Saturday, October 31, 2009

The New Chalerm Uthai Theater - Uthai Thani, Thailand

Uthai Thani: a fitting way to cap off a six-day, five-province tour through Thailand's lower-north and upper-central regions. In Uthai - as the locals refer to it - I could breathe easy, if not solely for the cleaner air, then for the lack of ever-present vice that lurked beneath the surface in most of the other towns I visited. In Lopburi, aside from malicious macaques roaming the streets, there was a formidable presence of glue huffers and meth addicts roaming around like zombies. In Nakon Sawan, I was warned to beware of teenage boys. Apparently they love ruckus and aren't afraid to spread it outside their adolescent circles. The town of Takli was visibly on the way to decay and Singburi...well, I can't really say I noticed anything negative in Singburi other than its beautiful old theater is covered with pigeon shit. Uthai Thani, on the other hand, was a charm.

Floating houses, once fairly common on many of Thailand's waterways, line the Sakae River in Uthai Thani.

For normal people, the most interesting aspect of this colorful little city on the banks of a Chao Phraya tributary would probably be the floating houses on the river. Undoubtedly a very compelling reason for taking a trip there. But for myself, I was more enthused to find the New Chalerm Uthai Theater - a certified classic among picture houses.

The New Chalerm Uthai Theater can be reached by entering a narrow alley between two old shop houses near the town's central market. An old sign and marquee, devoid of lettering for a number of years now, hangs unassumingly above the entrance to the alley.

In the morning hawkers convene to sell their goods and wares along the street. Lots of fresh produce and local handicrafts are for sale in the shadow of the New Chalerm Uthai's street-side marquee.

Hawkers hawking

Looking down the alley towards the theater

Facade in site

The all Art Deco New Chalerm Uthai Theater

As I reached the end of the alley I saw it, towering above me like a ancient temple forgotten by the passage of time; a monument to the supremacy of the human mind, fortified by a wall of buildings on all sides. The lost pyramids of the Mayans; Ankor Wat, strangled by malarial jungle, they were flaccid finds in comparison to this. It was like Indiana Jones meets Cinema Paradiso, with Harrison Ford played by me, whip replaced by a digital SLR and no evil henchmen or passionate Sicilians. Just a man selling coffee and tea from a small shop on the theater grounds.

Narrow area in front of the theater

"There used to be a Buddhist temple on this land," said the man from the coffee shop. "Really nice temple, it was; all wood. But it burned down years ago. Soon after, the government built this movie theater. It's been closed for about five years now. Would have been torn down by now, I suspect, if the land were privately owned, but since it's owned by the government, they let it stand, waiting for the right time to turn it into something else."


Like the Thahan Bok Theater from a few posts back, the New Chalerm Uthai was built by the government of Phibunsongkram, the zealous nationalist prime minister of Thailand from 1938 to 1944 and 1948 to 1957. Under Phibunsongkram's administration, Siam was renamed Thailand, the ethnic-Chinese community faced severe restrictions on cultural expression and the adoption of western-style dress and etiquette was encouraged. Many of his policies and political sentiments were made public through propaganda films screened in theaters like this one, though I don't know how many theaters his government actually built.

According to the coffee shop owner, The New Chalerm Uthai, built in the early 1940's, was designed by the same architect as the Thahan Bok Theater in Lopburi; not a surprise judging by the look of it. Both share a sleek Art Deco look common throughout the world during that time, especially among government building projects. Since the New Chalerm Uthai was built on land once occupied by a temple, the land and the theater itself are owned by the Religious Affairs Department.

A portrait of King Chulalongkorn hangs above the old ticket booth, with a pigeon perched on top of it.

The coffee shop owner, Mr. Suwit, along with a young neighbor

It was nice visiting the New Chalerm Uthai Theater and Uthai Thani in general. The town had a social completeness that I feel is lacking in most Thai cities. Given, I only spent one night there, but during those dozen or so hours I got the feeling that this place has not been drained of its soul like many other small Thai towns. At evening time the streets were bustling with people of all ages, shops were selling, restaurants serving, hawkers hawking their wares on designated corners under the soft glow of street lights. Not an iota of trash on ground to be found. Another thing which caught my attention was that there were young entrepreneurs in town, running their own small businesses and the like; local twenty-somethings who hadn't been dragged away to the Bangkok rat-race. Just a thought, but maybe it's because there is no major highway passing the city, sucking out the resources and bringing in vice. Could it be that the semi-isolated position of the city has kept it relatively pristine and together? I'm sure there's more to it than that, and for all I know the townsfolk might engage in collective crack-smoking sessions after dark, or head-hunting, maybe, but on the surface I was thoroughly charmed and impressed. If only they had a working movie theater, I would consider living there.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Meuang Thong Rama (Khu Rak Theater) - Singburi, Thailand

-->You see that beige building on the left hand side of the photo above? The one with the high, slender arches that are slightly pinched at the top? That’s the old Meuang Thong Rama Theater. It stands on prime real estate, directly on the east bank of the Chao Phraya River, overlooking the muddy waters of that most revered river system. It must have been a popular place for couples to go back in its time. Many a romantic stroll along the river banks likely took place after the movies let out. As a matter of fact, the Meuang Thong Rama was originally named the Khu Rak, or "couples" theater.

The neon lights along the marquee's border are the letters 'K R', as in Khu Rak, the original name of the theater.
As the story goes, the original owners sold the Khu Rak Theater to the good people over at Apex, then the largest movie theater company in Thailand. Under Apex's stewardship, the name was evidently changed to Meuang Thong Rama. The trademark pyramid of Apex, along with the word "scala" still hangs over the lower lobby. If I'm not mistaken, Apex also went under the name Scala for a while, perhaps due to the wide recognition of its most elegant theater bearing that name.

The lower lobby, strew with trash and scraps of wood. Obviously once a handsome place.

Strips of glass and mirror lean against the lobby wall. The building is now used as a wholesale glass shop.

Upper lobby, outside the doors to the auditorium

A clear view of the Chao Phraya River can be seen from the upper lobby.

A small mountain of pigeon droppings has accumulated on the staircase railing.

The gentleman on the left now runs a glass business from the old Meuang Thong Rama/Khu Rak Theater. He and his friend chat over a cigarette.

I would love to tell you more about the Meuang Thong Rama/Khu Rak Theater of Singburi, but I didn't get very much information. The guy running the glass shop was kind enough to allow me to enter and take some pictures, but he didn't know too much about its history besides the few facts mentioned above. Nor do I know much about the town of Singburi, other than it's pretty old, has a discernible ethnic Chinese feel and a bustling little downtown. Its location on the Chao Phraya River, in the heart of Thailand's most productive rice growing region, must have made it an important place for shipping the staple grain down to Bangkok and beyond. Picture, if you will, that you're standing on the balcony of the upper lobby, softly veiled in the cool shade of the Khu Rak Theater, ten minutes before showtime, watching the rice barges float down the river. Must have been nice.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Coming soon...

Five sweat-drenched days on the streets of Bangkok have yielded some interesting photos and stories in the realm of stand-alone movie theaters. Slightly raunchier, for sure. A little more on lower end of things, no doubt, but with some wholesome goodness for the whole family as well. Expect new material to go up in a few days time.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Lopburi Theater - Lopburi, Thailand

Here's my third and final installment from the city of Lopburi, a 1970's behemoth aptly named the Lopburi Theater. There were few people around to provide any data on this one, aside from a probabal date of birth some time in the early 1970's, during Thailand's nationwide movie theater construction boom.

Like the Thahan Bok Theater detailed in the October 19th post, the Lopburi Theater is located just off the Sra Kaew traffic circle, though not nearly as prominently situated as the former.

The surrounding buildings, consisting mostly of three-story row houses with retail space on the ground level, look as if they were all built around the same time. In addition to the uniform look of the buildings, there were just enough stray dogs and vacant store-fronts to give the area a dead feel. I can't say I hung around too long.

Classic free-standing letters upheld by about three meters worth of metal supports.

At least the place sees some action. The old Lopburi Theater can be rented out for banquets, concerts, weddings, seminars and other events generally inferior to showing movies.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


I am actually a little bit saddened to make this announcement, but yesterday I received word from a reliable source that the Bua Savan Theater in Vientiane, Laos has been destroyed. A Vientiane fixture for film since at least as early as the 1960's, the Bua Savan operated throughout the latter years of the Lao Royalist era and most of Communist era, the transition point of which was 1975. I visited the old giant back in January of this year. Its image has served as the title banner for the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project since I started it in March.

Bua Savan Theater
Vientiane, Laos
196? - 2009


In other grim news, last weekend I was down in Bangkok on yet another theater hunt and I noticed two recent casualties:

The street side sign and marquee for the Thai Rama on Somdet Prajao Thaksin Road, just off the Wong Wian Yai traffic circle has been taken down. I don't know whether the theater itself has been destroyed or not.

A sign no more

In the Sathon area of Bangkok, the sign and marquee for the Jan Theater and Snooker, once perched above the lot of a Caltex gas station on Jan Road has likewise been removed. Whether the theater itself remains or not is unknown.

A handsome sign, now likely in a scrap yard.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Thahan Bok Theater - Lopburi, Thailand

If you've been keeping up with this site and you've found much of the material to be somewhat on the repetitive side, well, I don't hold it against you. The stories of these old theaters are much the same throughout Thailand, if not most of the world. Only in the subtle nuances pertaining to place, ownership, or the circumstances behind their opening or closing does anything worth writing about appear. By and large, though, it's all just variation on a theme.

This entry is no different, unfortunately. The formula remains the same as almost all of the others. But while gathering this theater's history I found an anecdotal detail of Thailand's not-too-distant past which enlightened me a bit. One which is unique to this blog and to Thai movie theaters in general. Enter the Thahan Bok Theater.

The Thahan Bok Theater stands just off the Sra Kaew traffic circle in downtown Lopburi

For those not familiar with the Thai language, Thahan Bok translates to "army." Appropriately, the city of Lopburi contains the largest military camp in the country. In fact, Lopburi has been a strategic military site for hundreds of years, apparently dating back to King Narai in the 17th century. The Thahan Bok Theater doesn't date back quite that far, of course, but it is fairly old for a Thai movie theater.

The Thahan Bok Theater, you see, was a product of Thailand's post-revolution military nationalism. Built in 1941 by the government of Phibunsongkram, whose state ideology borrowed heavily from the Fascist movements in Europe and Japan, the Thahan Bok was a symbol of the military's ability create a new society from the purported waste and hedonism of the deposed royal order. It was a theater built to bring joy and respite - if not propaganda - to the soldiers stationed in Lopburi. Less than a year after it opened, Phibunsongkram's Fascist ambitions climaxed when he signed a treaty allying Thailand with Japan in the Second World War.

A statue of Thailand's former Prime Minister and military ideologue, Phibunsongkram stands in front of the Thahan Bok Theater - a gift from his government to the soldiers and civilians of Lopburi.

The Thahan Bok Theater boasts of art-deco architecture

Most of my information about the Thahan Bok came from a former employee, Sip-Ek-Ying (which translates to ' lady sergeant') Phanee Jarunophrathom and her son-in-law Samai Changsilp. The two reside along with the rest of the family right next door to the now dormant theater, where Phanee runs a small grocery store. In the 1940's and 50's Phanee worked at the Thahan Bok as a ticket seller, a position which she seemed to be quite proud of even several generations after the fact. She was able to get the job, she claimed, because of her military affiliation - a typist with the rank of sergeant in the army.

On weekends, Sergeant Phanee recounted, soldiers could enter the Thahan Bok Theater for free; one of the fringe benefits of being owned and managed by the military. The film fare, she remembered, was almost exclusively from Hollywood. It is likely, however, that during World War II the films screened there were Japanese and Thai propaganda films, including a film that Phibunsongkram himself produced called Leuad Thahan Thai, or Blood of the Thai Military.

"Showing Today"

These two guys were sleeping under the veranda of the Thahan Bok Theater. Clearly they were not pleased to be photographed.

Sergeant Phanee verbally resurrected the Thahan Bok Theater 1960's and 70's, when American soldiers stationed at the Lopburi military camp during the Vietnam War would venture off to the Thahan Bok for a little culturally-familiar entertainment. At times, she recalled, when ticket sales were low for a given show, theater management would hire a bus to cruise around town in search of viewers, drive them to the theater for free and then send them back after the movie was over. Talk about aggressive sales tactics.

But the thing that struck me most about my conversation with Sergeant Phanee, aside from her sweet, grandmotherly demeanor and seemingly flawless memory of the Thahan Bok, was what I later learned is likely a reflection of Phibunsongkram's nationalist ideology of the 1930's and 40's. "This theater," she started, the mental residue of a by-gone era rising to the surface "was a gift from our government to the soldiers and civilians of Lopburi. It was the first one we ever had and it was not built for commercial purposes, but for the benefit of the people." And most poignant of all, "this theater was built before the Chinese started settling in Lopburi and before the private theaters began to open."

Samai Changsilp and his mother-in-law Sergeant Phanee Jarunophrathom reside directly beside the Thahan Bok Theater. They were my primary sources for information regarding the theater and its nationalist roots.

Along with building classy movie theaters for both military and civilian use, part of Phibunsongkram's nationalist policy was directed against the private business sector. Much of the private economy in Thailand then, including movie theater ownership, was dominated by 1st and 2nd generation Chinese immigrants. Being the nationalist that he was, much of Phibunsongkram's ideology had an anti-Chinese bias to it, often blatantly so.

The moment that Sergeant Phanee voiced her praise for the Thahan Bok Theater as a glorious gift from a nationalist government in a time, she emphasized, before there was much of a Chinese community in Lopburi, the connection became clear. It takes years to successfully undue the propaganda of the past. But even more to the point, it's pretty amazing that something as potentially devastating as the politics of ethnicity can be found in a topic as mundane as the history of a movie theater.

The Thahan Bok (Army) Theater has been closed for about 10 years now, although it is occasionally used to hold conferences. The military maintains ownership.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Malai Rama - Lopburi, Thailand

There's a certain social and spatial dynamism to the city of Lopburi which made it one of my favorite ports of call since I started the theater hunt. Historically, the town dates back about one thousand years, to the Dvaravati period, when it was called Lavo. In the 13th century it was forcefully incorporated into the Khmer empire, conquerors who used their precocious mastery of engineering to build some extremely attractive temples. One such temple, Prang Sam Yod, resides in the middle of Lopburi as part of an historical park which includes several other nearby sites.

All around Prang Sam Yod Temple a modern city has developed over the years, to which was added the Malai Rama Theater. This imposing theater has been standing just behind Prang Sam Yod Temple since the mid-1970's. It is the most notable structure in the area aside from the temple itself.

Temple and theater

A group of tourists visits the Prang Sam Yod Temple. Malai Rama theater in background.

Rising a full four stories into the air and topped off with dramatic free-standing letters in revelation of its glorious name, the Malai Rama is a movie theater of monumental proportions, almost as monumental as the ancient Khmer temple which stands less than one hundred meters away.

But despite my mild obsessiveness towards old movie theaters, what really made Lopburi such a special place was this:

Crab-eating macaques - three troupes of them - live in the vicinity of the no-longer functioning Malai Rama. That's right, macaques are the primary citizens of this section of town. You see, the ensuing modern city along with its towering Malai Rama Theater was only made possible by clearing the jungle around the ancient Khmer temple. Instead of seeking out new swaths of jungle to dwell in, the macaques moved into town, and over the years have carved out a niche for themselves as marauding tourist attractions.

An unabashed macaque sits on a sign in front of the old Malai Rama Theater. The theater is now home to a snooker hall in the rear, while the sign posted on the front advertises Malai Car Care, a car washing and detailing service.

A macaque forages in the grass for grubs with the Malai Rama in the background

The largest faction of macaques lives among the entire block of buildings pictured above

From a simian sociological point of view, the most interesting aspect of these urban macaques is their factionalism. There are three different groups of them centered in different places. The largest group occupies the block of buildings directly across the street from the Prang Sam Yod Temple. Due to their thievery and general nasty behavior, most of the businesses once housed in these buildings have closed down or relocated.

The second largest faction lives in and around Prang Sam Yod Temple. Their territory also includes the old Malai Rama Theater, giving them what amounts to the best position for observing the entire macaque domain. When under attack by a rival faction, it is said, the look-out macaques perched atop the Malai Rama's sign can give warning calls to their brethren below at the temple. Sometimes these macaque wars wind up spilling into the streets, where motor traffic is forced to yield to violent monkey battles.

Above and below, macaques are perched along the gate surrounding Prang Sam Yod Temple

As cute as they may seem, I cannot emphasize enough just how trifling these animals are. Removed from the jungle and natural sources of food, the macaques of Lopburi have turned to pillaging, scavenging and strong-armed robbery to survive. On several occasions I witnessed a macaque leap into the back of a moving pick-up truck, pilfer whatever it could and then leap out before the truck drove too far away. Once I saw a macaque sitting on the awning of a shop, drinking from a can of Chang Beer it had pulled from a garbage can. More than a few times I observed a macaque jump onto unsuspecting passers by and snatch whatever the person was carrying.

Warring and stealing, public sex and masturbation, senseless vandalism along with numerous other offenses make the city-dwelling macaques of Lopburi a bane to the residents and shop owners of this small part of town. But in all fairness to them, they are also the number one tourist draw. I endorse paying them a visit.

As for the Malai Rama, its been closed as a movie theater for about 5 years now. The role it plays posthumously, however, is perhaps just as important for the local macaque community as it was for humans when it was a theater. In my humble opinion, there's no good reason why the two roles can't be reconciled.