Thursday, November 19, 2009

Rama Sam Yan - Bangkok, Thailand

T'was the day before Sunday
and all through the theater
not a human was present
except two bums and a cleaner...

Even in a state of decrepitude, the Rama Sam Yan Theater inspires. Seldom have I seen a building of this caliber anywhere. As a venue for film, it must have been on another level. Film, however, was just one, albeit the most vital component of this complex. It seems that the person who conceived of the Rama had in mind more than simply a place to watch movies. He had a vision of the future. Conceptually, it was beyond the tacky temples of consumption embodied in the shopping mall with their branded multiplex theaters. Rather, the Rama was a center of production and play in one - a slightly Orwellian combination, if anything.

The Rama Sam Yan Theater stands on Rama IV Road, not far from Hualamphong Train Station. A highway overpass, now in the process of being resurfaced, rises in front of it.

The mind behind the masterpiece was apparently a notable player in Bangkok's erstwhile cinema scene, though I wasn't able to come up with a name. Another of his cinema contributions that I know of was the Sutthisan Rama, in the neighborhood of the same name.

A very spiffy sculpture is embedded in the exterior wall of the Rama Theater. Besides a theater, Rama contained bowling alleys, as is depicted in the sculpture.

I am a fan of this work of art!

Passing under the marquee, one enters a central atrium - five-stories high, with sky-lights in the ceiling. A stand-alone ticket booth occupies the center of the floor. It resembles a pagoda in a Japanese rock garden. The different ticket windows sold tickets at various prices, depending on where one sat.

The wrap-around balconies flanking the atrium led to offices along the perimeter. Several of those offices are still occupied, including one which houses a branch of Amway. Otherwise they are completely vacant like the rest of the building; a solitary work-place in a structural apparition. To the best of my knowledge the office space was always just that, not retail, which is why I say it was a center of production more than consumption. I could be wrong, though.

Bird's eye view of the ticket booth

In a glass case off to the side of the atrium lobby is a model of the entire Rama Sam Yan complex. At last, a full perspective of the scale of this structure. In the above photo you can see the slightly pitched roof in the center of the complex. That was the Rama Theater auditorium. The surrounding buildings appear to be more offices. In the rear you can see a another pitched roof building; a low one, but extremely broad. Was that where the bowling lanes were? It looks more like a factory space of some kind.

The section of the complex fronting on to Rama IV Road, where the marquee hangs, used to have a free-standing sign saying "The Union Rama Enterprises Co. Ltd." I would love to know more about this company, but as I alluded to in my modified version of "the Night Before Christmas" poem at the top of this post, there was only a cleaner and some vagrants around to talk to.

Escalator and poster-case. Entrance to the auditorium is on the 3rd floor.

Through the tinted glass doors is a waiting room with chairs and a mounted TV. Past that is the entrance to the auditorium itself - a world of film-induced fantasy, gone extinct.

Bangkok natives of every mould recalled the Rama Theater with fondness and nostalgia. It was one of the city's foremost movie palaces in the 70's and 80's. Unfortunately, my knowledge of the place ends at that. Judging by the design, I'm guessing that it was built some time in the 1960's. Maybe I'm making things up, but it seems to have a slightly Japanese architectural look to it. I can picture Sonny Chiba chasing a Yakuza hitman across the roof in a Yokohama version of the Rama. Frankly I think it's a sexy building and I'll bet that Sonny Chiba films did play there in the 1970's.


  1. I stayed on Rama 4 on my first trip to Thailand in 1979 (the infamous Malaysia Hotel) and just wish I had seen a movie at this theater.

  2. It was a pleasure exploring this place even in its dormancy. I hope that it's preserved.

  3. The theater looks old and it seems it need some renovation but I would still love to watch movie there if I'll go in Thailand.

  4. Rama Theater is popular palace in the year 70's and 80's... It's nice to hear if this theater is continuosly working... ^^,

  5. Sadly, it's no longer operating as a movie theater. Has been closed since the late 1990's or so.

  6. When I was a kid, my father took me here once despite having newly-opened Major Cineplex near our neighborhood. Perhaps he felt more familiar with the place of his childhood memory, or perhaps he just wanted to show his kids the history.
    I don't remember much, but the picture of escalator does ring a bell. The place was empty. I believe we were almost their only customers. The air smelled different. I was a little disappointed they showed dubbed movie only. The screen was huge (from my younger self's perspective.) The sound was better than what I thought the seemingly abandoned theater would be. It was a memorable movie experience.
    According to the movie we watched there, it was still operating in 1997.

  7. Thanks for sharing your memories, Cherie. The Rama Theater must have really made an impression on you.

  8. A lot of effort was certainly put into the design of this integrated office, bowling and cinema complex. To this day there a still a few tenants occupying the lower floors and a team of cleaners still clean all of the floors (amazing for a mostly abandoned cinema). I would imagine that the auditorium itself is still pretty much intact (seating and all); however 'management' (an ugly old Chinese aunty) are totally hostile to the idea of anyone taking photos of the interior or trying to contact the owner. So we may never know what secrets lurk inside ....

  9. One of the most amazing modern structures in Bangkok. Hopefully something good will happen to it. But I'm not counting on it.

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