When it comes to eye-popping landscapes and city streets that evoke exotic, deadly intrigue, Hollywood’s go-to country for Asian locations may very well be Thailand. The kingdom boasts a variety of terrain—everything from thick jungles and vaulting limestone mountains to broad, bone-white beaches and chaotic, neon-drenched urban cores—as well as competent, relatively inexpensive movie crews.
That camera-friendly mix has been on display for nearly 40 years, ever since The Man With the Golden Gun (1974), the ninth installment of the James Bond franchise, filmed extensively in Thailand. There was the boat chase through the klongs (canals) of Bangkok, the karate school in nearby Samut Prakan province, but the real show-stopper was Scaramanga’s lair in the otherworldy archipelago of Phang-nga Bay on Thailand’s Andaman Sea coastline. The dramatic limestone island of Ko Khao Phing Kan lies about 20 miles northeast of Phuket and is notable for a massive section of rock that has cleanly sheared off—the result of thousands of years of undercutting erosion—and now leans against the remaining mountain. Punctuating the island’s small cove is the pillar of Koh Tapu (“Nail Island”), now commonly known as “James Bond Island” by every tour operator in Phuket.
Phang-nga Bay would have a cameo in another Bond flick, Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), where it doubled for Vietnam’s equally photogenic Halong Bay, while Bangkok stood in for Ho Chi Minh City.
Thailand, in fact, has frequently doubled for Indochina, especially when the subject is the Vietnam War. The Deerhunter filmed its harrowing Russian roulette scenes inside a Bangkok club on Patpong Road, the most notorious of the capital’s “entertainment” districts. Director Michael Cimino also took the production 100 miles west to Sai Yok National Park in Kanchanaburi province, where actors Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage were submerged for hours inside bamboo cages set in the cold, swift-flowing waters of the Kwai Noi River. (However, David Lean’s classic movie about Thailand’s Death Railway, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) was actually filmed on location in Ceylon, aka Sri Lanka.)
Civil war still raged in Cambodia when Roland Joffe filmed The Killing Fields (1984) in neighboring Thailand, with several landmark buildings in Phuket and the resort town of Hua Hin doubling for Phnom Penh hotels and embassies. Oliver Stone made use of a private Phuket mansion, the antique-filled Chinpracha House, for his Vietnam drama, Heaven & Earth. Good Morning Vietnam (1987) also subbed Patpong for Saigon’s equally naughty Tu Do Street.
The forest-draped mountains and colorful hilltribes of Mae Hong Son province in extreme northwest Thailand were used to good effect in Air America (1990), an odd comedy about the CIA’s clandestine wartime operations over Laos. More satisfying was Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn (2007), where northwest Thailand’s thick jungles, rushing streams, and profusion of maggots and snakes pushed the film’s star, Christian Bale, to the physical and mental limits in his portrayal of the only American POW to ever successfully escape a Laotian prison camp. The movie’s most arresting location, however, a natural limestone arch known as “The White Hole” that’s seen when Bale makes his initial prison escape, is found more than 500 miles to the south, in the karst country of Krabi province.
A few miles from mainland Krabi, mountain-rimmed Maya Bay on the island of Ko Phi Phi Leh, which had earlier served as a pirate hideout in Renny Harlin’s disastrous Cutthroat Island (1995), was used to better effect in the dystopian backpacker fantasy The Beach (2000). Phuket’s gritty On On Hotel, which opened in 1929 and looks to have never enjoyed a makeover, also did duty as the Bangkok budget hostel where Leonardo DiCaprio finds the map to the island paradise.
In the raunchy Hangover 2 (2011), director Todd Phillips employs Bangkok almost as an extra character, with scenes in Chinatown, the Lebua Hotel’s vertigo-inducing Sky Bar, and Soi Cowboy red-light district, as well as the same Samut Prakan temples quoted in The Man With the Golden Gun. The wedding and reception backdrops were far more upscale—that’s the Ritz-Carlton’s $500-plus/night Phulay Bay Resort in Krabi province.
Most recently, The Impossible filmed at the same sites in Khao Lak, located 30 miles north of Phuket in Phang-nga province, that were devastated by the 2004 tsunami. And later this year, Bangkok’s underbelly gets another close-up when Ryan Gosling kicks and punches his way through Only God Forgives, about a man who operates a Muay Thai boxing club as a front for his family’s drug smuggling activities.
Crime has never looked so good.
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