Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Kaen Kham Theater - Khon Kaen, Thailand

The frame of a street-side marquee is one of the last bits of discernible evidence that the Kaen Kham Theater exists.


At the end of the alley is the side of the Kaen Kham Theater. When it was operating, the metal frame attached to the side held giant hand painted billboards advertising the day's showing. The missing aesthetic would certainly have added some needed color to this otherwise drab urban wasteland.


To see Khon Kaen's Kaen Kham Theater is to see the word 'derelict' objectified. Stripped of all its identifying markers - sign, marquee, poster cases and ticket booth - the Kaen Kham resembles an old warehouse or meat packing plant as much as it does a movie theater. The only life it knows these days is an old woman who rents out a small room in the back of the theater and a band of vagrants who live beneath the auditorium in perpetual drunkenness. Vagrants combined with packs of stray dogs aggressively patrolling the area made my visit to the Kaen Kham one of the more on-edge theater experiences I've had in a while. But in spite of its current dismal aesthetic and downtrodden way, locals adamantly placed the rotting Kaen Kham at the pinnacle of Khon Kaen's once-illustrious cinema scene. "This was the biggest and most popular theater in town," recalled a 60-something woman running a mini-mart in the theater's equally derelict surrounding plaza. "Until business started to fall off, the Kaen Kham was the rave of the town. It was full almost every show, and that's with more than a thousand seats to fill."

Weed strewn lot at the back of the Kaen Kham Theater.

Although the structure's interior has been vacant since the reels stopped spinning about ten years ago, the Kaen Kham briefly found new life as home to a weekly market held in the open space beneath its auditorium. But that didn't last very long, apparently. This area of town lost its economic foundation when the Kaen Kham itself went out of business. The theater, after all, was the life support for the surrounding businesses. Once the movie crowds stopped coming, the plaza's shops and restaurants started to decline until it had devolved into its current state of lock-jaw decrepitude.

Behind the Kaen Kham

Granny Liam lives in a little room at the back of the theater. Prior to its closing she worked there as a cleaner. The fond memories she holds of its glory days have slowly eroded like the building itself. "The bank's got the property deed now," she claimed. "They're trying to sell it off, but ain't nobody buying this rotten old tomato. It's a big vacant mess with nothing but little old me, some mangy dogs and that gang of nut cases who sleep around the side. By the way, you'd best be careful 'round them. They're kind of the desperate type; a little unpredictable come years of white whiskey drinking. You'd do to watch your step."

Granny Liam's words were heeded. Had they not been, I may not have lived to tell you of the Kaen Kham Theater, once Khon Kaen's largest answer to the malaise of everyday life (and in an offbeat way, still very much so).

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