Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Las Vegas Theater - Korat, Thailand

Thailand's bucolic Northeast (Isan) is linked to the industrialized provinces of the Central region by the Mittraphap Highway, the country's first major transportation artery built to international standards. It was engineered by the US Army Corp of Engineers and largely financed by Uncle Sam himself. When the Mittraphap was completed in the late 1950's, it further opened up Isan's natural resources to Bangkok capital. Industrious entrepreneurs hedged their bets, descending upon the region's long-established, yet Lao-oriented, towns and cities en mass, hoping to cash in on the growing economic opportunities.

By the 1960's, Cold War-mongering had made its way to mainland Southeast Asia. Isan's flat, open spaces and proximity to the insurrections going on in Laos and Vietnam made it an ideal place to build some air-strips for military use. A communist movement was likewise underway in Thailand itself, so the growing military presence helped mitigate that, as well.

Ultimately, America's investment in the Mittraphap Highway had paid off. By trading in a bit of economic capital in the form of road-building, they bought themselves some political capital in the form of military bases. Now they were free to station troops and combat planes on Thai soil to fly bombing missions over Laos and Vietnam. Korat was one of four Isan cities which had an air-base used by the US Air Force during the war. The others were Ubon, Udon Thani and Nakorn Phanom.

Economically, Korat city boomed as result of the new road, and the presence of American soldiers further added to the pot. With new prosperity came new, grander movie theaters, the likes of which Northeast Thailand never had known before. At the first major junction of the Mittraphap Highway and the city of Korat, two first-class movie palaces were built, one on either side of the road. If that doesn't say something about the importance of movie theaters in the relatively recent past, then I don't know what does.

Only one of the pair is still standing today, though it's barely recognizable beneath a veil of ugly billboards. But ask any local and they'll know that under all that flotsam is the old Las Vegas Theater.

The shell of the Las Vegas sits at the most prominent intersection in Korat. It's now a low-end shopping plaza. A tiny portion of the marquee is visible beneath a tattered ad banner.Profile view

Fly-over bridge connecting the old Las Vegas Theater building with IT Plaza across the street. The Chalerm Thai Theater once was stood in place of IT Plaza

Nowadays, the Mittraphap Highway approaching downtown Korat is lined with all the national and international chain stores you can imagine, much like the highways leading to any major US city. Among them is a branch of EGV Cinemas, the country's largest theater chain, located in "The Mall" about a kilometer away from the old Las Vegas. EGV Korat is in a regional partnership with Five Star Network - the primary film distribution company in Isan (no affiliation to Bangkok-based Five-Star Productions). Five Star Network also has its very own 6-screen multiplex in the heart of the city, so at least the local guy has a good portion of the market share.

There are no longer any operating stand-alones. Go figure!


The screen once hung on the far wall

Vending

Auditorium filled with vendors, balcony outfitted with little apartments


Tiny apartments built over the balcony

1960's design event in balcony staircase
It seems pretty evident that the Las Vegas got its name as a nod to the US soldiers stationed at Korat during the war years. Or maybe the owner just had a gambling addiction; I don't know for sure, my inquiries didn't get me very far. Whatever the case, it was once grand, and together with the Chalerm Thai Theater across the street, served as a symbolic gateway into the newly-prospering city of Korat and greater Isan beyond (well, the cities of Isan prospered, but I'm not sure the same can be said about the rural areas - hence the current political tensions).

Sadly, the photos I took of the Las Vegas don't say anything about its past elegance. But after scrounging around on a web-site run by US Air Force-veteran Bob Freitag, I was able to find some pretty pictures of the Chalerm Thai Theater, which stood just opposite. Have a look below.

The Chalerm Thai Theater c. late 1960's early 1970's


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