Three Famous Movie Sites in Southeast Asia: Maya Beach, Angkor Wat, Phang Nga Bay
View from the beach to the sea.

Three Famous Movie Sites in Southeast Asia: Maya Beach, Angkor Wat, Phang Nga Bay

We visit Southeast Asia

—to explore three famous movie sites: Maya Beach, Angkor Wat, Phang Nga Bay. Map of the islands of Thailand. Map of Cambodia

1 – Maya Beach – Shame on us

When our Thai longboat docked at Maya Beach on the island of Koh Phi Phi in Thailand, we should have insisted the captain move on. But we did not. Shame on us. We were only one of many couples who had paid for a tour of these turquoise water islands. So, we turned a blind eye.

No empty spot

Maya Beach, Koh Phi Phi, Thailand; another famous movie site
Maya Beach, Koh Phi Phi, Thailand crowded with people and boats. It is a beautiful beach when it is not overcrowded. The waters of the Andaman Sea are a stunning turquoise.

The crowd on Maya Beach—made famous by the 2000 movie, The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio—was so thick with people there was barely an empty spot.

As we walked the short distance along the beach, we dodged tourists of every description: a bikini-clad woman posing sensually in the water, a shrieking mob kicking a beach ball. Boats pulled up on the shore blocked any hope of meandering along the shoreline.

Warnings

With Thai government permission but before shooting any footage, the film crew removed bushes that helped prevent erosion (despite warnings by locals and environmentalists); instead they planted palm trees. As well, they cleared land to widen the beach.

Leonardo DiCaptio in the 2000 movie The Beach one of our famous movie sites.
A Scene from the movie The Beach starring Leonardo DiCaprio. This scene is on Maya Beach, Koh Phi Phi, Thailand

Destroyed

Without those bushes, the sand eroded after a series of storms. Plants from the area were relocated, but soon died anyway, as did the sea coral.

Result

At the peak of its popularity, 5,000 tourists a day mauled the beach until the Thai government took action. Maya Bay will remain closed until mid-2021. Ecological recovery is ongoing.

Maya Beach - view from beach to sea.
Maya Beach with the view from the beach to the sea. Crowded with tourists thanks to the movie The Beach. It was little known before the movie was released.

2 – Angkor Wat

Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie, star of the 1996 film Tomb Raider, brought added recognition to these magnificent walled cities near Siem Reap in Cambodia and another of our famous movie sites.

Meaning

Angkor is the name of the entire complex of a hundred-plus temples. Angkor Wat is the best-known temple; it is also depicted on Cambodia’s flag.

Historical roots

A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1992, Angkor Wat is considered one of the seven wonders of the world.

Originally a Hindu temple, it was dedicated to Vishnu, a Hindu deity, instead of the current king. Gradually, by the end of the 12th century, Buddhists laid claim to the temple.

A total of 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants worked over 37 years on the reconstruction of Angkor Wat.

Tomb Raider

The Angkor temple, Ta Prohm, is the set for this famous movie. The film company paid US $10,000 day for seven days for the privilege of using the historical site.

Ta Prohm, part of Angkor Wat in northern Cambodia.
We visited Ta Prohm, one of many ruins in the Angkor Wat complex, in Cambodia. This scene appeared in the movie Tomb Raider starring Angelina Jolie.

Gnarled roots

A scene at Ta Prohm from the movie Tomb Raider - another of our famous movies sites.
Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft in the 1996 movie Tomb Raider. The scene is taken at the Ta Prohm ruins in the Angkor Wat complex.

Here is the place to feel you are part of a movie set. Unbelievably overgrown tropical trees produce thick, gnarled root systems that look like tethered ropes or bony limbs. Like snakes, these roots intertwine temple walls and statues through crevices and cracks, creating a surreal effect.

3 – James Bond Island – its real name?

We’re back in Thailand. And yes, The Man with the Golden Gun starring Roger Moore in 1974, stars on this island.  

Real name please

Before James Bond, this island’s name was/is Koh Tapu, meaning ‘Nail Island’ for the pointy rock; Koh Phi Khan for the island surrounding it, means ‘hills leaning against each other’.

Local legend

Legend has it that a fisherman caught fish here every day until all he found was a piece of a nail. He threw it back to the water. But caught the nail again! Frustrated, he split the nail by hitting it with a sharp object: the separated part led to the famous rock formation.

Koh Tapuh aka "Nail Island" off the coast of Phang Nga
Koh Tapuh means Nail Island since it is like a nail between two islands. These islands are off the coast of Phang Nga, in the Andaman Sea.

Geological formation

This island is part of the limestone formations along Phang Nga Bay that rise from the sea. It is 20 meters tall with a four-meter diameter at the bottom and eight meters at the top.

Originally a barrier reef, the area drastically changed due to tectonic movement. Wind and high waves washed away most of the reefs; the remaining odd shapes are from that period.

Instant Fame

When James Bond’s archenemy, Scaramanga, used the location as his hideout, the island gained instant fame. The villain (actor Christopher Lee) installed a laser gun outside the island with a hidden lair inside. However, no structures can be found inside this limestone: it’s too small for a hideout!

A scene from The Man with the Golden Gun - the last of our famous movie sites
A scene from the James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun on Koh Phi Khan, Thailand

Our arrival

Unlike Bond who flew over the island in search of his enemy, we docked at Koh Phi Khan on the opposite side from Nail Island. Many souvenir vendors greeted us.

Next, we walked up and around a well-worn path on the small island. Peeking around and over rocks from the top, we finally glimpsed Nail Island, the iconic image from the movie where Bond sets to square off against Scaramanga using guns in a duel.

The Famous Scene

From the island’s top, with Nail Island in the midst of the turquoise water bay, we spied a small beach. There, hordes of tourists milled around, each using cameras to replicate the famous scene. And yes, we did, too.

Our reenactment of the scene from The Man with the Golden Gun
A modern day reenactment of the famous duel scene in the James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun.

Destroyed

The Bond movie made it easy for everyone to recognize the spot. Tourists began to visit the location. Not surprisingly, the sudden influx of people contaminated the waters with trash.

This unfortunate development led the government to declare it as a part of the Ao Phang Nga Marine National Park in 1981. About two decades later, tourist boats were restricted from going close to the limestone rock to prevent drastic erosion.

More blogs from Thailand

Travelled: 2007, 2014

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