Stickman Readers' Submissions April 2nd, 2010

Inner Space Thailand: Part 4 – Movies and Wrecks

In 1995 I was working in a scuba shop in Patong when, one morning, a team of guys resembling something you’d see in an Indiana Jones movie, or find in a Clive Cussler novel, walked though the door. I was immediately struck by their attire; an odd concoction of sleeveless safari jackets, jangling with karabiners’, belts cluttered with Leatherman type tools and a mixed variation of Panama styled hats. They did not, to put it bluntly, look like your average scuba enthusiast. After a few minutes conversing with them I was informed they were a team of special effects people, working on a Van Damme movie being filmed around Phuket Island over the next two months, and they wanted to go scuba diving on their days’ off.

Over the next three weekends I took them diving and ran most 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. The pay, compared with what I was receiving as scuba instructor, was exceptionally good and I think it took me all of about three seconds to accept their offer of one hundred and fifty dollars per day.

He Clinic Bangkok

The next morning I was picked up and taken to the set workshop; a disused tantalum processing plant on the outskirts of Phuket Town. After arriving there we spent an hour, or so, sorting out the equipment we were going to need for the planned days’ work – some tools, welding equipment and a prefabricated metal bracket – and then drove off to one of the town’s nearby canals; where many of the smaller Phi Phi Island day trip ferries were birthed.

We arrived at our intended destination to see a small cargo freighter, being used for the movie, moored alongside the jetty. The plan was to weld the bracket, which incorporated a long swinging type arm attached on a pin, to the exterior hull of the freighter. Our first job was to hang a make shift scaffold – constructed of planks and small tubing – over the freighter’s outer side. We eventually got that done and the tradesman, I was with, began positioning the bracket for welding. He was about to begin his first weld when I heard a Thai voice yell out something like “farang lawang”. I looked up to see a returning Phi Phi Island ferry, beam on and swinging directly at us. I grabbed the tradesman and literally threw him, and myself, over the gunwale of the freighter with seconds to spare. I looked back over the side to see the ferry smash into our scaffolding and crush it flat against the hull. The special effects guy went ballistic and I just stood there and sighed the sigh of a foreigner who’s seen this lack of regard for basic safety all too often before from the locals. A number of Thais’, employed on the tour boat, were looking at us as though there was really nothing to be concerned about. I just smiled and shook my head. It was a case of T.I.T (this is Thailand) again.

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 one of the hold’s 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; the scene would involve Van Damme shoveling coal into the imitation furnace. The flame, in the furnace, was created by LPG 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 were the beginnings of a serious blaze in the hold. Actors, directors, camera men, lighting and sound people nearly trampled each other in the stampede to get to the stair well leading out of the hold. Someone said the ships bunkers were full and situated directly beneath the area where the fire was blazing; it was suddenly a serious situation. The special effects guys and I got into action and manned the fire hoses which, to the credit of those guys, were laid out prior to beginning the days’ filming. It took us about fifteen minutes to get the fire under control and there was quite a bit of damage; the wooden deck of the ship had collapsed into the area of the hold where the filming was to take place. The special effects team did a great job in reacting professionally, and efficiently, to a life threatening situation.

CBD bangkok

A few days later the entire film unit relocated to a site in the upper Phang Nga Bay. In a conjunction of three jungle topped islands, there were a number of days of filming planned; the high point being 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 temperaments were often tested

I was there to ensure the safety of the stuntmen (which I found quite amusing given what they did for a living). During the filming, some of the action shots involved some of stuntmen being thrown off the vessels during the mock battles. The water around that part of Phang Nga Bay is green and the currents can often be strong. For that combination of reasons it can be very hard to see any floating objects at the surface. One meter below there was zero 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. The idea was that if any of the stunt men 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 moments’ notice, to rescue the unconscious body.

Luckily, that situation never eventuated. However, I was asked to affect 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”.

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“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 were

So, without much comment, I jumped in for what I knew would be an exercise in futility. I took a marker buoy on a line with me and swam 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 logistics of the location we were filming at were a bit of a nightmare to get to, to say the least. Every day involved an early start and a lot of travel. That, combined with the long days of filming (up to twelve hours) meant the fatigue levels were up and the concentration levels were down. The producers, or money men, tried their best to ensure that all involved were taken care of. Unfortunately some of their goodwill had the effect of compounding our physically fatigued condition. With long days spent exposed to the unrelenting heat of Thailand, in March, dehydration can be a major concern. The cold beers that were always waiting for us at the marina at the end of each days filming, while gratefully consumed, only served to add to the tired physical state I was in. By the last day of filming at the Phangna location the brain wasn’t as switched on as it should have been.

The final shot was to be a fairly expensive exercise; a helicopter would be flying in low towards the small freighter with the idea that the filming would involve an approach shot and one flyover shot. Everyone was told to stay off the deck of the vessel while this took place. The small freighter, while being a diesel powered craft, had been given the façade of being coal powered; a false stack (funnel) had been positioned on its’ deck. I was given the task of providing a continuous flow of smoke from inside the false stack; giving the vessel the appearance, from the air, that it had a steam driven engine. The problem with this is that you’ve got smoke, being generated from a fairly primitive kerosene burning device, in a confined space. With no adequate protective personal equipment in place (respirator and goggles), just a rag wrapped around the mouth and nose, it wasn’t long before I was coughing and gagging in the smoke filled environment. Eventually, I couldn’t put up with it anymore and kicked open the small door, on the side of the false funnel, and staggered out onto the deck just as the helicopter was making its’ low approach towards the vessel. I was not, to put bluntly, too popular that afternoon with the directors. They were trying to do a shot which, for all intents and purposes, was replicating a scene from the nineteen twenties (costing thousands) and they end up with some guy staggering around in shorts, a tank top and rag wrapped around his head.

The final part of the filming, I was involved with, was back at the disused tantalum plant. I was later to find out that this large factory building had a rather controversial history. Built eight, or so, years earlier, it never saw one minute of operational time. The protests in the lead up to its’ opening, while carried out under the guise of the environmental card, really had more to do with the local powers that be not getting as good a deal as they first figured on. Apparently, tantalum was worth a lot of money and the foreign investors, deciding that the whole deal was just not worth the ongoing trouble, pulled out of the project before any of the processing machinery was installed.

It was ideal for building an indoor set though as it was basically just a covered empty shell. An enclosed large circular set was built with a raised, fifteen meter diameter, fight platform in the middle. The entire set was designed to look like the kind of exotic Buddhist temple you might see up in the mountains of Tibet. When the filming got under way live flame emanating from a dozen, or so, LPG outlets spaced evenly around the fight ring, made the set hotter than Hades. I was designated as the fire control officer and was required to light each outlet as the LPG was made live from storage tanks outside the set. With five meter high polystyrene molded effigies, ringing the fight platform, and an internal layout constructed completely of thin plywood, the whole place was a potential fire trap. I’m fairly certain that, if I hadn’t stayed back for an hour after the end of each days filming to water down the hotspots, the place would’ve eventually caught fire and burnt down over night.

The fight scenes, while completely choreographed, were still fairly spectacular to watch. Besides Van Damme there was an array of other highly skilled martial artists and fighters involved. There was also a sumo wrestler and even though only rated as a junior sumo, back in Japan, the guy was massive; tipping the scales at a whopping one hundred and forty kilograms. I made the mistake of trying to sit at the same table with him, during a lunch break, and was given a glare that basically said beat it. I didn’t think it would’ve been a good idea to hang around and argue with him; I just grabbed my plate and got out of there quick smart. Jean Claude, of course, was in his prime and all of his spectacular kicks, that you’ve seen on the big screen over the years, were there to see live. Most of the guys on the set were dammed envious of him to say the least. Waiting in the wings for him during each take, and sitting on one of those directors high chairs, was the very well endowed 1994 miss Penthouse Pet of the year. At the end of each take Jean-Claude would whisk her off, to his private van, and generally wouldn’t reappear again until he was needed. Lucky bastard.

Most of the production crew were solid bunch of hardworking professionals. The special effects guys, set riggers, electricians, camera men, lighting and sound people were, pretty much, just your basic type of trades’ people who took their jobs fairly seriously. A lot of them, as I found out over the few weeks that I was with them, also took their recreational time fairly seriously as well. The old adage of work hard and play hard certainly applies to a lot of those guys. Night after night we’d be out, after completing a fourteen hour day on the set, getting totally hammered in Patong. It got to the point where I was walking around the set semi comatose from the sleep deprivation and being hung-over. Luckily, Jean-Claude had a large bottle of medical oxygen, positioned in a private location, just outside the set. Now, as any scuba instructor knows, a few lung full’s of pure oxygen can do wonders for the bodies healing processes. No doubt it was a fairly cheeky thing to do but it certainly helped pick me up on some of those mornings when the head was throbbing that bad I thought there was a gremlin in there hammering away.

It took about three weeks to complete all the fight scenes. The filming then moved up to Chiang Mai and I was no longer involved with the production. It was certainly an interesting experience and, despite what the average Joe on the street may think, movie making is hard work with seriously long hours. I never talk about it much these days but, every now again when I let it slip that I helped in the production of a Van Damme movie, the inevitable question always comes up – “what sort of guy is Van Damme?” I never really had the opportunity to talk with him, due to the fact that he was so heavily involved in the production, as well as acting. That combination of factors made him pretty much unapproachable to people, such as me, at the lower levels of the operation. From what I saw though he seemed like a fairly cool and personable guy with a great degree of patience.

A few days after the completion of the filming, I went back to working in a scuba shop in Patong. Thoughts of being involved in movie making became a distant memory as I slotted back into the mundane routine of being a scuba instructor. The thing is though; you can never really tell what’s around the corner and, as luck would have it, I got involved with another movie in 1997. James Bond had arrived in town and I was hired to work as a safety diver on “Tomorrow Never Dies”. A segment was filmed in Thailand, mainly in Bangkok, but there were also a couple of weeks filming to be done in, and around, Phuket. The filming in Phuket was, once again, to take place in Phang Nga Bay.

On the first day of involvement I made my way to the same large marina that had been used as the operations base, two years earlier, for the Van Damme movie. After arriving there, I was teamed up with the set riggers and asked to help with loading scaffolding into a speed boat that would transport us to the set location. Forty five minutes later 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, starring Roger Moore, was filmed in the same location in 1973. The scaffolding was unloaded onto the jetty and as I stood there with torrents of sweat rolling off me, in the midday sun, was told that there’s going to be some filming done off the end of the jetty at around last light; something the film boffins call the magic hour. They needed a scaffold platform at surface level, which was going to be three meters lower than it currently was, 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 its 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 getting 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 off its set position. It all went well until right at the end of the shoot when Pierce decided 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 surfaced wondering if I was 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 took off with the strains of the Bond Theme blaring out of its 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 for me, Pierce, in a fairly good natured reply, reported that all the booze onboard their vessel had already been polished off. As the whole entourage transferred onto our vessel Pierce and I continued a bit of good natured banter and, as we headed off into the night, I had to admit that the current James Bond was a fairly cool customer.

Much to my disappointment the work on the Bond movie came to an end all too soon. Within a few days I was back in Patong sharing a few cold beers with my old buddy, Pete.

“It’s about time you and I did something for ourselves” said Pete as we sat back enjoying a cold Heineken in Patong’s Expat Hotel.

“How do you mean?” I said taking a long gulp of my beer.

“Well it seems to me that we’ve been working for some fairly lame dive operations that aren’t really forward thinking” replied Pete with a degree of seriousness about him.

“Mate, are you okay? Your shirts soaked with sweat” I said looking a bit concerned at his condition.

“Yeah, I’m okay. I bumped into Nit on my way to the hong naam” he replied with a devilish grin.

“You mean Ricks’ girlfriend?” I said raising my eyebrows.

“Yeah, well that’s pretty much on the rocks according to her. He’s run out money and he’s heading back to pommie land next week”

“No wonder you took so bloody long going to the loo. Jesus mate, where did you do it?” I said shaking my head.

“I took her into the toilet with me. She was hornier than hell and it was only five hundred baht to do the business” said Pete with a contented smile.

“For fucks sake mate, nothing’s safe around you. Anyway, what have got on your mind in terms of diving” I said still shaking my head at his sheer brazenness.

“Seems to me that we should be thinking about doing our own thing; open a dive shop”

“Sounds like a plan. What can we offer that’s different to what all the others are doing?”

“Well now that the King Cruisers sitting out there we could run a three dive day trip”

I sat back and thought about Pete’s idea and realized there was definite merit in it. We’d only recently dived the wreck ourselves, for the first time, and it was potentially a great money spinner for the local diving operations.

When the “King Cruiser” sank on May 5th 1997 it caused quite a bit of controversy. There were 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.

Pete and I tried to make a dive on it within a week of its’ sinking. Over on Phi Phi Island for a few days, we 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 still on it.

Two weeks later we were back, this time on one of Phukets’ dive operators 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 sea bed and he’d gone into the bridge to claim the compass. As he was unscrewing it, from its housing, the wreck started to move; the weight of the water filled hulls eventually caused it too slowly, but surely, fall to the bottom. He told me he managed to loosen the compass just in time, and swim out of the bridge, as the King Cruiser fell away to the sea bed; the twin hulls eventually settling on the sand thirty meters below the surface.

We arrived on location and the anchor was dropped onto 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 were 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. 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 seven seas. He’d visited my country of origin, New Zealand, a number of times and even knew a couple pubs in my home town. 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 to where the boarding area had once been. The handrails were all mangled up and, looking over the side, I saw the cause of the damage; the three ton spare bronze propeller, which was once strapped to the car deck, was now sitting on the seabed.

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. 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 were all fairly familiar with the car deck area due to the fact that it was the area in which we stored all the dive gear during the transfer between the mainland and Phi Phi. An instructor I knew, who was actually onboard the day it sank, had an interesting tale to tell. According to his recollection of events the submerged reef, which the ferry struck, caused a telling jolt on the vessel; enough for him to realize that something was seriously amiss. A few minutes later he detected a definite list and knew that the ferry was in the process of sinking. With very little information coming from the bridge he made the decision to take his tour group down to the car deck area and put on their dive gear. Wetsuits, fins and inflated stab jackets (minus cylinders) were donned and, as the water level eventually reached the car deck, they calmly stepped off into the ocean and swam clear.

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, and pulled out some of those plastic cups and saucers from under the counter. 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 officer’s room. We started rummaging around and found some signaling flags. In an unlocked cupboard was an officers cap and uniform, someone 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 Phukets’ 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. In the standard amicable Thai way of doing things, no one was held responsible and no one was to blame.

Stickman's thoughts:

I am away in the northeast of Thailand at present and pressed for time hence no comments. Sorry!

nana plaza