The crazy adventures of photographer Basil Pao

The crazy adventures of photographer Basil Pao

The Hong Kong lens man describes how he caused a riot in Sudan, was abandoned on an island in Patagonia and survived Tibet thanks to a suitcase of noodles
basil pao shan shui
Like an Asian Indiana Jones.

As I step into the room, I scan the crowd but there is no sign of a straw hat. According to Michael Palin, this is how you locate photographer Basil Pao. The hat is his trademark.

An arm shoots up from behind a waiter and I see a tall man in glasses gesturing for me to come over. It is late afternoon and Pao is sitting in the far reaches of the Foreign Correspondents' Club. The straw hat rests on a chair beside him. Pao says he isn’t wearing it because he's not allowed to in the Club.

Hong Kong-born Pao, from the island of Cheung Chau, is perhaps best known for his epic adventures with Michael Palin as his stills photographer on the BBC filming teams that made his travel shows. 

"It was pretty crazy. I would go on one of these Palin things and I would be on the road without a way to communicate much for months," says Pao.

Pao is actually a man of many hats. His roots are in the record industry. Living in New York and Los Angeles in the 1970s, he worked as an art director. Many know him as the creative force behind the graphics for the film "Life of Brian," including the book, album jacket, film posters and advertising graphics.

This month, Pao celebrates the release of "Shan Shui" a book of landscape photography from around the world. Nonchalant and disarmingly modest, Pao tells me about his adventures photographing in all corners of the world, including how he started a riot in Sudan, ate instant noodles in Tibet and got lost in Patagonia.

basil pao shan shuiAmazon River, Peru.

CNNGo: Of your many journeys around the world, which country was most difficult for you to leave?

I can tell you probably Cheung Chau.

Let me think. Patagonia and Cuba. But it’s very difficult to say. I can say I’m not keen to go back to the Sahara. The food wasn’t the best. Tibet was another place that wasn’t great for food and Bhutan was inedible. When I did the Kailash trip, I had a whole suitcase of ramen. I ate the whole damn thing.

The Tibetans are really rude about the Indian pilgrims. They say that the mountain doesn’t like them because as soon as the mountain sees them coming it covers itself up. Generally it’s very hard to see the mountain. But then it happened. The first group of Indians came and sure enough the mountain disappeared behind clouds.

Luckily by the time we got there the whole sky lit up. It was really quite magical.

Actually, I would like to go back to Kailash. It was the one time where I felt that I communicated with a piece of rock. By that time I had done Annapurna, K2 and Everest but I never had the feeling there was something going on with me and the mountain.

CNNGo: What is one of your most vivid memories from your lifetime of traveling?

We had been on the road for 18 hours and arrived in Agadez a small dusty town in Niger. Our director had arrived before and told us the Twin Towers are gone. They’ve been taken out.

We said "Stop kidding us, what do you mean?" We got to the roof of the motel and got out BBC world service and listened to reports. It was just something we heard but no images. We were so stunned and we were in Niger, our whole group were Touareg. But they as Muslims were even more upset. They went out of their way to make us feel at home and protect us. They were thinking what is the world going to think about Muslims. 

A few days into the desert, two French Para-gliders came out to join us from Paris. They were supposed to do some aerials of the camel train going through. They brought out the Sunday papers and we looked at the images of 9-11 with campfire light out in the middle of the Sahara.

basil pao shan shuiBand-e Amir Lakes, Afghanistan.

CNNGo: You were one of the assistant directors of "The Last Emperor" and also played a main role as the emperor's father. How did that come about?

When Bernardo was casting, I went to see him. He said right away he wanted me in the film. Very early on, I was in the running for the lead. Then when they cast John Lone, I become the father of the young emperor. 

But I told Bernardo that what I really wanted to do was to direct. I must have been about 18 when I was going to art school in LA and one of the first films that really struck me was "The Conformists." It made me want to make films when I grew up. So I told Bernardo that and he said "Ok, come work in the director's group." 

We had the run of the Forbidden City. Nobody had that kind of access. That was the last hurrah for the reformers. Our sponsor was Hu Yaobang. 

Actually some of the students who were in the scene where the kids were protesting against the Japanese invasion in the movie, they were from Bei Da (Beijing University). They ended up in Tiananmen doing the same thing, protesting. Very odd, just a few months later.

It was tough but it was so rare to be able to spend that amount of time in Beijing at that time. There were a few days when we were filming in the main courtyard as you go in from underneath Mao’s nose. They actually set up tables with checkered tablecloths and we ate spaghetti in that huge great old court.

basil pao shan shuiHoggar Mountains, Algeria.

CNNGo: In all your adventures have you ever gotten lost?

Yes, in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. We were going to try to land on the Lago Grey glacier. We stopped off on this island to film the boat going towards the glacier. I went to a different camera position and when I looked around they were gone. I was on this island in the middle of this lake with no boat. It was before the days of mobile phones. 

Now, the crew always threatens to do that because back then the camera made a lot of loud noises and sometimes I didn’t respect the rule that when they are filming I am not allowed to take pictures. When Michael was doing something and it wasn’t going to happen again, I would go click click click. The soundman would just look at me like I am scum. So I thought "Oh the bastards, they finally did it. They are trying to get rid of me in the middle of Patagonia."

Finally I saw our Chilean producer in the distance. The sun was going down so they decided to send the Chilean. 

Sometimes the scariest things are funny. You know how you have a chill in your chest for a few moments. That happened. The other times usually involve the military coming towards you with machine guns. 

CNNGo: And has that ever happened to you?

A lot. They don’t like people with cameras and big lenses. That time in Sudan was scary. I caused a riot.

We were driving back from the camel market in Omdurman (the old city across the river from Khartoum) and we stopped for a Pepsi. I was sitting inside the car and I saw these women burning a mountain of rubbish.

The wind was blowing in such a away that the smoke was drifting beautifully and these two ladies were chatting so I got the long lens out and took a couple of frames. The next thing you know these guys were all over us surrounding the car demanding the film. I quickly got out a roll of new film and handed it to them. Then they wanted the camera.

More and more guys came and started pounding on the car. They were all young and restless and out of work. The local guides were trying to talk to them. He got back in the car and said, "Go. Go now. Go as fast as you can!" We just drove off through the crowd.

My director was so pissed off by the time we got to Khartoum. He sat me down for a lecture and said "You do that again and I will send you home. You know how close we came to being killed."

It was my first time in Africa. That was really scary.

basil pao shan shuiKarakoram Highway, China.

CNNGo: What is your next adventure?

A three-part or four-part series on Brazil. We will probably travel around the whole country.

Basil Pao's new book "Shan Shui" is available at

A freelance writer, Payal Uttam found her way back to Hong Kong after a prolonged stint in Chicago.

Read more about Payal Uttam