Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Mahachai Rama - Mahachai, Samut Sakhol, Thailand

The Mahachai Rama makes for one of the best terminated vistas anywhere in Thailand. What, you might ask, is a terminated vista? Well, it's exactly what it sounds like it is: a view, or vista, which ends, or is terminated, at another structure. The term is most frequently used in the fields of architecture and urban planning to denote a street view that instead of going on uninterrupted until it fades into the distance, ends by virtue of a physical entity - either man-made or natural - obstructing the thruway.

While it may have a negative ring to it, terminated vistas are considered assets. They give a definitive destination to the streets which they book-end. For instance, to see a terminated vista is to know that the given route has a discernible end point. A somewhere to go to. 

The Mahachai Rama is a prime example. Perhaps one of the most striking in any small town in Southeast Asia.

It must have been an amazing sight to look down Soi Baan Chao towards the Mahachai Rama 30 or 40 years ago. Back then, the bold dimensional signage would have been accentuated by neon lighting, not to mention the giant hand-painted movie billboard that would have been fastened to the theater's facade. This truly would have been the visual pinnacle of Mahachai. Even in its current run down state, it's hard to deny the beauty that crowns this sliver of mid-century Thai modernism. 

At the far end of this sightly street stands a modern movie palace with bold dimensional signage serving as a beacon to another world.

Up close with the Mahachai Rama. The signage on the facade is for a pub that used to operate out of a corner of the building. It was called the Pyramid Pub featuring the Pharaoh's Room. 

Ticket window with image of King Chulalongkorn in the background.

Dog in lobby

Poster case

Just too late to see the Mahachai Rama in its original condition

Auditorium preparing to undergo a conversion into a parking lot.

Beautiful dimensional signage; a signature of Thailand's stand-alone movie theaters.

As far as stand-alone movie theaters in central Thailand go, the Mahachai Rama managed to cling to life longer than most, staying in business until 2012 - a mere 2 years ago. 

The theater's extended life was the result of the particular demographic situation in Samut Sakhol - one of Thailand's most industrialized provinces, and the center of the country's food processing and canning industries. 

The vast majority of labor in those factories comes from Burma, and a good portion of them are in the country illegally. 

As low wage earners often living under tenuous circumstances, thrift is essential. But so is entertainment. The Mahachai Rama thus played the role of entertainment center for Samut Sakhol's Burmese laborer community, charging a mere 50 baht per ticket for a few hours of much needed escapism. That's roughly 200% cheaper than the standard multiplex ticket prices.

But trips to the movie didn't always have happy endings. A local shopkeeper recalled that once the police became aware that there were potentially illegal immigrants congregating in the Mahachai Rama, they would set up stings and round up undocumented Burmese for deportation, or more likely, extortion. Once word spread among the migrants that going to the movies could end badly, attendance dropped off and the theater shut down for good.

When I visited the Mahachai Rama late last year, it was in the process of being converted into a parking garage.

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