Monday, October 19, 2009

Thahan Bok Theater - Lopburi, Thailand

If you've been keeping up with this site and you've found much of the material to be somewhat on the repetitive side, well, I don't hold it against you. The stories of these old theaters are much the same throughout Thailand, if not most of the world. Only in the subtle nuances pertaining to place, ownership, or the circumstances behind their opening or closing does anything worth writing about appear. By and large, though, it's all just variation on a theme.

This entry is no different, unfortunately. The formula remains the same as almost all of the others. But while gathering this theater's history I found an anecdotal detail of Thailand's not-too-distant past which enlightened me a bit. One which is unique to this blog and to Thai movie theaters in general. Enter the Thahan Bok Theater.

The Thahan Bok Theater stands just off the Sra Kaew traffic circle in downtown Lopburi

For those not familiar with the Thai language, Thahan Bok translates to "army." Appropriately, the city of Lopburi contains the largest military camp in the country. In fact, Lopburi has been a strategic military site for hundreds of years, apparently dating back to King Narai in the 17th century. The Thahan Bok Theater doesn't date back quite that far, of course, but it is fairly old for a Thai movie theater.

The Thahan Bok Theater, you see, was a product of Thailand's post-revolution military nationalism. Built in 1941 by the government of Phibunsongkram, whose state ideology borrowed heavily from the Fascist movements in Europe and Japan, the Thahan Bok was a symbol of the military's ability create a new society from the purported waste and hedonism of the deposed royal order. It was a theater built to bring joy and respite - if not propaganda - to the soldiers stationed in Lopburi. Less than a year after it opened, Phibunsongkram's Fascist ambitions climaxed when he signed a treaty allying Thailand with Japan in the Second World War.

A statue of Thailand's former Prime Minister and military ideologue, Phibunsongkram stands in front of the Thahan Bok Theater - a gift from his government to the soldiers and civilians of Lopburi.

The Thahan Bok Theater boasts of art-deco architecture

Most of my information about the Thahan Bok came from a former employee, Sip-Ek-Ying (which translates to ' lady sergeant') Phanee Jarunophrathom and her son-in-law Samai Changsilp. The two reside along with the rest of the family right next door to the now dormant theater, where Phanee runs a small grocery store. In the 1940's and 50's Phanee worked at the Thahan Bok as a ticket seller, a position which she seemed to be quite proud of even several generations after the fact. She was able to get the job, she claimed, because of her military affiliation - a typist with the rank of sergeant in the army.

On weekends, Sergeant Phanee recounted, soldiers could enter the Thahan Bok Theater for free; one of the fringe benefits of being owned and managed by the military. The film fare, she remembered, was almost exclusively from Hollywood. It is likely, however, that during World War II the films screened there were Japanese and Thai propaganda films, including a film that Phibunsongkram himself produced called Leuad Thahan Thai, or Blood of the Thai Military.

"Showing Today"

These two guys were sleeping under the veranda of the Thahan Bok Theater. Clearly they were not pleased to be photographed.

Sergeant Phanee verbally resurrected the Thahan Bok Theater 1960's and 70's, when American soldiers stationed at the Lopburi military camp during the Vietnam War would venture off to the Thahan Bok for a little culturally-familiar entertainment. At times, she recalled, when ticket sales were low for a given show, theater management would hire a bus to cruise around town in search of viewers, drive them to the theater for free and then send them back after the movie was over. Talk about aggressive sales tactics.

But the thing that struck me most about my conversation with Sergeant Phanee, aside from her sweet, grandmotherly demeanor and seemingly flawless memory of the Thahan Bok, was what I later learned is likely a reflection of Phibunsongkram's nationalist ideology of the 1930's and 40's. "This theater," she started, the mental residue of a by-gone era rising to the surface "was a gift from our government to the soldiers and civilians of Lopburi. It was the first one we ever had and it was not built for commercial purposes, but for the benefit of the people." And most poignant of all, "this theater was built before the Chinese started settling in Lopburi and before the private theaters began to open."

Samai Changsilp and his mother-in-law Sergeant Phanee Jarunophrathom reside directly beside the Thahan Bok Theater. They were my primary sources for information regarding the theater and its nationalist roots.

Along with building classy movie theaters for both military and civilian use, part of Phibunsongkram's nationalist policy was directed against the private business sector. Much of the private economy in Thailand then, including movie theater ownership, was dominated by 1st and 2nd generation Chinese immigrants. Being the nationalist that he was, much of Phibunsongkram's ideology had an anti-Chinese bias to it, often blatantly so.

The moment that Sergeant Phanee voiced her praise for the Thahan Bok Theater as a glorious gift from a nationalist government in a time, she emphasized, before there was much of a Chinese community in Lopburi, the connection became clear. It takes years to successfully undue the propaganda of the past. But even more to the point, it's pretty amazing that something as potentially devastating as the politics of ethnicity can be found in a topic as mundane as the history of a movie theater.

The Thahan Bok (Army) Theater has been closed for about 10 years now, although it is occasionally used to hold conferences. The military maintains ownership.


  1. Wow, great photos Der.
    I am sure people amused about what you have done bring us so many wonderful old stand alone movie theather.

    Thanks for those and keep doing we need to see and read from you feeling like we are traveling with you to thoese great places

  2. what a great, insightful post.