Yeah, This Is Thailand
I’m a first time contributor. I’ve spent a couple of months or so sitting on the sidelines reading some interesting, and not so interesting, contributions to this site and decided I may as well jump in and talk about some of the situations
that I’ve found myself in over the past thirteen years or so, of living in the LOS (Land of smiles).
It would have been very tempting to write about my experiences of interacting with Thai ladies, and more to the point, Thailand’s ladies of the night. But, after due consideration, I thought “what’s the point”, that subject has really been done to death. I mean, after living in Thailand for a few years, the stories I’ve heard and read, of farangs and their troubled relationships with bargirls, all become “yeah, what else is new”.
I started coming to Thailand in 1993, for short term breaks between work contracts, eventually making a permanent move in June 1994. My reasons for coming here were not just about the beer and pussy. I was actively involved in scuba diving and came to Phuket to go out on a live aboard trip to the Similan Islands. After taking up residence in Phuket, I got involved in the scuba industry and eventually became an instructor. The following is a recollection of some of the more bizarre situations that I found myself in during the six years that I was there.
“Lights, cameras, action – Part one”
In 1995 I was working in a scuba shop in Patong and one morning a team of guys, resembling something you’d see in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or find in a Clive Cussler novel, walked though the door. They were wearing sleeveless safari jackets jangling with karabiners’, belts with Leathermans’ and Panama hats. Not exactly looking like your average scuba enthusiast. They were a team of special effects people working on a Van Damme movie being filmed around Phuket Island, over the next two months or so, and they wanted to go scuba diving on their days’ off.
Over the next three weekends I took them diving and ran some of them through the basic scuba course. I must have done something to impress them because by the Sunday of the third weekend with them, I was offered a job as a safety diver on the movie set on a day rate of USD 150. Compared to what I was getting paid as an instructor – and anyone who’s worked in the scuba industry in Thailand will know what I’m talking about – it was like being told I’d won the lottery. It took me all of three seconds to accept the offer.
The next morning I was picked up and taken to their workshop, a disused tantalum processing plant on the outskirts of Phuket Town. We picked up some tools, welding equipment and a prefabricated metal device and headed for one of the canals near Phuket Town, where many of the smaller Phi Phi Island day trip ferries were birthed. The plan was to weld a bracket, with a long swinging type arm attached on a pin, to the exterior hull of a small cargo freighter that was being used in the movie.
When we arrived at the jetty, the small freighter was moored alongside. Our first job was to hang a make shift scaffold – constructed of planks and small tubing – over the outer side of the freighter. We eventually got that done and, the tradesman I was with, began positioning the bracket for welding. He had just started when I heard a Thai voice yell out something like “farang lawang”. I looked up and here was a returning Phi Phi Island ferry, beam on, and swinging directly at us. I grabbed the guy, who was welding, and literally threw him, and myself, over the gunwale of the freighter with seconds to spare. I looked over the side to see the ferry smash into our scaffolding and crush it flat. The special effects guy went ballistic. A number of Thais employed on the tour boat were looking at us though there was really nothing to be concerned about. I just smiled and thought “Yeah, this is Thailand”.
We eventually completed that job and a few days later the area of operations moved to the Phuket Deepwater Port of Ao Makham. The small freighter was moored alongside a section of the jetty and the plan was to do some filming in the hold of the vessel. Van Damme was there and was going to be involved in quite a lot of the filming for the day. The idea was that the freighter would be replicated to look like a 1920’s steam powered vessel. In the forward hold, the carpenters had built an imitation furnace and boiler. Van Damme was to be filmed shoveling coal into the furnace. The flame in the furnace was created by LPG which was emanating from outlets behind the façade of woodwork. It was hot, extremely hot and it was mid February in Thailand. Somewhere, something went wrong. The wooden façade caught alight and there was the beginnings of a serious blaze in the hold. Actors, directors, cameramen, lighting and sound people nearly trampled each other in the charge to get to the stair well leading out of the hold. Someone said the ships bunkers were full and directly beneath the area where the fire was blazing. It was suddenly a serious situation. Myself and the special effects guys got into action and manned the fire hoses which, to the credit of those guys, had been laid out prior to beginning the days filming. It took about ten minutes to get the fire out and there was quite a bit of damage – the deck of the ship had collapsed in. The special effects team was stressed and shouting accusations at anyone they could find. One of the Thai production team was laughing at the sight of all that had occurred. I smiled and once again thought “Yeah, this is Thailand”.
A couple of weeks later the entire film unit had relocated to a site in the upper Phang Nga Bay. A conjunction of three islands in a beautiful location was to see the filming of a pitched battle between the small freighter and a Chinese junk as they came together and, the crew from each vessel, fought it out in hand to hand combat. The days were long, the weather was hot and humid, and tempers were often frayed.
I was there to ensure the safety of the stuntmen. During the filming, some of the stunt work involved guys being thrown off the vessels during the mock battles. The water around that part of Phang Nga Bay is green and decidedly murky. It was very hard to see any floating objects at the surface. One meter below the surface there was nil visibility, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. I had to sit in a shady spot in full scuba kit as each shot was being done. If any of the stuntmen were to hit an unidentifiable object, upon impacting the surface from the fifteen foot drop, then I’d be there, to jump in at a moment's notice, to rescue the unconscious body.
Luckily, that situation never eventuated. However, I was asked to effect a rescue of a different sort. One of the cameramen, while transferring between the two vessels, lost a camera dolly from the head of his camera tripod. It hadn’t been connected properly and, as the tripod was passed across the gap between the two vessels, the dolly fell off. There was an audible splash as it hit the water and the cameraman was in a flap.
“That’s worth ten thousand dollars, quick where’s the diver”.
“I’m here, what’s the problem” I asked.
“An expensive bit of equipment has fallen into the water” he replied.
“Where did it go in” I asked but also thinking it’s already lost.
“Over there” says the cameraman, pointing to a location already ten meters adrift from where we are.
So, without much comment, I jump in for what I know will be an exercise in futility. I take a marker buoy on a line with me and swim over to the assumed location where the object went down. I descended and entered into the gloom. It was pitch black and I only knew that I was on the bottom when I sank into it. It was thick gooey mud and I could push the full length of my arm into it. The camera dolly was a five kilo object, there was no chance of finding it. After about thirty minutes I surfaced covered in mud.
“Sorry mate, no luck” I said to the cameraman.
“Thanks anyway but we’ve got another one back at the hotel” he said.
I just nodded and thought “you mate, are a bloody wanker”.
The Thai crew are laughing at the sight of me. A Thai lady, who’s part of the production team, comes over and gives me a beautiful smile as she hands me a cold Coke. I smile back and think “yeah, this is Thailand”.
“Lights, Camera, Action – Part 2”
In 1997 I was still living in Patong. As luck would have it, I got hired to work as a safety diver on another movie. A segment of “Tomorrow Never Dies” was filmed in Thailand, mainly in Bangkok, but also in Phuket. Once again I head out to Phang Nga Bay and eventually the boat pulls up at the new concrete jetty on James Bond Island. It’s a case of the future visiting the past – a Bond movie was filmed in the same location in 1973. I was asked to work with the production set riggers. I was told that there’s going to be some filming done off the end of the jetty at around last light – the film boffins call it the magic hour or something like that <golden hour – Stick>. They needed a scaffold platform at surface level, which will be three meters lower than it is now, for some shots right at the waterline.
“No problems” I say, “we’ll just wait for the tide to drop”.
“Unfortunately, we can’t wait that long” says one of the assistant directors. “you’ll need to jump in now and complete it so that it’s ready as soon as the tide drops to it’s lowest point, which is around 6.00 p.m.”
I nod and smile. “So you’re actually telling me that you want a scaffold built three meters under water, in poor visibility and in a two knot current”.
“Yes. You’ll have these riggers to assist you though” he says.
After two and a half hours of struggling against the current, getting banged against the jetty and working by feel, the platform is completed. I spent the rest of the afternoon watching the inane operations of a movie production set cranking into life.
At around sunset, a large (25 meters in length) white motor launch – something resembling the Disco Valante out of Thunderball – arrives just off the jetty and a black, special forces type zodiac runs across to pick up Pierce Brosnan and Michelle Yeoh.
Pierce is shown how to operate the outboard motor on the zodiac and some distance footage is taken of them running around in it. It then comes back into the jetty in preparation for the closer shots. In the movie (if anyone can remember it) there’s a shot of the zodiac in a stationary position. Bond (Brosnan) looks at something through a pair of binoculars, hands them over to Yeoh and then takes off in the zodiac. While that shot was being done, there was a current running which kept drifting the zodiac off station. After about fifteen minutes the director was starting to get pissed off because the light was going. I told them to run a twenty foot scaffold tube out, just below the surface and at right angles from the platform. I could keep low in the water (on the opposite side of the zodiac to where the camera was), and simultaneously hold the scaffold tube and the zodiac, thereby keeping the zodiac from drifting. It went well until right at the end of the shoot when Pierce decides to hit the outboard throttle the wrong way. It spins to the right and he runs the rear end of the zodiac right over the top of me. I wonder if I’m the only person, in the real world and not the movies, who can lay claim to being run over by James Bond.
By the time the filming had finished it was getting dark and it was at least an hours run back to the marina at the North end of Phuket Island. The disco Valante takes off with the strains of the Bond Theme blaring out of it’s power packed speakers. We head off in our slow launch looking out into the black void. Half way through the run back the skipper picks up a message – the Disco Valante has run aground on a shallow sand bar – go and pick them up. I think great, it’s pay back time Brosnan. Eventually the stranded white launch comes into view and as we pull up along side I can see Pierce standing along the side of the vessel.
The skipper throttles down a couple of meters clear and I yell out to Brosnan “What’s it worth to be rescued Pierce, a few beers I reckon”.
Unfortunately Pierce didn’t see the humor in this and grunted something about all the booze being finished. The whole entourage climbs onto our vessel and we head off into the night. I’m sitting there minding my own business, in a pissed off mood, and thinking most of these actors are just bloody egotistical wankers, when a beautiful Thai babe, who is a stand in, or double, for Michele Yeoh, plonks herself down next to me, looks me in the eye and says “there’s a party at the production crews’ hotel tonight and I want you to come with me”.
I smile and think “Yeah, this really is Thailand”.
“The captain doesn’t always go down with the ship – Part 1”
“Don’t all move to one side of the boat or we’ll capsiiiiiiiiiiize!!!!!”
We departed from the deep water port (Ao Makham) of Phuket Island on one of those superb high season mornings. The sky was clear and azure, there was the lightest of breezes and the air was dry and cool. As the King Cruiser made its way out into the open sea, I led my small group of divers up from the car deck, where we’d stowed all our kit, into the economy class lounge area for our helping of coconut donuts and café rawn. The lounge was packed with the usual suspects – Chinese group tours – on a day trip to Phi Phi Island. We grabbed our coffee and donuts and settled in for the ninety minute crossing to Tonsai Bay. Having done this trip about one hundred times before, I had the routine almost down to clockwork. Twenty minutes before arriving, at our intended destination, I’d take the group back down to the car deck and set up our kit. When the King Cruiser came to a halt, the ramp would go down and we’d carry all our kit down to our waiting long tail boat.
We loaded the long tail and pushed away from the ferry. The long tail driver spun his boat around and set a course for a mid ocean pinnacle approximately one hour due south of Phi Phi Don Island. The six divers started to prep their gear as the long tail ran on in the calm conditions. Phi Phi Le Island was to our starboard side. The divers pulled out cameras and started snapping shots of the spectacular Eastern side of Phi Phi Le, its vertical limestone cliffs topped with green, tropical vegetation folding down into the crags and crevices of the cliff faces.
The sea was calm and smooth with that deep blue tinge to it and, as we approached the small exposed pinnacle, the divers could clearly see the sea bed in the shallower areas of the reef system. They were excited and it was going to be a great days diving, or so we thought.
As I floundered around in the water, grabbing what gear I could before it sank to the bottom, there was moans of disbelief from the divers. I can still hear myself saying “don’t all move to one side of the boat or it will capsize” just before it flipped over. Most of the divers were already dressed into their kit, or at least in their wetsuits before it went over. Myself and the Thai dive-master were fully dressed in. I told the divers to remain calm, grab whatever they could that was floating, and that there was no immediate danger as we were in ideal conditions.
I donned my mask and put my head below the surface. The long tail was drifting to the bottom and I could see the heavier pieces of dive gear, the weight belts and cylinders, lying on the seabed twelve meters or so below. I looked over to the long tail driver who had swum over to the exposed pinnacle of the reef. He was squatting on top of it, in his flip flops, looking at me and smiling.
In my basic Thai I asked him what we could do. He told me that another long tail will come by some time but he wasn’t sure when. I told everyone to relax, maintain buoyancy, ditch anything that was heavy, and stay together, while myself and the dive-master retrieved as much gear as possible off the bottom. One of the divers started to whine about not having paid for this. I told him I was sorry but I didn’t have a box of tissues. A couple of female divers started to laugh and he stopped his whining.
Myself and the Thai dive-master descended to the seabed. There was gear scattered everywhere – small backpacks, cameras, dive bags and dive gear. I found my dive bag and pulled out the lift bag I had. For the next forty minutes we relayed everything we could find to the surface. Back at the surface I told everyone to save what was worth saving and ditch things that weren’t, like lead weights. We built a raft out of the buoyancy jackets and then made a group decision to fin to the nearest land mass, a small island, approximately five kilometers back towards Phi Phi Islands.
It was just after two p.m., and beginning to get hot. I’d found sunscreen and told everyone to smother their exposed areas of skin. We had water but only the bare minimum. After about an hour and a half, both the girls had virtually stopped fining. It was really starting to get hot as the wind had dropped and the island we were aiming for, was still ahead in the distance. Morale was still good but we were getting tired from being immersed in the ocean. I heard the faintest sound of a long tail engine. I looked around and could just see our long tail driver standing up on his rock and waving his T – shirt to a long tail, way off in the distance. I told everyone to stop and that today was our lucky day because we weren’t too far away from being picked up.
The sea surface was still smooth so I had good distance visibility. I could see the long tail pull up at the pinnacle and our Thai guide jump in. I inflated an orange surface marker buoy and the long tail set a course directly at us. Slowly but surely the noise of its engine grew louder and within fifteen minutes it had pulled up next to us. There was smiles and laughter all round as we scrambled the dive kit and ourselves into the long tail.
As we made our way back to Tonsai Bay I looked at our long tail driver, he was still smiling. I had to admire his spirit. He had potentially lost his source of income, had been forced to squat on a rock, in the middle of the ocean, in the scorching sun, for three hours and yet, he was still “jai yen yen”. I think most westerners, put in the same situation, would be complaining, stressed or hopping mad.
I asked him what he would do about his long tail. He told me “mai pen rai” and that he would return with some friends to salvage it.
I smiled and thought “yeah, this is Thailand”.
“The captain doesn’t always go down with the ship – part 2”
When the “King Cruiser” sank on May 5th 1997 it caused quite a bit of controversy. There was all kinds of odd rumors floating around in Phuket, shortly after its demise. It had been done on purpose as an insurance scam because its operational life was coming to an end. The captain was drunk and simply ran off course. The captain had disappeared shortly after the sinking and some say he’d been eliminated to suppress the truth of the event. Whatever the case may be, all I knew, as a Phuket based scuba instructor, was that the sinking of the Phi Phi Island ferry was going to be a significant addition to the diving industry in the area.
I had tried to make a dive on it within a week of its sinking. I was over on Phi Phi Island for a few days and a friend and I hired a small fishing boat for the day to go out and have a look at the wreck. We arrived there only to be told, by the Thai salvage crew, that we couldn’t dive and it would be another few days before it would be safe enough due to all the fuel oil that was on it.
Two weeks later we were back, this time on one of Phuket's dive operator's boats. It was the first properly organized trip for paying customers and the anticipation was high for most of us. I think we were all privately thinking about what we might be able to find in the way of artifacts or secreted valuable items. The reality was of course that, within twenty four hours of it going down, the sea gypsies had been out there and plundered anything and everything of value. I knew a Phi Phi based instructor who’d dived on it within forty eight hours of the sinking. It was still sitting on its side, on the seabed, and he’d gone into the bridge to claim the compass. As he was unscrewing the compass, from its housing, the wreck started to move. Its hulls had filled with water and the weight caused it to slowly, but surely, fall to the bottom. He was able to loosen the compass just in time, and swim out of the bridge, as the King Cruiser fell away to the sea bed, its twin hulls eventually settling on the sand, thirty meters below the surface.
We arrived on location and the anchor was dropped on to the wreck. Even though it was officially the monsoon season, the ocean's surface was smooth and calm. We dressed into our dive gear and dropped into the inviting depths. There was a slight current running as we pulled ourselves down the anchor line towards the top of the wreck. Visibility was good and it was only a couple meters below the surface when we got our first view of the vessel we knew so well, albeit in a submerged environment. There was the decks and corridors that I’d traversed at least one hundred plus times, while it was still afloat. It was all a bit surreal.
The wreck was still relatively clean with only small limpet type growth on the steel work. We swam over the edge of the upper deck, where the funnels protruded, and swam down to the car deck, entering through the large openings that run the length of the vessel. Visibility was good and we could clearly see across the twenty five meter width of the car deck, to the openings on the opposite side of the vessel. A bit of nostalgia entered my mind. I’d spent quite a bit of time down here, during our runs to Phi Phi, and had got to know one of the Thai bosons. He spoke reasonably good English and had worked on vessels which had sailed the oceans seven seas. He’d visited my country of origin, New Zealand, a number of times and even knew a couple pubs in my hometown. He was your typical friendly Thai, always willing to lend a hand and never really expecting anything in return. Every now and again I used to give him a packet of Virginia Gold tobacco for helping us load and unload our dive gear. We moved towards the stern.
The “King Cruiser” was originally a Japanese car ferry. When it reached its use by date, in Japan, a Phuket based tour company bought it and used it for seven years as a passenger ferry, on daily return runs to Phi Phi Islands. The car deck never saw another vehicle after it left Japan. I looked around the empty space and thought about the Chinese tour groups that used to line up, holding their issued snorkeling gear and life vests, as they waited to board the day transfer boat, on their arrival at Phi Phi.
We moved to the next deck up where the economy class lounge was situated. We pushed through the swinging doors, on the starboard side, and swam into the lounge area. There it was as we remembered it. The rows of seats like silent sentinels. Part of the ceiling was already beginning to collapse. I swam over to the servery, where we used to take our morning ration of café rawn and sugar coated buns from, reached in behind the counter and pulled out some of those plastic cups and saucers. I had a chuckle and thought about the number of times I’d used those cups and why I’d actually bothered drinking the coffee. It was always served Thai style – double strength with powdered creamer, lots of sugar and lukewarm water – it was bloody vile. In the end I used to bring my own carton of milk to improve the taste.
We moved around to restroom area and there were the wash basins. The Thai cabin staff used to wrap the basins in bin liners, when the weather came up, to stop the passengers’ vomit from blocking the drains. I used to call them lions because at the slightest increase in the sea state, they’d be outside, hanging on to the handrails, and roaring over the side.
We swam out of the economy class lounge and up to the bridge. Behind the bridge was the officers room. We started rummaging around and found some signaling flags. In an unlocked cupboard was an officers cap and uniform, some one had either left in a hurry or didn’t want to be noticed.
I checked my pressure gauge, I was getting low on air. We’d been down for nearly an hour and it had flown by. It was time to ascend. I signaled to my buddy and we swam up onto the highest point on the vessel, the mast on top of the bridge, and began our ascent up the anchor line.
Over the next three years I made dozens of dives on the wreck of the “King Cruiser”. As the months rolled by the marine life, on and around the vessel, increased dramatically as the decay of the wreck also increased. It became a great dive site.
The circumstances surrounding the sinking of the vessel never really became apparent, apart from the fact that it was holed when it hit one of Phuket's other well known dive sites – Anemone Reef. By all accounts, the evacuation of the passengers was done efficiently and there was no loss of life. No one was held responsible and no one was to blame.
“Yeah, this is Thailand”
Interesting stories – I know a lot of divers read this site.