Thai ‘Indiana Jones’ divers scour Bangkok’s murky river for treasure

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A boatman places a homemade metal scuba helmet on an Indiana Jones diver who will scour Chao Phraya river to hunt for sunken treasure. (AFP)
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Diver Bhoomin Samang holding rare coins he found during previous diving trips to the bottom of the Bangkok’s Chao Phraya river. (AFP)
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Bhoomin Samang emerges from a dive into Bangkok’s Chao Phraya river to hunt for sunken treasure. (AFP)
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A Buddha statue and China ceramic set retrieved by divers from the bottom of the Bangkok’s Chao Phraya river. (AFP)
Updated 31 July 2018
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Thai ‘Indiana Jones’ divers scour Bangkok’s murky river for treasure

  • The ‘Indiana Jones’ divers use more makeshift equipment and operate under the radar in the middle of the country’s urban metropolis
  • Selling a few copper coins can make them some 500 baht ($15) — nearly twice Thailand’s daily minimum wage

BANGKOK: Kneeling before his homemade metal scuba helmet, Bhoomin Samang prays for good fortune before he dives into the day’s work — scouring the bed of Bangkok’s Chao Phraya river for sunken treasure.
The 62-year-old is part of a small community known as Thailand’s “Indiana Jones” divers, who brave the inky-black underworld of the trash-filled waterway in search of coins, china, jewelry and scrap metal.
“We look for old coins, sometimes we are hired to find lost objects in the river,” says Bhoomin, a veteran diver who has been scouring the river for 30 years.
Sometimes the find is more macabre — the divers have stumbled across skulls and skeletons as they feel their way along the river bed in total darkness.
“If you’re afraid of ghosts, you can’t go in because you can’t see anything. But we’re used to it,” he explains.
Trained foreign and Thai Navy SEAL divers were recently at the center of global attention for their daring rescue of 12 boys and their coach from a waterlogged cave in northern Thailand.
But the “Indiana Jones” divers use more makeshift equipment and operate under the radar in the middle of the country’s urban metropolis.
Wearing shorts and T-shirt, Bhoomin jumps off his motorized skiff into a river strewn with city sewage and debris.
He is able to breathe thanks to the boxy helmet that weighs around 20 kilos (45 pounds), and is hooked up to a rubber tube that connects to an air tank aboard the boat.
The tank pumps oxygen into the helmet to keep water out, allowing the most experienced divers to drop down to 30 meters (100 feet) below the surface.
After 15 minutes underwater, Bhoomin resurfaces with a cotton bag stuffed with mud.
He pans it out on a metal dish, revealing several 200-year-old copper and bullet coins with pictures of 19th century Thai kings Rama IV and V on them — artifacts divers call “regulars.”
The coins trace the history of the Thai capital’s lively waterfront, whose traditional stilted homes are increasingly being knocked down for development.
“In the old days, we lived on rafts and had floating markets. Villagers lost their jewelry and money in the river,” he said.
An unfinished small Buddhist amulet was also hidden inside the mud.
The divers can turn a decent profit. Selling a few copper coins can make them some 500 baht ($15) — nearly twice Thailand’s daily minimum wage.
If lucky, a piece of jewelry or a rare coin in good condition can be sold for up to $300 at Bangkok’s antique markets, while their loot is fattened out by scrap metal.
But the divers’ fate is in limbo as urban development threatens their riverside community, which stands on weathered wooden stilts.
Bangkok officials have ordered the families to relocate away from the river as part of the junta government’s gentrification plan for the city.
The divers fear that without direct access to the river, up to “90 percent” of them will lose their livelihoods.
But that’s not their only tension with the law — taking artifacts is technically prohibited and can be punished with fines or jail time.
Bhoomin, however, defends the trade, saying divers only go for the small stuff.
“We don’t take big artifacts like Buddha statues... (if officials really want something), they can go down there and take it,” says Bhoomin, who dips into a box of salvaged spectacles and sunglasses whenever he needs them.
Then again, the lure of something special is always just around the river bend.
“We don’t know what we will find or where we will go today, said 29-year-old Somsak Ongsaard, another diver. “It’s exciting.”


Children’s author Judith Kerr, who wrote ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’, dies

Updated 23 May 2019
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Children’s author Judith Kerr, who wrote ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’, dies

  • Kerr's family fled Germany as the Nazi's rose to power
  • She based the characters on animals she had seen in real life

LONDON: British writer and illustrator Judith Kerr, whose death at 95 was announced on Thursday, captivated young readers around the world with her tales of a fluffy tiger coming to tea, a trouble-prone cat and her own family's flight from Nazi Germany.
With curly hair and a mischievous smile, the petite Kerr worked well into her 90s, saying she even picked up the pace in old age, drawing inspiration from events in her own life to become one of Britain's best-loved children's authors.
Kerr was born in Berlin on June 14, 1923, fleeing Germany 10 years later after a policeman tipped off her father Alfred Kerr, a prominent Jewish writer, that the family was in danger from the rising Nazi power.
"My father was ill in bed with flu and this man rang up and said: 'They are trying to take away your passport, you must get out immediately'," she recalled in an interview with AFP in June 2018.
He took the first train to Switzerland and his wife and two children soon joined him. A day after their escape, the Nazis took power.
The family moved on to Paris before settling in London in 1936.
This story is loosely recounted from a child's perspective in Kerr's semi-autobiographical novel "When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit" (1971) in which the fleeing girl can only take one toy and so leaves behind a favourite rabbit.
Kerr, who started drawing at a young age, credited the success of the book with being "published at a time when the Germans hadn't really managed to talk to their children about the past".
But she is better known for "The Tiger Who Came to Tea", released in 1968 to become a global classic of children's literature, with at least five million copies sold and published in more than 30 languages.
Kerr's first picture book, it tells of a girl and her mother interrupted at teatime by a huge, fluffy tiger who eats everything in sight before leaving again.
She was able to write up the story -- a bedtime favourite of her young daughter -- while her husband was at work and their two children at school.
The fictional family mirrors her own at the time, the illustrations featuring the yellow and white kitchen cupboards of their London home.
Kerr used tigers at a London zoo as models for her feline creation.
Next was "Mog the Forgetful Cat" (1970), the first in what became a 17-book series about the antics of a mischievous, egg-loving moggy inspired by her own pet.
"Goodbye Mog" (2002) was meant to be the last offering -- broaching the subject of death with the much-loved cat departing for heaven. But supermarket chain Sainsbury's persuaded Kerr to produce one more in 2015: "Mog's Christmas Calamity".
Proceeds of the last book were for Save the Children's work on child literacy, and a TV advert was the first to feature Mog in animation with Kerr herself also making a cameo appearance.
In her illustrated story "My Henry" (2011) -- for children and adults -- an elderly lady fantasises about adventures with her late husband, such as climbing Mount Everest, hunting lions, and riding dinosaurs.
Kerr dedicated the book to her husband Thomas Nigel Kneale, a respected screenwriter who died in 2006. The couple met at the BBC, where they both worked, and married in 1954.
Commenting on the book in 2011, The Telegraph wrote: "For all the depth of underlying emotion, there's a celebratory feel to it, an unfeigned lightness of spirit that, throughout her life, has been a great boon.
"It has helped her cope with widowhood just as it allowed her to get over the loss, exile, penury and frustration of her early life."
In 2012 Kerr was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for services to children's literature and Holocaust education.