Friday, April 6, 2012

The State Theater - Pra Pradaeng district, Samut Prakan, Thailand

Heading south along Sukhumvit Road, between Bangkok's southern outskirts and Samut Prakan town, lies a stretch of weather beaten buildings, tattooed greenish-black from years of auto-exhaust and tropical molds. Lots of Bangkok has this exact look: a building stock of concrete shop houses, built in the 1960's, 70's and 80's, before developers realized that profits, like customer-attracting air-conditioning, could be more efficiently controlled in enclosed shopping malls.

In exurb settings like Pra Phradaeng district, Samut Prakan, such ageing building types have become - for all intents and purposes - working slums. Shop fronts so occupied hold businesses catering to low-wage service workers commuting to and from the Bangkok grind. Cheap eats, cell phone dealers and convenience stores reign supreme. Factories and warehouses fill in the gaps. On occasion, the rarefied sight of undeveloped paddy field or festering bog - reminders of a bucolic past not far removed.

Remnants of other fading pasts can be found clinging desperately to life in this area, as well. Enter Sukhumvit Soi 78 - "Soi State," as its known to locals and in official street signage. The soi is named for the stand-alone theater that sits in its heart.

"State" @ Soi 78

The entrance gate to Soi State, looking well worn after years of neglect. Besides announcing the theater, the sign also advertises a market, the full name of which is unreadable due to missing letters. In years past, hand painted movie posters would have adorned the frame beneath the signage.

Anchoring a large commercial/residential development, the State Theater is the quintessential Thai theater of the 1970's. By comparison, it's like a Thai rendition of a strip mall, minus accommodation for cars. In fact, the latter was the death knell of such developments.

As the private car increased in popularity through the 1980's and 90's, these commercial/residential plazas lost their appeal. With no formal parking lots, drivers found them inconvenient, precipitating the rise of the shopping mall-multiplex, with the all-in-one ease of built-in parking.

Convenience is the enemy of many good things.

Now well into its decline, the State stays afloat via a lone daily screening of pornography. Much of Soi State, for that matter, has a link to the sex industry in one way or another. A slew of store fronts are occupied by brothels, or their slightly less conspicuous cousins, the massage parlor.

(For an interesting report on the transformation of Soi State into a red light district, click here)

Expanse of lobby

Seediness has not always been a State trademark. Mr. Choom - the current manager and employee for over 30 years - recalled the golden years at the State, when capacity crowds filled the theater day in and day out. Throngs of movie-goers provided the foot traffic which sustained the surrounding businesses in thriving Soi State. But those days are long gone.

A second State employee I spoke to registered as familiar. Where I had met him before I couldn't immediately pin point, but a quick memory scan drew a match. He was the manager at the now-demolished Asia Rama, in Bangkok's Prakhanong neighborhood. When I saw him last, almost three years ago, he was sitting proudly behind the ticket window of that massive double-feature theater, brusquely fielding my questions about his place of work.

His reassignment to the State, I learned, came in the wake of the Asia Rama's closure and subsequent fall. Both theaters were owned by the same man, part of a once-sizable network of theaters stretching across Bangkok and its suburbs. The Asia Rama Network, it was called, named after the flagship theater where a high-rise condominium is currently being built.

Others in the Asia Rama Network included the Washington, London, Hawaii and New York theaters, to name the few I learned of.

Meanwhile, my transferred theater operator friend, now aware of our past interaction, had a glint of sadness in his eyes. With his former place of employment now just a memory, and his current one in its final stages, he holds the unenviable distinction of being witness to an empire's collapse. The gradual degradation of a movie theater is a pathetic site. To be part of it for so many years can only be depressing. An inescapable feeling of pending obsolescence.

A tell-tale sign of the theater's current incarnation as a hook-up spot: out-dated posters hang on the walls.

Yup, it's that kind of place.

Quintessentially 1970's chandelier, movie poster in background.

Imitation marble wall paneling surrounds the ticket window.

The concessionaire and her friend have a chat in the lobby.

The concave screen of the State Theater, curtains narrowed to fit LCD projection. This once-cutting edge auditorium has seen better days.


As it stands, the State is beleaguered. The entire development is well into its decline, one stage or so before abandonment. The employees even admitted as much.

All the properties withing Soi State are owned by one man. He is apparently holding out until the Sky Train is extended to Soi State's gates, at which point he will redevelop the land. In ten years time, it's likely that the "State Tower Condos" will have supplanted the State Theater and all the seedy deals taking place in its shadow.

I'm glad to have seen it before its demise.


  1. nice summary and photos. Thanks, Stefan

  2. My gosh! Wonderful capture and great narrative, my dearest! Really really love this post of yours. It actually recalls the entire social history of Bangkok during the last three decades. Beautiful and thought provoking!

    1. Iris and Stefan, as long as you're looking, I'm posting.

  3. I was assaulted a few weeks ago at the State. My first two visits were fine and I met a rather charming accountant. However, on my last visit 3 guys held me while they tried to open my bag. They missed the 7,000 baht and my passport but took my mobile phone. Guess I was lucky that it wasn't worse. Very few customers go to this monolith of a building. So take care.

    1. Sorry to hear of this. I suppose I ought to warn those who might want to track down these places on their own that there are indeed hazards to look out for. Please execute extreme caution if entering abandoned or underutilized areas.