Feb 15 2013 12:30pm

Where in the World?: Thailand Makes for Perfect Crime Film Backdrop

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.


Want to read more from Christopher R. Cox? Check out the excerpt for his book, A Good Death, and find out below how you can enter for a chance to win a copy!

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Lakis Fourouklas
1. LakisFourouklas
Scenes of American Gangster were also shot here in Chiang Mai, though the location was supposed to be Bangkok. Denzel Washington and crew had been roaming the streets for days a few years ago, attracting lots of tourists in the process, and getting some young people paid to simply sit down and drink in a bar, thus earning their few moments of fame.
Jeffrey Tretin
3. jtretin
Having recently traveled to Phuket and
Phang-nga Bay, I can see why it is a popular destination for filmmakers.
Barbara Bibel
5. bbibel
It looks like a beautiful country. The exotic locale is great for a mystery.
Anna Mills
6. Anna Mills
Since I doubt that moving to Thailand is in my future, I need books! And that is why I am here.
Susan Meek
8. smeek1958
Thailand is one of the (many) places I'd love to visit! At least I can visit through this book.
Allison Moyer
13. The Loopy Librarian
Interesting article. I had no idea that so many movies had been filmed in Thailand. Makes me very interested to read his book, A Good Death.
Carol Gowett
14. clynsg
My daughter had an exchange student from Thailand and they still keep in touch rather episodically. My grandson went to visit her there and fell in love with the country. Unfortunately, from some of the news reports, it sounds as if the country is having some political problems right now.
Andrew Beck
16. queerbec
It's great to read thrillers set in unique environments! Thailand has indeed served as background for a number of films and novels, and I am sure that its exotic charms and unusual qualities will continue to attract writers and artists for years to come.
18. artistmom
Thailand is a beautiful country. My daughter was married there many years ago - the land and the people are wonderful - too bad about the corruption. Would love to win one of the books.
Pam Howell
21. phowell13
I always loved that the Bond movies had such exotic locales. Especially as a kid.
Rosa Abraham
22. ravensfan
Looking forward to reading this one. Count me in.
Jeffrey Malis
25. bravejam
I enjoyed the excerpt and look forward to reading more. Such vivid depictions of exotic locales and cultures offer tantalizing hints that this will be a compelling read. Thank you for the opportunity!
John Clark
28. sennebec
Looks like a winner. Another series set in Thailand are Tim Hallinan's Poke Rafferty thrillers.
Cindi Hoppes
29. CindiHoppes
Thanks for this amazing opportunity! Loving the pictures and
the setting of this book...
Jackie Wisherd
30. JackieW
Enjoyed the blog today. I would like to visit this area someday.
susan beamon
35. susanbeamon
do love the ocean pictures from thailand. the rocks make the beaches lovely.
37. Neroon
Haven't read a mystery set in Thailand should be interesting.
vicki wurgler
38. bison61
I would love to visit Thailand-thanks for the giveaway
Joanne Mielczarski
42. jtmswim
Have never been to Thailand - would be nice to read about it here.
43. Sherry Russell2
hope to read soon!
kathy pease
44. klp1965
Thank you for the great giveaway please count me in :)
Kimbrell Scheunert
45. kscheunert
I haven't read anything about Thailand. I can't wait!
Carolyn Dileo
49. cbdileo
Perfect! A good thriller to end the winter with!
Chris Noe
50. ezmerelda
Sounds like an excellent read. I sm always on the prowl for something new.
Debra Kidle
53. lubelle
Enjoyed the excerpt immensely, would love to read more!
Susan Smoaks
54. susansmoaks
this would be an awesome book for me to read
Kari Flores
57. kari944
The plot sounds interesting, count me in!
Vernon Luckert
58. vl4095
Looks like quite an interesting read!

Buddy Garrett
It sounds like a great read. Interesting post about Thailand. Thanks for the giveaway.
66. EIRE
Kelley Tackett
69. tackettfamilyky
can't wait to read! Thanks for the opportunity!
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