Before the words "soft power" entered the Thai zeitgeist, you may not have been aware that Thailand received plenty of love in the world of pop culture, globally. Here are a few of the most memorable ones from films, video games, music videos and more.
Thailand has been a location for many Hollywood films as early as the 1920s and the list is so long that it can warrant a book on this subject alone.
1. 1974's The Man With The Golden Gun was filmed in Bangkok and Phang Nga bay and immortalise Ko Tapu (Nail Island), which is also nicknamed "James Bond Island".
2. Fast forward to The Beach in 2000, starring babyface Leonardo DiCaprio, which is a testament that Thailand is abundantly blessed with natural beauty despite the controversy that the production crew altered the beach of Ko Phi Phi Leh.
3. The Hangover Part II is the best advertisement Sirocco restaurant and Sky Bar at Lebua Bangkok could have ever hoped for. Sky Bar even has a signature drink called "Hangovertini".
4. I could even argue that Thailand has made many cameo appearances, standing in for another foreign country. Remember Netflix's original film Extraction? The God of Thunder arrived in Bangkok (and rightfully became frustrated with the traffic) in 2018 to shoot at different locations in Bangkok and Ratchaburi but the film storyline takes place in Bangladesh.
5. More recently, Disney+ series Ms. Marvel "kinda" features Thailand in episodes 4 and 5. According to Variety, "sets were constructed at the modern Studio Park facilities to the southeast of Bangkok. Together, first and second units involved some 450 people" and the filming lasted from April to early May despite the third wave of Covid-19 in Thailand. Iman Vellani, who plays the titular superhero role of Kamala Khan, said shooting was very tough due to our infamous summer. Well, she's Canadian, after all. Thai locations stood in for Karachi and Hua Lamphong was featured.
Music Video Mecca
Most of the music videos shot in Thailand tend to become accidental advertisements for Thai tourism (no complaining here) but there are also a few curious ones.
1. Although the 1984 documentary Ricochet on David Bowie isn't strictly a music video, it features a portion dedicated to Thailand. The docu/travelogue features his experiences in Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong while he was in Asia for the last few dates of his "The Serious Moonlight Tour" in 1983. It features Bangkok's ever-heavy traffic, a radio announcement of his Bangkok gig in Thai, bar girls, his interaction with locals and him being sprayed in the face with what I assumed to be holy water from a medium's mouth.
2. English singer-songwriter Sophie Ellis-Bextor, who doesn't seem to age, iconically took a tuk-tuk ride in Bangkok's Chinatown in Spiller's music video for Groovejet (If This Ain't Love) for which she was a featured artist. She overdresses in a form-fitting shoulder-bearing red dress as she sings in a shophouse restaurant and a dingy alley while Thai passersby couldn't help but stare at Italian DJ Cristiano Spiller, who's very gifted in height. Well, he's more than 2m-tall.
3. If you've watched Peter Andre's music video for Mysterious Girl on MTV, I'm sorry for making you feel old. Besides Andre's pronounced six-pack abs, which was probably responsible for sexual awakening for many gays and gals out there, Janpen "Champagne X" Inthachak plays the titular mysterious girl as she shows off her curves in a two-piece swimsuit (very modest compared to the age of thirst trap today) as she bathes under a waterfall. Andre sings at a local market, in a turquoise lagoon and a fisherman's village before rolling on the sand with her in the end. Krabi's Phi Phi Islands provides the setting for this 90s anthem.
4. Duke Dumont's music video for I Got U, which features Jax Jones gives out a very vlogger vibe. Mostly told through the first-person perspective, the male protagonist, who lives somewhere with cold and dreary weather, puts on a VR headset and wakes up in a sunny villa in Thailand to live his best life, which includes a speedboat ride around Railay Beach, feeding bananas to monkeys, raising the roof at a beach party, riding a tuk-tuk on Silom Road and sleeping with a beautiful woman. I feel like TAT should pay them, or at least thank them, for this music video.
5. Rihanna's 2013 music video for What Now was shot in Phuket but you can't probably tell since it features the singer emoting with empty walls in the background. The Phuket News reported that it was shot at a warehouse and the behind-the-scene video of the music video confirmed it. During her stay in Phuket, her selfie with a slow loris on Bang La Road went viral and she also tweeted about a sexy show in Patong.
6. More recently, Years & Years' music video for Sanctify, which was released in May 2021, features Bangkok as an imaginary future metropolis called Palo Santo where people are captured and made to dance as a form of entertainment for androids. Olly Alexander, who stars alongside veteran actor Vithaya Pansringarm, goes from a dark alley to emerge at a grand hallway of Assumption University where he dances. It ends with Drag Race Season 2 runner-up Kana Warrior as an eerie android.
So Many Muay Thai
If I'm going to list Muay Thai references in pop culture, we're going to be here for a few days and run out of paper while we're at it. However, the world of video games has given some love to Thai boxing through these memorable characters.
The Street Fighter franchise features kick-ass baddies such as Muay Thai master Sagat and his disciple Adon. Sagat Petchyindee, a real-life Muay Thai boxer and trainer, has been reported as the inspiration for the character. The evil lord M. Bison or Vega is also based in Thailand.
Two more Muay Thai characters from fighting games are Samchay Tomyamgun from SNK's Fighter's History series and Hwa Jai (heart) from SNK's Fatal Fury and The King of Fighters series.
A few travel shows have celebrated the quirky sides of our culture, to say the least.
The first season of Jack Whitehall: Travels With My Father on Netflix features Thailand in the first three episodes. Comedian Jack Whitehall has arranged a hostel stay with his posh father Michael but ended up in a five-star hotel on Ratchadamri Road upon Michael's insistence. Thai actress and host Jennie Panhan (who has a lot of glow-up over the years) made a cameo appearance at the hotel's bar before the Whitehalls go on a wacky adventure, including adopting a luk thep doll named Winston.
The comedy series Hamish & Andy's Gap Year Asia was broadcast from a bar in Bangkok called "Raintree" in 2013. It features the highjinks adventure that Hamish Blake and Andy Lee have in Thailand, Japan, Cambodia, Taiwan and the Philippines. In the first episode, the Aussie comedy duo went to Yasothon for the bung fai festival where locals send homemade rockets into the sky to ask for rain from the gods (kinda counterintuitive, I know) but, unfortunately, Andy couldn't pronounce the festival's name correctly despite his best attempts. They also tried catching a loose "hia" with a noose and getting their faces slapped for beauty at a unique salon/shrine. For Buddha-know reasons, the duo competed in "Sweat Racing" at Benchasiri Park where they stood in transparent boxes placed under the sun to see who could sweat more. It's a video clip that you can smell. I would argue that they've out-Thai-ed the average Thai.