Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Sala Chalerm Thani - Bangkok, Thailand

I have no evidence to back this up, but the Sala Chalerm Thani Theater is very possibly the oldest standing theater in all of Thailand. It's located in an equally old neighborhood of Bangkok called Nang Loerng, an impressively well preserved section of the city between the historic district of Rattanakosin and the modern business districts of Phaya Tai and Pathum Wan. A little known piece of Bangkok history, hidden from view down an old lane.

The layout of the Nang Loerng neighborhood was common in early 20th century Bangkok. Known as trok (lane) settlements, these living and working arrangements were characterised by a cluster of wooden houses (ban ruan) surrounded or screened in by brick and mortar shophouses (tuk thaeo) which fronted onto larger streets. The inner wooden houses were accessed by narrow covered alleys and tended to be the domain of ethnic Thais, while the surrounding shophouses were occupied by ethnic Chinese traders. Today these ethnic divisions are less pronounced.

You would never see the Sala Chalerm Thani unless you entered the trok.

A Nang Loerng resistent saunters past the old Sala Chalerm Thani Theater pulling a load of laundry.


The ticket window, with a portrait of the king mounted above.

Wooden benches, now on the exterior.

Dome Sukwong wrote a little bit about the older Thai movie theaters in his book A Century of Thai Film:
"Up until World War Two, cinemas, both in Bangkok and the provinces nearly all resembled warehouses, with a wooden frame roof and walls made from corrugated iron. One important thing that every cinema had to have was a brass band which played outside the cinema before the film began and provided a musical background to the film. From 1918, the Siam Cinema Company had almost a complete monopoly of the Siamese cinema business, with 20 cinemas in Bangkok, including the Pattanakorn, Pattanalai, Singapore, Penang, Java, Hong Kong and so on, and many outside."

Side door and corrugated iron walls.

The interior, looking towards what would have been the screen. The Sala Chalerm Thani Theater is now a warehouse.

Classic wooden balcony.

Balcony with projection booth in the background.

The below passage was written on a metal placard next to the theater.
"Also known as the Nang Loerng Cinema, the structure was a two storied wooden building. It had its first screening in 1918. The cinema represented the first time that a motion picture was seen by people in this area, as well as travelers who came to watch movies. In the beginning, the cinema's seats were long benches without fixed numbers. Anybody who entered the cinema could freely select their own seat. It had no ticket checkers. In the early days it showed silent films. A brass band was arranged to play in front of the cinema to draw the attention of the people. The brass band would move inside when the movie was started. Sala Chalerm Thani was in continuous operation until 1993, when it shut down due to the decreasing popularity of Thai films. One of Bangkok's ancient entertainment places has come to an end after serving the Thai people for 75 years. Today, the place is used as a warehouse, in ramshackle condition, waiting to be revived again."
I love the hope expressed in the last sentence.


  1. It's heart-achingly beautiful, even with all the seats ripped out.

  2. I met the owner who sells irrigation products that are stored there. He confirms that the CPB have plans to restore the cinema, but he is not sure when they will start. I imagine it would likely be converted into some kind of community center.