Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Mongkol Rama Theater - Bangkok, Thailand

Just as you step off the Sky Train onto the platform at Saphan Kwai station, you glance over your shoulder and notice an old sign rising vertically above the tracks. "That's a cool sign" you say to yourself while moving towards the stairs, or maybe you think it's old and ugly. Whatever you think of it, that sign's been towering over Phaholyothin Road since 1963, well before the Sky Train, or much else in this area of town for that matter. For 46 years it has been a guiding light for those seeking respite from the busy world of Bangkok inside the Mongkol Rama Theater.

Vertical sign for the Mongkol Rama, standing tall above Phaholyothin Road. When it was built the Mongkol Rama was one of the largest buildings in the area.

The street side marquee advertises "The Race to Witch Mountain" and "Khan Kluay 2" as part of a double feature. The Mongkol Rama is a second-run theater, double and triple features are common practice.

The Mongkol Rama was erected at a cost 7 million baht back in 1963, including the purchase of the land. In those days this area of the city was still mostly rural, not yet fully incorporated into the urban chaos of Bangkok.

One of two concession stands in the lobby.

The other concession stand.

Ticket windows. For 50 baht you can sit in the air-conditioned comfort of the Mongkol Rama all day long.

Pictured above is Mr. Anisat, venerable sage of Bangkok movie theaters. He was single-handedly able to point me in the directions of another 8 movie theaters that are still standing in Bangkok. I was never able to find out exactly what job he does, but he's been working at the Mongkol Rama for 30 years.

This is Lek, the ticket taker. He lives in the neighborhood and has been employed at the Mongkol Rama for 6 years now.

The owner of the Mongkol Rama and second generation movie theater proprietor, Fred Banpreecha

I had the very good fortune of meeting the owner of the Mongkol Rama Theater; a kind, soft spoken man by the name of Fred Banpreecha. He took me on a personal guided tour of his still operating theater, while schooling me on its history along the way.

Fred's father was a bit of a movie theater mogul in the 1950's and 60's. The Mongkol Rama was actually the third theater that he built. His first was the Chalerm Sin Theater, just around the corner on Pratipat Road, which he built in 1953. Next came the Chalerm Kiat Theater in the Wong Wian Yai area of town, which opened in 1955. The Mongkol Rama was Fred's fathers' 1963 venture and he built his 4th and final theater - the Amornpan - in 1969. All the theaters are still standing, though Fred has since divested himself the Chalerm Kiat. The Chalerm Sin is currently being converted into a badminton hall.

Staircase leading to the unused balcony and the projection room. 1960's style design throughout.

Dual projectors

Pictured above is Mr. Taek, the projectionist, rewinding a reel of film by hand.

Being a lifelong denizen of this area of Bangkok, Fred had some great insights into the way things were. For instance, a canal ran along what is now Pratipat Raod and almost all the land in the Saphan Kwai area was paddy fields - a far cry from today's urban congestion and grit. Acting on a tip that development was coming to this area, Fred's father purchased some land, later using a few plots to build his Chalerm Sin and the Mongkol Rama theaters. Keep in mind, this was the post-World War 2 years, when lots of money was being spread around Thailand for development projects. Bangkok, being the center of all finance and commerce in the country, was growing the fastest.

To give you some context, there were 5 movie theaters within walking distance of each other in this area of town, including the Phaholyothin Theater which is still standing directly across the street. Bangkok had a very strong theater-going culture in those days.

Fred poses with a role of preview film in hand. The room that he stands in the sound room, where in the past live dubbers would bring dialogue to films. (Fred gave me that role of film as a souvenir. It's a preview for the 2004 Thai film "The King Maker").

Patrons wait in a darkened auditorium between films. Those metal-backed seats are more comfortable than you might think.

View from the balcony

What struck me most about this personal tour of the Mongkol Rama was getting to meet some of the employees. Being a family enterprise, employment tenure is a much more personal thing, and almost everybody working their has been doing so for years. This is in sharp contrast to the modern multiplex theaters in Thailand, where their corporate nature helps ensure that employment is tenuous and the turn-over rate high. The old ways of running a theater and retaining your employees for life is they so choose is a rarity these days.

Fred has no intentions of closing down the Mongkol Rama Theater. Business is just good enough to warrant keeping it open. Besides that, it's a piece of his family's legacy, something that has been with him for nearly his entire life. It's also a source of income for the staff members who've been employed there for years. Fred's children are set to inherit the old theater, though it's unlikely that they will continue the family tradition into the third generation - especially not when the land it sits on is worth 170 million baht.

So while you still have the chance, why not spend an afternoon in the Mongkol Rama Theater. Tickets are cheap and you can stay to watch 2 movies. It's a huge old auditorium, with first rate projection, good sound and an air-conditioning system that will make you forget that you're in the tropics. The seats are comfy, too.

Who knows! Maybe if enough interest is generated and profits increase, Fred's children will see the value in this old theaters, just a stones throw from the Sky Train.


  1. I actually don't want to be the one to inform this,but Mongkol Rama had closed down about a less than a month ago, about the same time as NgamWongWan Theater.

    Right now,there are less than 10 second-run theaters left in BKK.Compared to 25-30 theatres just 10 years ago.Think you got the idea what will happen in the near future.Yeah,the doomsday is coming.

  2. Your article sounded like the owner was really enthusiastic about the business! I was in the area and went to check it out. It has been demolished and a crappy little market complex has replaced it. (I will send the photo to you separately).