Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Suwan Rama Theater - Chiang Khan, Loei, Thailand

The Suwan Rama Theater is the first case I've encountered where the owner sees value in his "antique" theater, even after it's days of showing films have passed. It marks a realization that, if nothing else, history does have an economic value to some.

Thanks to the preservationist resolve of the Chiang Khan community (or maybe the long-stagnant economy), the town looks much as it did one hundred years ago, with about 80 percent of the houses and commercial buildings made of old teak wood. Its antique flavor has turned Chiang Khan into a hip tourist destination. Following suit, the Suwan Rama Theater has been converted into a mini-museum of itself.

For many years, Chiang Khan's position on the Mekong River gave it an advantage in the river trade. It is the first Thai town with a port on the Mekong after the river reconnects with Thailand to form the border with Laos. That means that any product that was shipped down the Mekong from northwestern Laos would reach the Chiang Khan port before any other point on the river. Hence the growth of the town a hundred years ago. That's my own speculation, but it seems right, right?

Pictured above is the window of the sound room. This is different from a soundtrack room (see the Thepbanterng post on 4/21 for more details). As late as the early 1970's rural Thai audiences preferred movies that had to be dubbed, rather than sound films. I presume this was because the "dubbers," as they were known, could speak local dialects and thus communicate better with local audiences, rather than the central Thai dialect that was spoken in Thai sound films. Dubbers became celebrities in their own right, with the best able to play many roles in one film and accurately synthesize such variant sounds as galloping horses, sword fights, thunder and gun shots.

(More details on Thailand's "dubbers" can be found in Dome Sukwong's book A Century of Thai Cinema.)

Balcony overlooking the street. In the past, hand painted murals advertising the day's showing were hung over the railing of this balcony.

The facade and front portion of the Suwan Rama was made of wood, in defiance of a law that was passed forbidding wooden cinemas as fire hazards. The auditorium, however, was brick and cement.

The front portion, where the lobby and concessions used to be is now a restaurant/museum. The auditorium is a badminton court.

Looking towards what used to be the balcony. The Suwan Rama had a total of 700 seats.

In here they used to sell movie tickets and candy. Now they sell food and nostalgia.

16 millimeter projector and some other memorabilia. The silent films of yesteryear were almost always shot in 16 millimeter film.

An old slide projector. It was used to project advertisements from local businesses onto the big screen. Revenue from these ads covered the taxes that were levied against the films.

Old wooden seats memorialized in what used to be the lobby. While I was eating there some tourists from Bangkok posed for photos in these seats.

Movie posters, mostly from the 1980's.

Lobby card for the film "The General's Daughter."

Lobby card for the movie "Tiger of the Mountain"

An old ticket stub preserved in lamination.

This is Mr. Phayungsak, owner of the Suwan Rama restaurant/theater museum, posing in front of some old lobby cards and other bits and pieces of his theater's past. Phayungsak built the Suwan Rama Theater in 1970 and closed it in 1990 - a relatively short but sweet run as a theater proprietor. As a child, his father ran an older theater in town made of bamboo and mud, which has long been destroyed. Phayungsak told me that Grandma Yamjid, owner of the Thepbanterng Theater in Nong Khai, is his aunt; a family of theater entrepreneurs.

All in all it was pretty cool to see an old theater in Thailand that's still keeping its memory alive. When it's possible and practical, I think it's important to put some resources into preserving old structures like this. In Thailand, as in the rest of Southeast Asia and most parts of the world, these old movie theaters were often the the most socially central places around. Communities convened around them, businesses sprang up around them and their influence ran deep. I hope that theaters like this increasingly get put on the list of cultural heritage sites in Thailand, so they will be preserved and future generations will be able to learn from them.


  1. Oh..h.....
    many thx. for everything na krab
    u make me love my home town too much more

    i luv u.


  2. It was a pleasure to meet you and your family, Ing. What a great chance to learn a bit about your family, Chiang Khan and movie theater history all at once. You have done a very unique thing with the Suwan Rama. I hope that you maintain it for many generations.