musician (and presumably other things too) and lookng a little confused and embarrassed when I had to point to myself and say “falang”. In Chaing Mai, at the Sunday night market on Rachdamneon street (which is much nicer than the large nightly one), I was asked three or four times as I stood admiring artwork laid out on the pavement if that work was mine.

Watching a thai band busking on the streets of pai last night, I came to a couple of realisations. The thai band was ranging quite freely through the region, from traditional hill tribes songs to malay dances to an indonesian love song. Someone had set up a shadow puppet screen behind them and for a little while characters from the mahabrata and the ramayana danced with them.

It struck me then that the chinese are really quite alien in culture in this region. There have been a lot of trade and migration for many centuries but in the end, the lands of thailand, myanmar, malaysia and indonesia have the ancient hindu traditions behind them as a cultural foundation no matter that language and religion are so different. And even then, there are many sanskrit and pali words in Malay.

Later that night I went to the Pai reggae festival, an annual event that happens over two nights and collects the big reggae and ska bands of thailand all gloriously bedecked in dreadlocks. It had an environmental theme of some sort but it rang as hollow as the reggae did, consisting mainly of the recitation of various catchphrases.

The music actually was quite good once I accepted that, in spite of occasional shouts of ‘rasta!’, much of what they played was pop thai music to a reggae beat. And it seemed to me that that was for the best, I really couldn’t see how Rastafarianism with its stern monotheistic god, its earthly african prophet and its sole promised land would fit with popular thai buddhism, its melange of hindu and buddhist gods and its multiple paradises and hellworlds .

Watching the thai kids dancing happily, I thought at the same time about my dreads, about what they meant to me, what others read into them. For some time now my hair has been thinning on top but as well, I’ve also been feeling that the things which I’ve enjoyed about my dreads, as a symbol of my difference and as a reasonably easy means of being accepted in certain sub-cultures, I’ve been feeling that those things are no longer so important.

Whether it is a rationalisation or a nice coincidence I’m not sure but I can’t see myself keeping my dreads much longer. I will be sad when I do cut them off and if I’m honest with myself I’m not sure I would cut them if my hair wasn’t thinning but as it is everything changes and it’s time to move on.

2 thoughts on “Thinking about dreadlocks in North Thailand

  1. Hey Tien, on holiday, waiting for Penny’s wedding to come around, thought we’d have a family reading of your adventures. Kieren said you should try to see a Hardcore punk band while in Thailand, says they are like riots.

  2. Hello, I stumbled upon your page while I was looking for information on the reggae festival in Thailand coming up in January. Your blog was very insightful and also made me think twice about the locks I once longed for. It is sad how the rastafarian religion has become commodified, and although it is great to see the colors scream loud amongst the youth I wonder how many know the roots of the identity which they are representing. I am going myself in january to experience this festival and talk with the bands about working on music myself, so this will be a good opportunity for me to observe. thank you!


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