Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Rachinee (AKA New Queen) Theater - Luang Prabang, Laos

Smack in the middle of Luang Prabang's most densely packed tourist area, silently masquerading as a boutique hotel, stands the Rachinee Theater. Innumerable travelers have strolled past this building clueless to the fact that before Luang Prabang was fancified by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) there was a real movie theater in town, two even.

Behind the facade of a guesthouse lies an old movie theater, unbeknownst to the throngs of tourists who visit Luang Prabang every day.

It was back in 1966 that the Rachinee Theater (also known as the New Queen) first opened to the public, under the stewardship of the Sisalermsak family. When they built the Rachinee it was the second brick and concrete theater in town, and an instant competitor of the Siang Savan Theater (see two posts prior for more details). The Sisalermsaks owned two wooden theaters in town prior to the Rachinee, but they are both long gone.

On my last day in Luang Prabang I met Mr. Nophavong Sisalermsak, the son of the original owners. He helped his parents run the Rachinee for years and had a wealth of knowledge about the Laotian movie theater industry. He explained how prior to 1975 the different theaters throughout the country formed film distribution partnerships, sharing film reels within their own group. The Rachinee, for instance, had a partnership with the Vieng Samay and Odeon theaters in Vientiane, while the Siang Savan was allied with the Bua Savan and Seng Lao theaters, also in the capital.

Superior quality American-made projectors, rusting away in a storage shed behind Nophavong's house.

Nophavong Sisalermsak praised the quality and reliability of the American-made Century Projectors (two above photos) that he used before the communist takeover in 1975. When diplomatic relations between Laos and America were severed, the only available projectors were USSR-made models. Nophavong lambasted these inferior machines, claiming that "they consistently burned through film and couldn't play older movies."

Inferior quality Soviet-made projectors, rusting away in a storage shed behind Nophavong's house.

Behind a stack of bricks, the old crown in the sign leans against the Sisalermsak house. The crown stood between the words "New" and "Queen" on the top of the theater. Nophavong Sisalermsak wants to restore the old crown and return it to its original place. It would add a nice touch to the building and alert tourists to its erstwhile function.

Nophavong Sisalermsak

The Rachinee stopped showing films back in 1993, after which it was transformed into a karaoke bar for a period. After UNESCO proclaimed Luang Prabang a World Heritage Site, however, the karaoke bar was deemed out of character with the French colonial/montaine Southeast Asian kingdom themes. It was ordered to shut down. The old Rachinee Theater's most recent incarnation is as the Le Tam Tam Garden Guesthouse and Restaurant.


  1. sometimes UNESCO has quite the wrong idea of what consitutes cultural preservation

  2. Seriously, if somebody invested some money in the Siang Savan Theater, the other one in town, I'm sure it would do business. LPB is pretty boring once you get past its boutique charms. People would pay to see a movie in an antique theater and it's totally in line with the towns character. I bet you could even get away with showing only "Sabai Dee, Luang Prabang," and nothing else.