Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Thai Rama - Uthumphon Pisai, Sisaket, Thailand

Like countless little towns dotting the Thai countryside, Uthumphon Pisai comes across as a functioning time capsule. Core sections of such towns are much as they were when they developed in the mid-20th century, spurred towards growth by market-sized agricultural yields from Green Revolution technologies. 

Town fresh markets, still a staple of community life, are now concrete instead of wood framed, as are most commercial structures. Those wooden structures that do survive often have an endearing sag to them, like the dear old aunties and uncles who so often call them home. They belong to a visibly different era.

It's the town outskirts where the 21st century makes its presence known. Inter-province highways on town outskirts are lined with the same kinds of big-box retailers that led small town America to a needlessly early grave.The central business community is challenged by the hyper-markets on town's edge. 

Generally speaking, local movie theaters are in a similar, if not more dire position. Closed or altogether demolished, virtual unknowns to the new generation of would-be movie-goers. 

But in Uthumphon Pisai, the Thai Rama has managed to cling to life through simple economy: at 20 baht, it's the lowest priced movie ticket in all of Thailand.

The Thai Rama Theater

Like most stand-alone theatres in small Thai towns, the Thai Rama was built near the heart of the community, perfect for a largely pedestrian population.

When it opened in 1977, much of the countryside had yet to be linked to the electricity grid. The local cinema, then powered by diesel generator, topped the list of places to go for entertainment. That has all changed over the last two decades.

In Uthumphon Pisai, however, for less than the price of a bowl of noodles, you can still experience the joys of the silver screen the old-fashioned way. A family of five, living off a single minimum wage, can comfortably enjoy this luxury at such a price.

But it gets even better than that: In a display of her affection for the business, the Thai Rama's owner-operator - a middle-aged woman who inherited the theatre from her late parents - outdid her own rock-bottom price.

"Buy tickets for next week's movie today and pay only Bt10," she announced recently as a group of patrons filed through the door.

Her explanation as to why so low: "We're an old theatre, without air-conditioning, and in need of a paint job." Clearly this is a theatre owner for whom community spirit trumps profits.

Wooden doors and sign for 20 baht movie tickets, the cheapest in Thailand.

Pleasantly absent at this astonishingly low price are the droves of rambunctious teens that must be negotiated at the multiplex in the shopping mall. Thai Rama attendees are there for the sole purpose of watching a movie, not as an afterthought on a shopping spree.

Thirty minutes worth of onscreen advertisements prior to the show is likewise not an issue at the Thai Rama, in contrast to the big-name multiplexes. Instead, the erstwhile norm of a few previews and the cinematic homage to the King is all one sees.

High school students make memories in front of the old Thai Rama.

Verandah view

Monarchical marketing before the start of the film

Admittedly, for Bt20 - six times below the national average for a movie - there are some noticeable technical omissions. For one, there is no frigid air-conditioning as is common at the multiplexes. In fact, the Thai Rama has managed to cool its patrons for 35 years with nothing more than industrial-sized wall fans.

Nor will you find fancy seats with cup-holder armrests that can be raised to get closer to a date. The seats at the Thai Rama are metal framed, deep-pocketed and - though sufficiently comfortable -perform no function other than providing a place to sit, one person at a time.


But even if the rickety, two-reel projectors caused the picture to shake at times, and the antiquated sound system botched the audio during a few scenes, the overall movie-watching experience is pure joy. Maybe it is precisely this rustic imperfection, this down-home sense of community, that's so comforting in an age of superficial gloss and hyper-consumption.

Either way, at Bt20 a pop, it's hard to complain.


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