Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Sri Pathana Theater - Pa Sak Noi village, Chiang Saen, Chiang Rai, Thailand

The Sri Pathana Theater's history is intimately entwined with war, development and the coming of modernity to this corner of the country. However, in order to outline the relationships between these events it will help to turn back the clock to the the late 1960's and early 70's, before the Sri Pathana Theater was even standing.

Throughout much of the 1960's and 70's there were major wars raging in Thailand's neighbors, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. As a result of these wars agricultural production dropped severely in those countries. Bullets, bombs and land mines make it a bit difficult for farmers to till their fields and plant their crops. In Thailand, however, there were only minor skirmishes in some remote jungle areas, leaving most of the Thai agricultural sector to benefit economically from the losses incurred across the border. Thai-grown rice shot up in value as Lao consumers just across the border looked towards their war-free neighbor for the staple food item.

A corrugated tin wall shrouds most of the facade of the old Sri Pathana Theater, obscuring what was once the lone theater serving the surrounding 5 villages in rural Chiang Rai.

Now lets zero in on the tiny village of Pa Sak Noi, in Chiang Rai province, Thailand. During the war years, Pa Sak Noi was a typical northern Thai farming community. Electricity hadn't yet reached that part of Chiang Rai and motor vehicles were a rarity. Only a few families in the village had a car or truck of any kind, and those who did used them almost exclusively for economic purposes. Pa Sak Noi had one family that owned a truck, which they used to transport the unthreshed rice of local farmers to the nearest rice mill for processing. Thanks to the high export value of Thai rice - a result of the nearby wars - this service proved to be quite lucrative and the family made a tidy sum during the war years.

Soon after the war ended in 1975 rice prices began to level off in Thailand. As agricultural production resumed in Laos, diplomatic relations between the two countries were cut and exports to Laos from Thailand ceased, Thai rice was in less demand. Meanwhile, that enterprising family from Pa Sak Noi, enriched during the war years through their rice transport business, rolled their profits into the entertainment industry. The Sri Pathana Theater was born.

Looking at the facade, into the lobby. The greenish box in the corner was the ticket booth.

Chaweewa, who along with her husband opened the Sri Pathana Theater in 1978, recalled how crowds of locals would throng the theater to partake in this novel form of entertainment. Entire families from all the nearby villages would file in to marvel at the newly arrived technology, the cinema. During the first year of its operation, the Sri Pathana was powered by a diesel generator, as electricity hadn't made it to Pa Sak Noi by then, making the theater the only electrified building in the area.

A poster for the Thai film "Chui Chai" still lingers in the lobby.

Pictures of the king and queen hang at the top of the lobby, above the door. The staircase led to balcony-level seating, the projection booth and the sound room, where live dubbers, sent by the film distribution company, would perform the voices for foreign movies.

Most of this theater was made of wood, which poses a contradiction to something I was told a few weeks ago. A former theater owner in Nong Khai (see post "Thai movie theater history 101" from 4/21/09 for more details) explained that the Thai government outlawed wooden theaters in the late 1960's, citing them as fire hazards. The Sri Pathana, however, was built in 1978. Chaweewa, the owner, said she had never heard of that law. A trip to the local university library should put an end to this issue.

Through the door and into the auditorium!

The Sri Pathana was small, but they would manage to squeeze as many as 700 viewers in at one time for more popular movies. The entry fee was one baht in the early years of the theater.

The lower walls of the auditorium were made of brick and cement, while the upper part was wood. Notice the strings hanging down from the widows so that they could be opened for ventilation.

Fan vent and the remains of old posters inside the auditorium.

Poster for "Bruce Li in New Guinea," glued to the wall.

Old wall fan, out of its natural habitat.

One year after the Sri Pathana Theater opened, Pa Sak Noi and the rest of Chiang Rai province got electricity, ushering in full "modernity" to this idyllic region of the country. In the late 1980's, as locals began buying TV's, the Sri Pathana lost its appeal and business fell off drastically. Chaweewa and her husband kept it open as long as they could, but it just wasn't worth the costs. It closed down in 1989.

This is Chaweewa pictured above. Her memory of past events and her kindness in sharing them made for one of the most insightful experiences I've had since I started searching for old theaters. Her stories helped shed new light on a number of issues which I otherwise would never have picked up on. Chaweewa and her husband truly were agents of change, to use the anthropological term.

The Sri Pathana was also the first movie theater I have ever seen anywhere in the world that is in a village. Not a city, not a small town, but a rural, largely agricultural village.

(Sri Pathana loosely translates to "grand development," but if somebody can give a more accurate translation it would be welcomed)


  1. concerning the name, i think your translation is good! the only thing i'd add is that "sri" in thai is often used as an honorific (rather than a adjective) for places, as well as people, implying the grand or venerable status like you said.

    this is a great post, the ones where you are able to recount tales from the former proprietors are often my favorites! thanks so much

  2. Thank you Peter. The translation clarification is much appreciated.

    Glad you like the story behind the Sri Pathana, as well. All said, that's really the kind of infomation I shoot for, though sometimes it's just not possible to get. It's great when I can get in touch with former or current owners, but those instances are in the minority. Sometimes a former employee or even a local with a good memory of the specific theater has to suffice, though fact checking becomes more pressing under such circumstances, and that can take a whole lot of work.

    All the best.