Retro buildings, exotic natural locales draw movie location scouts to Thailand, including producers of The Serpent
The Serpent, an eight-episode crime drama series screening on Netflix since April, left the audience including me wondering where the film was shot.
Located in Sri Sawat district in Kanchanaburi, Erawan Waterfall is one of the most popular attractions of the province. Because of easy access to the falls, people flock there during the weekend. The site is where Sobhraj holds the hand of his new target Dominique Renelleau while jumping off the waterfall. The national park does not allow visitors to jump off the cliff. Hiking and swimming are allowed. During the pandemic, the national park is temporarily closed. (Photos: Karnjana Karnjanatawe)
I was very impressed with its retro ambience of Bangkok in the 1970s. It triggered me to find out the shooting locations.
The Serpent is a co-production between BBC One and Netflix and made by the UK-based Mammoth Screen. The series is based on the true story of merciless serial killer Charles Sobhraj (played by Tahar Rahim), who was born to a Vietnamese mother and an Indian father in Vietnam. He moved to France with his mother and stepfather who was a French soldier. As a youngster, the future serial killer was a thug and thief.
He is called the Serpent because of his method of using drugs to poison his victims before robbing or killing them. He travelled to many countries while stationed in Bangkok. He had a partner (Marie-Andrée Leclerc performed by Jenna Coleman) who was madly in love with him and helped him commit the crimes. The victims were Western backpackers. It is believed that Sobhraj killed at least 20 tourists in South Asia including 14 in Thailand. Currently, he is 77 years old and has been imprisoned on a life sentence in Kathmandu, Nepal, since 2004.
The film was mainly shot in Thailand although Sobhraj travelled to many places in Asia such as Hong Kong, India and Nepal. The Mammoth Screen production team was forced to return to the United Kingdom before the country locked down in March last year. The rest of the film was shot in Hertfordshire in the UK.
Tom Shankland, the lead director of The Serpent, spoke about the main challenges of making the film look and feel authentic and nuanced.
Sobhraj, played by Tahar Rahim, leads Renelleau, played by Fabien Frankel, to the waterfall in a scene from The Serpent. (Phot0 © BBC One and Netflix)
The photo of Kanit House published in The Life And Crimes Of Charles Sobhraj. Baan Bellawin on Sukhumvit 4 was used as the home of Sobhraj in the series. (Phot0 © BBC One and Netflix & The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj book)
"We had an amazing cast and wonderful international crew, so despite the insane Bangkok traffic, shooting in the rainy season, one scene was probably reshot four times, weekly catastrophes and the small matter of a global pandemic, there was never a day when I lost faith in or passion for what we were doing," he said.
The production team worked with Living Films, one of the top production houses in Thailand, during 2018 and 2020. The shooting period lasted about 10 months, according to Oliver Ackermann, a producer at Living Films.
The series was shot in nine provinces -- Bangkok, Pathum Thani, Ayutthaya, Suphan Buri, Samut Sakhon, Ratchaburi, Phetchaburi, Prachuap Khiri Khan and Kanchanaburi.
"Almost everything you see in the series except for the French scenes were shot in Thailand", said Ackermann.
"We, Living Films, have existed for 25 years so we have been scouting locations all over Thailand for over two decades. I myself came to Thailand in the late 70s, so I do remember what Bangkok looked like back then. We actually also used some of my old personal photo albums as references.
"We worked with two very experienced Bangkok-based Thai location managers that know every place in Greater Bangkok that allows shooting. Still, even with all that, we scouted a lot. It was especially challenging to create all the other countries we needed in Thailand. I think the audience has to judge how well we did that."
THE ACTORS' TAKE
Tim McInnerny, who portrayed the late Paul Siemons, arrived in the Kingdom around September 2019. His first opinion of Thailand was that it was very hot.
Reun Manila was renovated from a century-old house in Ang Thong province. The building won the Best Architectural Conservation Award from the Association of Siamese Architects in 2012. (Photo courtesy of Reun Manila)
"Then, it got hotter. The humidity was unbelievable," he said.
"Basically, you drank water all the time. Amazing place though. I know it's become a cliché but the people really are incredibly kind and generous with their time and help. It is a land of permanent smiles. That aspect made the story we were recreating even more grim. The food was, of course, fabulous. It was weird doing this job in such a beautiful place full of contradictions of extreme wealth and extreme poverty. It made the whole thing seem like a dream sometimes."
Jenna Coleman who played Marie Andrée Leclerc, aka Monique, said Bangkok was "crazy, in the most amazing way". "The scenery is incredible, and Bangkok has such a frenzy and an energy that it really infiltrates into the series. There's just so much life and culture. It's the hottest place to shoot, though. Wearing a wig in the 1970s in Bangkok is very hot."
The French actress Mathilde Warnier who played Nadine Gires, the lovely neighbour of Sobhraj and Monique, also said filming in Thailand was a delight.
"My God, I miss it so much," she said.
WHERE WAS KANIT HOUSE?
The signboard for Kanit House and the address of 77/5 Saladaeng in the series makes the audience wonder if the apartment where Charles Sobhraj lived in Bangkok was real.
Ban Bang Yang Colonial House in Samut Sakhon was chosen as the office of Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg.
An interview with the series co-producer Paul Testar by Condé Nast Traveller (cntraveller.com) revealed that the building was demolished.
The Life And Crimes Of Charles Sobhraj, by Richard Neville and Julie Clarke, showed a photo of Kanit House on Soi Sala Daeng. Sobhraj rented a two-bedroom place on a high floor overlooking another building with a swimming pool between them.
Since the building was gone, the scouting team found the perfect location for shooting in Baan Bellawin almost at the end of Sukhumvit 4.
"We had to deal with the fact that the place was dilapidated, run-down, not so clean," production designer François-Renaud Labarthe told Architectural Digest (architecturaldigest.com). "But with better furniture, more 1970s details, and refilling the swimming pool with water, we were ready to shoot."
IS THE SANTA CRUZ HOTEL REAL?
The popular backpacker hotel where Sobhraj preyed on people exists today. (If you want to know where, check out The Life And Crimes Of Charles Sobhraj.) In The Serpent, the shooting location was actually the Miami Hotel Bangkok in Sukhumvit 13.
Wat Intharawihan on Bang Khun Phrom Road is famous for the 32m tall standing gold Buddha statue called Luang Pho To.
The name card and room rates for the Miami Hotel have been well preserved by the owner. Room rates are in Tcs, which stands for Tical, Thailand’s currency before being replaced by the baht in 1928. (Photo courtesy of Miami Hotel Bangkok)
The crew did not have to change anything much when they filmed. The Miami's lobby had the retro ambience of more than 50 years ago. A vintage sofa is set is next to a jukebox. A wooden reception counter stands firmly in the lobby despite having been used for decades. Furthermore, a collection of American memorabilia is on display.
"We haven't changed any structure nor the ambience of the hotel since it was built because we want to preserve it that way," said Suphol Tansirichaiya, the third-generation owner.
Opened in 1965, the hotel was named Miami because many American soldiers were in Bangkok during the Vietnam War. Hotels established during the period used US city names such as Miami, Atlanta or Florida as a welcome gesture to GI soldiers and also for easy remembrance, he said.
"My grandfather named the hotel Miami because in 1965 Apasra Hongsakula was the first Thai beauty queen crowned as Miss Universe on Miami Beach," he said. The hotel's logo looks like the Miss Universe crown.
At that time the four-storey L-shaped building featured 80 rooms before expanding to 112 rooms today. It has a swimming pool and a space for daybeds. Thanks to the original vintage design, the hotel is a popular place for film and fashion shoots.
But the owner did not accept every request for the shoots of The Serpent.
"The production crew asked to film the murder scenes in our hotel and use our hotel name in the series. We did not allow that," he said. "Mostly, the team filmed in the lobby and outside. They also created a bar on the 2nd floor in front of the elevator."
Currently, the hotel is under renovation including changing old electricity wires and water pipes as well as elevating the ground floor to the same level of the road to prevent flooding during rainy season. The plan is to finish the renovation by July but due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there is no need to rush, said Suphol.
The Atlanta Hotel was also one of the shooting locations. The hotel was built in 1952 on Sukhumvit 2. Those who visit the Atlanta will remember its beautiful lobby and checkerboard floor seen in the series too.
WHERE IS THE HOUSE OF KNIPPENBERG?
Herman Knippenberg was the third secretary and the acting head of the consular section of the Netherlands embassy in 1976. He started to investigate a missing Dutch couple. The action later led to the revelation of other murders committed by Sobharj.
The lobby of the Miami Hotel did not need much work because of its retro 60s look. The production crew of The Serpent added a bar to the 2nd floor, next to the elevator.
His beautiful, elevated two-storey wooden house in the film is an old teakwood house named Reun Manila. It is located on the banks of the Phraya Banlue Canal in Bang Sai district, Ayutthaya province. The house belongs to the Attanawanich family.
Suthiruk Attanawanich, managing director of Vaithayaphak Company, said his family bought the house from an owner in Ang Thong more than a decade ago. The house was originally located on the banks of the Noi River in Wiset Chai Chan district. The structure was partly damaged over time. At first, the previous owner, an elderly woman in her 80s, did not want to sell the whole house but only the ruined parts.
"We reasoned with her that we wanted to preserve the old house, so finally she agreed," he said.
The house was built in the style of Ban Khanompang Khing, or the gingerbread architecture from the Victorian era. It was built during the period of King Rama VI as a residency of Khunluang Phisit Nakhonkan, a chief of Monthon Sena.
It took Suthiruk about three years to renovate the teak house. His team started by disassembling the house in Ang Thong, and reassembling and refurbishing it on his land in Ayutthaya. Suthiruk repainted the house from the natural brown colour to seafoam green to make his vacation home look more lively. The renovation work also inspired him to establish his present company for renovating traditional wooden houses for conservation.
In 2012, Reun Manila won the Best Architectural Conservation Award from the Association of Siamese Architects under Royal Patronage.
The elegant classic house appeals to those who scout for location shooting. During the past decade, Reun Manila has welcomed many local and international film crews, roughly about seven shoots a year.
IS THE OFFICE OF KNIPPENBERG IN BANGKOK?
The Embassy of the Netherlands was located on Witthayu Road when Knippenberg arrived in Bangkok before relocated to the present location in Soi Ton Son. His office in the series was filmed in Ban Bang Yang Colonial House in Samut Sakhon.
Wat Phra Chetuphon, better known as Wat Pho, was one of the shooting locations. Built during the Ayutthaya period, the temple houses the famous 46m reclining Buddha sculpture in its prayer hall and a Thai massage school as well as a collection of Thai traditional remedies. It is known as the royal temple of King Rama I because his ashes were kept under the pedestal of the principal Buddha image called Phra Buddha Deva Patimakorn in the main ubosot (ordination hall). The temple is currently closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo: Arnun Chonmahatrakool)
The L-shape colonial-style two-storey building is located on a 3 rai plot of land in tambon Bang Yang, Krathum Ban district.
Sanya Varanyu, the house owner, said he bought the house six years ago after retirement. He has since opened the property for film or pre-wedding shoots.
"This house is not an old house, but was built like an old one," said Sanya.
Designed by a staff member from the Fine Arts Department, the colonial-style house was built 15 years ago as a single-family home. It has five rooms on the upper floor and three rooms including a library on the ground floor. The total space usage is 1,000m². There are two more buildings within the same compound.
The previous owner felt that the house was too big for her and her two daughters. After nine years, the family sold the building to Sanya.
"I like this [vintage] style of the house. When I knew that the family opened the house as a film shooting location, I was quite interested because I think it's quite a good business. I bought the property and kept the business running," he said.
Ban Bang Yang Colonial House is not open to the public.
There are more Serpent shooting locations you can visit once Covid-19 travel restrictions are eased such as the Erawan Waterfalls and Vajiralongkorn Dam in Kanchanaburi, Khao Takiab Beach and Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park in Prachuap Khiri Khan, as well as closer to home locations like Wat Pho and Wat Intharawihan in Bangkok.
Related story: 'Serpent' a huge TV draw
Located about a four-hour drive from Bangkok, the Vajiralongkorn Dam in Kanchanaburi was filmed as Dal Lake in Kashmir. The dam was built in 1979-1985 on the Khwae Noi River. It can store 8,860 million cubic metres of water to produce 300mW of electricity. The dam has facilities to welcome visitors including raft or boat cruises and accommodation. The site has been closed to the public since April 15. (Photo: Chamlong Boonsong)
A scene from The Serpent.
- Erawan National Park in Kanchanaburi is open daily but does not allow overnight stay during the pandemic. Visit its Facebook page at bit.ly/3eMpWM2 or call 034-574-222 and 034-574-288.
- Reun Manila is open for group visits but currently closed during the Covid-19 pandemic. An entrance fee is 300 baht per person and for a group of at least five visitors. Booking is required a week in advance. For more information, facebook.com/ReunManilahouse or call 086-078-9169.
- Ban Bang Yang Colonial House is an event/function venue in Samut Sakhon. For more information, visit facebook.com/bangyangcolonial or call 081-837-7039.
- Vajiralongkorn Dam in Kanchanaburi is closed during the Covid-19 pandemic. For more details, visit vrk.egat.com or call 034-598-030.
- For more information about the Miami Hotel, visit thaimiami.com/en/home or call 02-253-5611.