Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Seno Rama - Seno, Savannakhet province, Laos

An afternoon spent stalking the Seno Rama and its environs, I reckon, is about equal to an hour of being whipped by a Sahara sandstorm. That is to say, in the arid plains of Savannakhet during the dry season, beside a heavily trucked stretch of Highway No. 9, the dust is bad - adding a breathable realism to this Mad Maxian landscape.

It's hard to imagine that a place like Seno would have ever warranted the luxury of a cinema hall. A ramshackle built environment along a B-grade portion of road, doesn't exactly elucidate a picture of past prosperity. But then again, Laos is covered with surprises - some of which even explode when tread upon.

Seno, moreover, is the least unusual of the unusual Laotian places that once laid claim to a movie theater. Had this project commenced just a few years earlier there would be reportage from jungle settlements in remote Phongsali Province, where itinerant traders, rugged pioneers and speakers of tribal dialects once crammed into cinema halls for doses of propaganda-tinged entertainment - capitalist or communist depending on which side of 1975 is in question. But alas, arrived too late.

Exoticisms notwithstanding, diminutive Seno has an equally legitimate reason for being home to a movie theater: since the days of French colonialism, Seno has played host to a military base.

The Seno Rama abuts Highway 9 in the town it's named after.

When the Seno Rama opened in 1970, the nearby military base was home to battalions of the American-backed Royal Lao Army. Located just thirty-eight kilometers east of prospering Savannakhet made it an important bulwark against attacks on the city by Pathet Lao guerrillas, operating out of the jungles further east.

Salaried Royal Lao soldiers, in dire need of peril-relieving escapism - pre-TV and internet - represented a reliable clientele for a movie theater proprietor. And so, with built-in market in mind, the Seno Rama was erected at the height of the Laotian Civil War.

With a gaunt appearance long reconciled to time, the Seno Rama linger on.

A medley of architectural styles, the facade of the Seno Rama shares several characteristics with the Nang Lit Cinema in nearby Savannakhet. Both were built around the same time so it's likely they were products of the same architect.

A faint imprint of former "Seno Rama" signage is visible near the facade's crest.
Each of the four diamonds on both sides of the perforated wall were once filled with colored tiles of black, white, red and blue, respectively. The tile has since been smashed out.

Business was brisk at the Seno Rama throughout the early 1970's, reaping benefits from the run-off of a war-time economy. But when the regime changed in 1975, the theater's founder departed Laos for the United States - as did many of the country's business class. His theater thus became state property, screening films from ally countries like Vietnam, the USSR and India, with messages in line with Party rhetoric.

The Seno military base was also taken over by the new government, and manned by soldiers from the Lao People's Army. Then, in 1991, Laos lost its chief economic benefactor with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Funding cuts meant that non-essentials like movie theaters, under the supervision of the Ministry of Information, would be forced to close. By the early 1990's the Seno Rama had been decommissioned.

The tiles used in the lobby are similar to tiles used in Savannakhet buildings dating back to the 1920's.

The staircase behind the ticket booth led to balcony seats.

Ticket window dust and rust.

In spite of appearances, the Seno Rama is still held in high esteem by some locals. "In the future, we would like to make it into a site of cultural significance for Seno" its current tenant said. "It's one of the town's important old buildings."

The tenant's wife mentioned further that the theater was briefly revived in 2008 to screen Sabaidee Luang Prabang, the first movie produced in Laos since the collapse of the Royal government. "The place was totally full for that," she said proudly, as if a cinematic future might actually be feasible.

But in the mean time, making the most of a derelict space has taken precedence. The tenant, a teacher by trade, has erected a badminton net in front of the proscenium, and for a small fee allows people in to play.

Auditorium views

Whether efforts at renewing this classic little theater will ever come to a head is uncertain, but that lip service was payed to the idea is a positive sign. There are, after all, millions of dollars worth of industrial investments pouring into the nearby Savannakhet-Seno Special Economic Zone. Maybe some of that will find its way into the coffers of regeneration.

But for now the Seno Rama sits mostly vacant, a haunting reminder of different times in a town that time has forgotten.


  1. Speechless! This Seno Rama is gonna be one of my favorite! Love to imagine that I spent my childhood in and around the cinema like this one. Great photos and excellent narration, my dearest.

    1. wow your evet live in Seno before ?

    2. I think she said like this one. I actually been in this theater as a kid. A few time. It's the only movie theater in town (a little out of town). So it was luxury as far as I knew it.

  2. Excavating this one was a bit like time travel.

  3. ອານາຄົດສະຖານທີ່ແຫ່ງນີ່ອາດຖືກນາຍທືນຊື້ໄປ