…’Cause you’re playing with fire.
“It’s clear they’re really talented, but it’s still awful to watch,” Lance said. “It’s same same, but not different at all.” Lance, our “outrageous Kiwi/Aussie friend,” was referring to the nightly fire shows on Koh Phi Phi, Thailand (you met him in this post about Vodka and Paolo, Phi Phi beach dogs).
What was once a way for Samoan warriors to demonstrate their strength, the fire performances made their way to the Thai islands and turned into a staple (free) activity for cringing tourists. A German employee at Banana Bar told us that although many of them are Burmese, the performers are “like Thai celebrities.”
Rightfully so. Every night they suffocate in the overwhelming stench of gasoline and more likely than not get third degree burns- without flinching.
They stand barefoot on the wooded platform and drip sweat for four hours. Meanwhile, drunk and overly confident tourists who jump into the mess for a free bucket end up suffering for weeks to come. Just read this article by a guy (a self-proclaimed “dumb-ass”) who weeks after the incident still had a “festering burn.”
What happens at a fire show?
Our first night staying at Stones Bar, we were lured in just like all the other tourists. From our dorm room we heard the DJ put on his set list (which was ‘same same’ every night, a YouTube mix of deep house) and scream, “ARE YOU READY, PHI PHI?” Our first fire show was just a few feet away. We walked out and sat on those plastic, orange lounge cushions with awkwardly placed headrests.
We watched as the long-haired boys dipped the ends of their sticks in gasoline and lit them on fire. Most can be described as scrawny but muscular. With tattoos and piercings, they have a kind of bad boy look to them. A confident, relaxed look. It’s like their eyes are saying “I’m playing with fire but I don’t give a f***.” They were spinning the sticks in circles, to the front and to the back, and eventually throwing them in the air only to see them fall on top of them.
Aside from around six adult performers, Stones bar boasts two miniature performers. Both of them look around five years of age. They are put on people’s shoulders, jump on peoples’ backs, and used to adorn a formation like a star on a Christmas tree. The older one is 11, and he won’t let you forget it. “How old are you?” Jennifer asked. “ELEVEN! ELEVEN!” he replied in a half scream, half hiss. Just like Vodka, he attracts a parade of mainly (drunk) girls who try to give him a hug (#guilty) and ask him lots of questions. During the show, the other performers put the small children in charge of walking around with the tip bucket. I gave lots of cash.
The show was impressive. The performers are talented. Even the young ones have a hand-eye coordination I never will. But just like Lance mentioned, it was hard to watch. I could imagine the pain of the burns, the sweat and the exhaustion. I worried about another childhood lost for a local 11-year-old. My sister and I stayed for the first part of the show and left the beach to see live music in town.
The next night, we started in the same way as before. We got dressed, walked outside, grabbed a drink and watched the Stones Bar fire show. But soon after it started, we decided we had seen the exact same thing the night before (and would see the exact same show for days to come). Looking down the beach we noticed that several of the bars had fire shows.
This night, we came to find out that the further you go down the beach, the more professional and intricate the performances become. If the fire shows boys lived in the Midwest, the Stones Bar boys’ appearance would be described as “jail bait” and those at Ibiza Bar “wholesome.” At Ibiza the performers never dropped sticks and followed along to the music in choreographed steps. At 4Play they impressed the crowds by doing bodybuilding with weights on fire. There appeared to be a hierarchy and a clear physical difference in the performers. I had a lot of questions.
Who are the performers?
I wanted to know who were the performers, and why did they decide to pursue this profession? Was it the fame? The prestige? The celebrity status? The chance to drink every night? Why were there only male performers? (Although, I did see one female Western tourist performing at various bars. Go, girl!)
A British employee at Banana Bar said most Western female tourists get with them, or want to get with them. A lot of them have Western girlfriends. A Brazilian, who worked at a snorkeling tour company who claimed to give you weed along with your snorkeling equipment, didn’t have a high opinion of them. “They think they own the island,” he said as he shook his head. “They are assholes. They punch dudes if they try to get with a girl they are looking at.” Perhaps he was speaking from personal experience.
When I approached the performers before the show the next night, they weren’t intimidating at all. On the contrary, they were soft spoken. Unfortunately, I don’t speak Thai and their English language skills weren’t enough for us to discuss my pressing questions.
I wanted to sit down with them, but timing was difficult. The only time I found them was either right before the show when they were practicing, or at the end of the night when they were too drunk to form coherent sentences, let alone in English.
One night, after the music had been shut off, I was hanging out at the picnic tables at Stones Bar. I was just sitting and winding down when I was approached by a British tourist. He sat down on a tree stump next to me and put his arm on my back. “Take it off,” I said. He laughed and asked, “Do you want to go have sex with me?”
I rolled my eyes and told him he needed to leave. When he hesitated I stood up and turned around. I saw the performers sitting at the table behind me. Still annoyed by the British tourist, I walked up to them. “I want to talk to you but I don’t want to have sex with you!” I belted out.
One of men was kind enough to assure me we could just talk. He even answered a few questions as best as he could. Most of the performers at Stones are from the north of Thailand. They’re young –between 19-24 years-old- and only recently started. They start off training with the basic moves, then with determination graduated to be good enough to perform at one of the beach bars.
I still have lots of questions and very little answers. The next time I visit Phi Phi I’m planning a full ethnographic study. The gracious performers weren’t able to tell me everything I wanted to know, but one did confirm something I suspected.
“What do you guys do in the shows?” I wondered.
“It’s same same, all days.” He said. Like Lance said – same same, but not different at all.
Featured photo: One of the young kids on top of a fire pyramid.
Want to see an interview with a performer? Watch this video filmed in Koh Tao by Jacques de Vos.