Monday, October 5, 2009

The Wathana Theater - Takli, Nakon Sawan, Thailand

The town of Takli is less than an hour away from Nakon Sawan City, yet it has none of the latter’s repute or notoriety. At over fifty-thousand inhabitants in the town proper, however, Takli is (likely) one of the larger Thai cities which is not a provincial capital. All this was news to me, too, and when I found out that it used to contain four stand-alone movie theaters you can bet that I was digging around for some answers.

A sign advertising a noodle shop stands in front of the old Wathana Theater

It's pretty hard to make out, but the name Wathana is molded onto the side of the old theater just above the window.

-->There are two reasons why Takli grew large enough to warrant having four movie theaters. First, it’s situated along the Bangkok-Chiang Mai train line, complete with its own station and all. When the railroad was built in the early 20th century it instantly opened up a huge swath of land to cultivation. On land along the train tracks, the jungle was felled and planted with paddy rice and other crops destined for the ports of Bangkok. The train, along with canal construction, helped open up Thailand’s agricultural frontier. Much like the American west in the 19th century the Thai frontier was characterized by a high degree of self-sufficiency, an egalitarian social ethic and resistance to government intervention among settlers, many of whom were ex-slaves of the nobility. In the years to come, the central plains of Thailand would be transformed into the rice basket of the world.
The exterior walls of the old Wathana Theater are made of metal, slowly rusting away.

A fading election flier pasted to the metal wall of the theater

--> -->The second and more contemporary reason why Takli grew large enough to have four theaters was due to the US Air Force presence at the base outside of town. The US Air Force, you see, began building and using military facilities in Thailand as early as 1961, mostly as a precaution against the “falling dominoes” theory; a theory which purported that if Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were to become communist states, Thailand would be next and the US would lose another client. By 1965 America was fully engaged in the Vietnam War, while seven Thai airports were hosting American military aircraft and personel. The base at Takli played host to a number of fighting squadrons which flew missions over Laos and Vietnam. As a result of this American military presence, Takli was awash with dollars. In 1961, the Wathana Theater opened, the first of four movie theaters to dot the landscape of the little city.

A couple of guys loading a truck with boxes of food stuff from the side of the old Wathana Theater, now a warehouse for non-perishables.

The Wathana is an early cinematic outcome of Thailand’s modern development era. It was built with private capital in 1961, the first year of Thailand’s inaugural 5-year National Economic Development Plan. From my conversations with a few life-long Takli residents I learned that the Wathana ceased operating as a movie theater some 40 years ago, shortly after the owner commissioned the building of a nicer, more hi-tech theater in town. So though it was the first of four theaters in the city, it wasn’t operating contemporaneously with the others. In fact, its life as a movie theater was short lived.


Inside the main auditorium. The wooden frame in the background used to support the screen.

-->For years now the old Wathana Theater has been serving as a warehouse for non-perishables. The interior, stripped of its seats and devoid of a screen, houses thousands upon thousands of boxes of canned food and condiments. I was lucky to go there while some workers were loading a truck for distribution. The manager, a young woman named Bia, very trustingly granted my camera and I temporary asylum on the inside. Despite decades of cinematic dormancy and mountains of boxes piled half way to the ceiling, the place still feels eerily like an old movie theater.

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