I was beginning to feel a lot like Dustin Hoffman in "The Marathon Man" as I approached my 24th hour of being strapped to a 747 seat, forced to watch endless showings of Sly Stallone in the "The Specialist." Although I was accumulating enough frequent flyer miles to entitle me to a free first-class trip to Alpha Centauri, the thought of just one more mile of air travel was enough to make me wish that our plane would land on top of a wicked witch, enabling me to return home via my newly-found ruby slippers.
The purpose of this exquisite torture was to transport me to StrayLight's latest VR Theater installation, for which I had the dubious honor of installing. The past months had taken me to Cognac, Paris, and HoIIywood, where I had cajoled our stereoscopic film crew up in helicopters, next to the roar of 18th century cannons, up and down the river Charente in Cognac, and through an all-nighter in the vast aging cellars of Hennessy Cognac.
It was the visionary CEO of Hennessy's regional Far East distributor, Riche Monde, who first conceived of a giant two-story cognac barrel which would tour the Orient. Inside would be a huge Virtual Theater, supplied by StrayLight, and a replica of an 18th century French chateau where guests would be afforded the opportunity to taste Hennessy's finest blends. Oh joy! What an extraordinary idea, except - how does one move an 80-foot-long cognac barrel through the streets of Bangkok? You see, the fastest way to traverse Bangkok's unending traffic snarls is by motorcycle taxi. In other words, you ride on the back of someone else's two-wheeler, over curbs, down sidewalks, and through parking lots. Westerners, being statistically larger than Asians, are warned to keep their elbows and knees tucked tightly in, as most drivers only allow clearance for the typical Asian physique as they zip through stalled traffic!
The answer to my mobile chateau question was to put the barrel inside a double-decker bus. Unfortunately, I discovered our bus was in Chiengmai, some 700 kilometers to the north. Faced with the choice between a 10 hour car ride or another hour airborne, I began to consider a career change. So far, the concept of virtual reality bringing people "closer" together wasn't seeming to pan out. However, Chiengmai, as it turns out, is one of the jewels of Thailand, with gorgeous cool weather and a much slower pace of life.
Although our Virtual Theater opening was only 4 nights away, the bus and its surrounding barrel was scattered in thousands of bits all around the front yard of my host, Suthat. Dozens of workers from the hill country surrounding Chiengmai were busy welding, drilling, pounding, and painting on the lawn in front of his house. My now instinctive aversion to air travel appeared to be mooted; based on the progress of our bus, I wasn't going anywhere for a long, long time!
There's only one remedy for a blown schedule; a really fantastic party. I had almost forgotten that Hennessy owns Moet and Chandon, so the bar was stocked exclusively with champagne and cognac, both of which do a marvelous job of washing down the fiery Thai cuisine. My friends back at the distillery in Cognac find humor in the fact that the Thais drink cognac the way the French drink wine (several bottles at a time). Our wine glasses were constantly kept full of cognac throughout our seven-course dinner! Soon our delays with the bus seemed less problematic, as the prospect of several months in Chiengmai appeared increasingly enticing.
Despite the many diversions offered, installing our VR theater on the bus was still a priority. The bus layout put the theater on the first floor and the French chateau and tasting room upstairs. We had a dozen motion seats to install, the same number of head mounts and several racks of equipment scattered in the yard. The local workers probably thought this stuff was from Mars, as they had onIy recently been introduced to such things as hoes and running water. Despite my trepidation, these guys were fantastic. Although they didn't understand the first thing about the thousand pounds or so of VR gear, and didn't understand a word of my drunken English, somehow the gear got installed in a bit less than three days. The crews' reward for their efforts was a chance at the inaugural ride in the Virtual Theater. I thought a couple of them were going to stroke out when the seats virtually exploded from the cannon fire in the opening battle scene. At the end there was only backslapping and laughter as our crew had been transported from rural northern Thailand to 18th century France to the 21st century electronic frontier!
At 5:00 am before opening day the last coat of paint on the bus was finally dry, the curtains were hung in the chateau, and the theater had provided entertainment all night long. I found the late hour perfect, what with the 12-hour time difference, it was just getting to be cocktail hour. Did I mention that we now planned a 14-hour drive under police escort to Bangkok? Through a series of mishaps it turned out to be more like a 24-hour trip! Yup, I took the plane!
I'd been warned about the traffic in Bangkok, and expected my 30 kilometer taxi ride from the airport to the hotel to take hours. The fact that I only saw three other cars on my entire trip down the expressway left me feeling like I'd entered the Twilight Zone. Perhaps I'd taken a plane from Chiengmai to some other destination? I still hadn't mastered the Thai alphabet, so anything was possible. It turns out that February 14th is some mondo Buddhist holiday and everyone stays home. It's probably one of the few places on earth where you can actually get a restaurant reservation on Valentines day!
At lunch I found my Director, Mike Denison, who was anxious to show me around "the big city." Mike found his way to the Far East courtesy of the Vietnam war era Peace Corps and has been away from his native Indianapolis ever since. With a background at Yale Drama School, he now teaches theater and cinema at Chulalonghorn University, the biggest and best in Bangkok. He's really the creative genius behind this Virtual Theater production; he wrote the script, directed the film crews in France and L.A., and has aIways managed to add levity and wit to the most adverse of situations. I keep kidding him that the Hennessy VirtuaI Theater production is the "Barry Lyndon" of VR, but this production can only be described as lush. Audiences are attracted to the theater because of the technology, but invariably complete their virtual tour deeply touched by the mood and atmosphere generated by Mike's portrayal of 18th century Cognac. He's taken high tech and given it a soul.
Since the bus was enroute for the entire day (and night), Mike, his daughter Nadia, and I set out to explore Bangkok. After the required visits to the Grand Palace and several Buddhist temples, we settled down to dinner at the Thai kickboxing arena. When you travel to exotic places you finally abandon all hope of knowing what's in your food. It always looks strange, smells strange, and is eaten with unfamiliar utensils, but in my experience is mostly delicious. This night's dinner was no exception as we ate on plywood tables from folding chairs in the company of the kickboxing crowd. There was the Thai version of roast chicken and several unrecognizable vegetables with wonderful dipping sauces. Mike was kind enough to enlighten me as to the main content of my favorite sauce (the one I'd taken to slurping straight with a spoon); water beetles, yum, yum!
We found the bus the next morning with the crew fast asleep in the chateau. Probably their first time ever sleeping in such plush accommodations. For months my Thai counterparts had referred to this undertaking as the "Barrel Project," a phrase I never really comprehended until this day. What I had seen was this big, red, windowless, whale-like, bus with Hennessy logos on the sides. When we came back from lunch that day, the bus was gone. It had been swallowed whole by an enormous wooden Cognac barrel. I mean the bus was totally gone! Not one clue that it had ever been there! Looking at the barrel, I discovered what appeared to be a tiny entrance on the side. As I approached, the entrance turned out to be about 3 by 3 meters and led to a tunnel into the side of the bus which was encased by this monstrous keg of cognac. The grand opening was at Pegasus, the most prestigious nightclub in Bangkok. Pegasus is set up to accommodate its 6,000 members in grand style, and outside, in the parking lot, was the "Barrel." I was told that Pegasus is a "full-service" nightclub including more intimate diversions upstairs. Feeling guilty about missing Valentine's day with my bride back in New Jersey, I resolved to keep my honor intact.
As the first load of executives and media entered the theater, I held my breath. We'd struggled all day with the Thai 220-volt power and I could only hope that I'd gotten it right. It seems that in the hopes of reducing their copper imports, the Thais scrupulously avoided having power circuits or extension cords with the usual third wire ground. Our solution was to drive a giant 3 meter steel stake in the ground and hope that we made contact with mother earth. Mike thought it would be a good idea to pour water around the stake in the hope of improving conductivity. His strategy worked a bit too well as the current flow began to make the earth literally boil. Someone else observantly remarked how much the Virtual Research HMDs looked like those steel hats used in electric chairs. My Thai hosts assured me they had plenty of bail money!
Needless to say, despite the grand opening being a shocking experience, it was also a smashing success. Pegasus had one of its best nights ever, Hennessy got plastered all over the local and national media, and the crew and I collapsed into the sleep of sleeps. I was sorely tempted to sabotage the Virtual Theater in an attempt to avoid my morning appointment with "The Specialist" and United Airlines version of Torquemada's chair. Despite an eternity of flying and the constant barrage of Sly's mad bomber portrayal, the 747 actually arrived in San Francisco a bit earlier in the morning than when I left Bangkok. The trip from SFO to Newark seemed like a jaunt around the block and I settled in with the wife and kids for a big, American, turkey dinner.
Later that evening the phone rang. It was Mike from Bangkok. He's faxing me the script for "Barrel II"!