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.

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