Iconic 70s Bangkok comes to life again as the dark story of The Serpent wows world Netflix audiences
77-year-old serial killer is still alive, jailed in Nepal serving two life sentences, he cannot be prosecuted in Thailand for at least 14 cold-blooded murders. His victims were lured into a false sense of security, drugged and murdered by Sobhraj and his French girlfriend who died in 1984 in an Indian prison from cancer.
A Netflix TV mini-series that captured millions of viewers in the UK in January was released by the world streaming giant in April and is set to generate interest in Thailand as it recreates the Bangkok of the iconic 1970s. Despite The Serpent being a chilling and true story of a serial-killing couple who preyed on backpackers and western tourists to Thailand from 1975 during an era of drugs and rock’n’roll, the film is sure to boost Thailand’s profile with a theme of nostalgia and true crime that is popular with western audiences.
A Netflix TV series which aired in April is putting the Bangkok of the 1970s in the spotlight again as it resurrects the chilling story of serial murderers Charles Sobhraj who was 31 in 1975 and his 30-year-old French girlfriend Marie-Andree Leclerc who were both responsible for the premeditated murder of at least 24 western backpackers in Southeast Asia in the early to mid-1970s.
‘The Serpent’ referring to the name given to the serial killer by the press in the 1970s including the then 30-year-old Bangkok Post newspaper at the centre of the story, was aired first by the BBC in January 2021 to an audience of over 6.2 million viewers and subsequent shows achieved a viewership of roughly 5 million.
Recreates a special era for expats in Bangkok and was filmed in Thailand just prior to the pandemic crisis
The mini-series, which evocatively recreates the atmosphere of Bangkok from that remarkable era for expatriates in Thailand, was filmed in Bangkok and Hua Hin in Prachuap Khiri Khan in March 2020 before the pandemic intervened.
This saw Thailand closing its borders forcing the producers to finish off filming and editing of the mini-series in the United Kingdom.
Remarkably, the killer, Charles Sobhraj, is still alive at 77 years of age. He is currently jailed in Nepal after travelling from France to Kathmandu in 2003 where he was arrested for two murders he committed there in 1975.
Vietnamese born Sobhraj was the son of a Vietnamese woman and an Indian tailor who became a committed criminal in France after moving there
Mr Sobhraj, who is the son of Indian tailor Hatchand Sobhraj and Vietnamese mother Tran Loan Phung, was born in Saigon but the family was abandoned by the Indian man.
He was taken by his mother to live in France where he quickly became embroiled in crime before launching himself on an international career.
His first international crime foray was with his first love and girlfriend, Chantal Compagnon, who later bore him a child but was abandoned by him when the pair were imprisoned in Turkey and Sobhraj managed to escape.
Sentenced to life in prison for the 2nd time in Nepal in 2011 for the murder of a Canadian backpacker in 1975 after his foolhardy return there in 2003
In 2011, the Bhaktapur District Court near Kathamdu handed down a second life sentence to Mr Sobhraj for the murder of Cambodian backpacker Laurent Carriere following his earlier conviction for the murder of the Canadian’s 28 year old American girlfriend Connie Joe Bronzich in 1975.
Both bodies were found burned in different parts of Kathmandu that year.
Mr Sobhraj was arrested by Nepalese police at a casino in 2003 after an audacious and perhaps foolhardy return to the country after living in France following his release from prison in India in February 1997 having spent 20 years behind bars there.
Hubristic killer told the media he returned to Nepal to do ‘humanitarian’ work before his arrest
At the time, the hubristic, enigmatic and chillingly evil serial killer told the media that he had come to do humanitarian work and even linked himself with efforts to sell materials to the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein with details of his story having been sent to the then editor of The Spectator magazine in London and now British PM, Boris Johnson.
Mr Johnson, when asked about the claims, says he ‘clearly remembers making a clear decision not to proceed’ on the matter, a wise move.
The killer, after he was jailed, admitted that part of his reason for returning to Kathmandu was to team up with the Taliban and the Chinese criminal underworld in the trade of heroin and arms much the same as his gemstones exploits and business in the 1970s which led him to be based in Bangkok.
Story of The Serpent is centred on Bangkok in the 70s which was the criminal’s lair in Southeast Asia
The story of The Serpent is very much set in Bangkok and in particular Mr Sobhraj’s apartment in the city where many of his chilling murders took place.
From Bangkok, he moved around Southeast Asia dealing in smuggled goods and gemstones while murdering backpackers along the way when opportunity knocked.
It is estimated that 14 of the murders carried out by him and his French girlfriend Marie-Andree Leclerc took place in Thailand.
The couple would lure backpackers into their circle only to murder them, often through the use of drugs to incapacitate them before either drowning, bludgeoning, strangling, stabbing or burning them to death.
21-year-old US backpacker Teresa Knowlton murdered for her travellers cheques and her identity
21-year-old American and tourist backpacker Teresa Knowlton was one of the first to die.
After being drugged by Sobhraj and his wife, the young woman was drowned by The Serpent and his accomplice Ajay Chowdhury.
Afterwards, Marie-Andree Leclerc assumed the young American’s identity to cash thousands of dollars worth of travellers’ cheques.
Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg on his tail
The storyline in Bangkok, in the series, hones in on efforts by Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg who was the first to unmask and identify the serial killer, to have him apprehended.
The information gathered by Mr Knippennberge and his personal crusade led to an Interpol arrest warrant being issued for Mr Sobhraj in 1976.
Thai police officer invited to London to consult in the final production of The Serpent in 2020
Former Royal Thai Police officer, Police Lieutenant Colonel Sompol Suthimai who later became Head of the then Foreign Affair Division of the force as a Police Major General, also played a leading part in unearthing Sompol’s appalling crimes in Thailand.
The policeman was initially distrusted by Mr Knippenberg because the killer was originally arrested by the Thai police in connection with the deaths and then released as he was using a fake passport.
This weekend, speaking to the Bangkok Post about the affair, the now-retired police officer revealed that he had been invited by the producers of The Serpent to visit London and advise on the production of the mini-series.
His anger and frustration that Sobhraj did not face justice and the ultimate penalty in Thailand
Police Major General Sompol recalls his disappointment and anger that the killer evaded Thai justice where he would, almost certainly, have received the death penalty after his arrest in India when Sobhraj was caught after trying unsuccessfully to poison 60 French students at a hostel in New Delhi.
‘Back in those days, I really wanted to see him put on trial here and pay for what he did to those tourists. But I have had to let that go. The statute of limitations on his case here has long expired,’ he explained.
Bangkok officer was alerted to the case by his French wife and newspaper reports as expat community got wind of The Serpent and the backpacker murders
The Bangkok based policeman told the newspaper his French wife, Nicole Suthimai who worked at the United Nations, had coaxed him into looking at the reports of a serial killer believing that something was amiss after a female relative of her friends had gone missing.
This coincided with rumours swirling within the Bangkok expat community about murdered backpackers and the work behind the scenes of the Dutch diplomat Mr Knippennberg.
The Bangkok Post published a breakthrough story in 1976 headlined ‘web of death’ which fired the imagination of its readers and part of the coverage also influenced the policeman’s response.
Policeman’s efforts led to Interpol warrants and the final unmasking of a diabolical murderer
Police Major General Sompol’s efforts eventually led to the Interpol arrest warrant for Sobhraj exposing him as the dangerous and diabolical serial killer that he was and still is.
‘Then I saw a news story in the Bangkok Post and a picture of a woman found dead on Pattaya beach. I urged the friend of my wife to check out the victim’s body at the Police Hospital,’ the policeman explained.
Dutch diplomat began to distrust the Royal Thai Police as Sobhraj was arrested and then released allowing him to escape Thailand and justice
The body was that of the woman being searched for and this led to the policeman meeting the Dutch diplomat who was, at first, wary of his efforts.
‘He wasn’t happy with the police because Sobhraj had been brought in for questioning but released. We found out the investigators didn’t examine his passport thoroughly. He was using someone else’s, and they believed he wasn’t the man they were looking for,’ explained Major General Sompol last weekend.
Jailed in India where he led a comfortable existence behind bars for twenty years including an eclectic sex life which he boasted about to reporters
Subsequently jailed in India where he was reportedly treated well in prison with some suggestion that he had access to funds to buy a relaxed and comfortable regime behind bars which allowed him to conduct an ongoing and eclectic sex life.
‘I had a lot of female visitors, mainly journalists and MA students. Only intellectuals,’ he boasted later to reporters.
His girlfriend and partner in crime, Marie-Andree Leclerc, was not so fortunate.
Later, she admitted she was controlled by Sobhraj.
‘I swore to myself to try to make him love me, but little by little I became his slave,’ she explained at one point.
She was to die in an Indian prison in 1984 suffering from cancer.
Netflix mini-series is a big hit and is currently being seen by Thai audiences for the first time
The Netflix series, released in April, is currently making waves around the world including reaching enthusiastic audiences here in Thailand for the first time.
Despite the dark and sinister nature of the story it portrays, the show evokes interest in Thailand where Bangkok’s expat lifestyle and its underground criminality are popular themes with western audiences and are part of the kingdom’s appeal to tourists even, ironically, for backpackers.
A strong cast of actors with Thai singer and actor Teerapat Sajakul playing the Bangkok policeman
The Serpent was produced by Mammoth Screen after being commissioned by the BBC in a deal with Netflix.
French actor Tahar Rahim plays Sobhraj while talented English actress Jenna Coleman plays Marie-Andree Leclerc. The series is centred on the couple’s relationship first in Bangkok and later, as they flee, Paris.
The Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg is played by British actor Billy Howle who also starred in the movie Dunkirk.
Lieutenant Colonel Sompol Suthimai is played by Thai singer and actor Teerapat Sajakul.