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.

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