Friday, January 29, 2010

The Washington Theater - Bangkok, Thailand

Thailand's role in the American/Vietnam War is a piece of history which intrigues me deeply. It marked a turning point in the modern history of the country, an era of rapid development, political turmoil, social unrest and - my favorite aspect of all - a nationwide movie theater construction boom. While America's military might was focused on some vague objective in Vietnam (read Gordon M. Goldstein's "Lessons in Disaster" to learn the full extent of that vagueness), it was also busy showering Thailand in economic assistance with the aim of halting the domino fall. In exchange, the US got to station soldiers and military aircraft in Thai territory. More to the point of this post, though, several locations in the country became designated R&R destinations for American soldiers on leave from combat in Vietnam. In short, this was how Thailand got its reputation as a the world's capitol of pleasure.

Bangkok developed a few zones of its own which catered to American soldiers in copulatory distress. Among them was Washington Square - a retail, residential and entertainment plaza a few hundred meters south of the Asoke junction on Sukhumvit Road. The Square was anchored by the Washington Theater, but it also consisted of numerous bars, clubs, restaurants and massage parlors frequented by American soldiers. As US military involvement in Vietnam came to a close, Washington Square became one domain of the "I-can't-go-back-there" gun-slingers; those soldiers who figured that life could be better lived on a modest vet's pension in self-imposed exile, rather than rejoining the State side rat race. The Washington Theater must have provided a little window into a severed world for many such men.

Peering into the fading world of Washington Square
The Washington Theater

During my short Bangkok tenure in 2004-05, I remember the Washington Theater as a transvestite cabaret called "Mambo," though I hadn't the faintest clue as to its original function. Only when I started this project last year was I schooled in the matter. Word has it that the Washington was part of the formidable theater empire of a man called "Tansacha," owner of such geographically-named theaters as the New York, Hawaii, Asia and London. But it's movie showing days are a distant memory, now. Mambo cabaret has likewise relocated and a bar called The Sportsman occupies the lower level, below the now-vacant auditorium. I imagine it has never looked worse.

A shadow of it's former self, the Washington Theater

Looking out from the lobby

Lower lobby and a stairway to heaven abandoned

Built-in art and a portrait of the king above the auditorium entrance

A trail of film reminds us of the past

Lobby detritus

Auditorium: the cornice and curtains are likely remnants from its cabaret days, not original features of the movie theater.

I visited the Square on the 1st of November, frantically searching for a spot broadcasting game one of the World Series between my beloved Philadelphia Phillies and the evil empire N.Y. Yankees. In my mind's eye, I pictured a bar full of aging American G.I.'s, slugging down beers at 7AM in celebration of the fall classic going on half way around the world. Friendly insults would ring out across the room, as fans of the two teams gibed in affection of their abandoned past-time. After Chase Utley's second home run of the game, a surly Texan with a disdain for New Yorkers would buy me a drink and say "here's one for your Philadelphia boys, son" in a deep baritone voice. "You're lucky my Rangers don't have a shot in hell, cause I wouldn't be so obliging in that case." Kools and Marlboros, bacon and eggs, and the Series on the TV. Americana in the tropics. But it wasn't how I imagined.

Behind the theater a few businesses linger on

I did find a bar open at 7AM, though it was empty save for some over-the-hill working girls and a man of unknown European descent - the owner, it turned out. "Is it possible to put the World Series on?" I asked. The owner motioned for one of his hags to fulfill my request.

One out, bottom of the first. For the next 6 and two-third innings I sat trying to dodge mindless conversation with a sloppy prostitute and focus on the game, a masterful display of pitching by Cliff Lee. The other women sat around lazily, languishing at the choice of programming. I felt bad for invading their work place and subjecting them to this alien sport without so much as a chance for a trick, so whenever Yankee's center fielder Johnny Damon came to bat I'd point to the screen and announce excitedly, "Look, look! That guy's half Thai. Yeah, his mom is Thai and his daddy is American and now he's a superstar. Look how handsome he is!" For all I knew, Damon's mom and dad met right in that bar. At the very booth I was sitting.

After the 6th inning was over I left, confident that doing so would appease the girls' boredom and that the Phillies were on their way to a win.

Above is the cleaning lady of The Sportsman: a bubbly woman, kind enough to grant me entrance to the old theater's interior. She moved to Bangkok from her native Buriram Province just in time to watch James Cameron's Titanic at the Washington Theater. Soon thereafter its cinematic days ground to a halt. (This was not the place I watched the World Series)

As for Washington Square on the whole, it's on the wane. After nearly 40 years of whoring and boozing, most of the American G.I.'s who helped establish the place are dead or dying - their businesses sold off, or closed altogether. By the look of things, whoever owns Washington Square is waiting for the right moment to tear the entire plaza down and build a condo or office tower. Off the map goes another piece of local history. One that, in an off-hand way, helped lay the foundation for Bangkok's current affluence.

This post is dedicated to the American soldiers who helped do that laying.


  1. Bourbon Street, directly behind the Washington, is a decent place with a good staff and great food. Cajun is a specialty, but I like their breakfast menu. They usually have American sports on all the TVs.

  2. I used to go to the old Washington Theatre a couple of times a month back in the mid-Nineties. Great character, great sound system, but more often than not me and the wife were the only people in the place. It was like a huge private screening.

  3. That must have been a strange treat. It's quite a cavernous place.

  4. Was there today. Everything around the cinema is being demolished. The Sportman bar and dub liner may survive a bit longer but not much .... Sad they tore out the seats from the auditorium already.

  5. Another piece of Americana in Bangkok lost to progress.

    Thanks for the update.