Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Baho Cinema - Mogok, Mandalay Region, Myanmar

The 6 hour car ride from Mandalay to Mogok began at dawn. Soon after passing the city limits we became entangled in a sea of oncoming motorbikes, crawling in from the outskirts to city center. This daily commute of rural labor into the booming markets of Mandalay was further exacerbated by an over turned truck blocking one half of the road a few miles out. Once past the twisted metal, with its cargo of bricks spilled across the cratered bi way (see video below), the pace of things quickened and we cut through dusty, roadside villages en route to the mountains. 


Mogok is a storied place. A mountain top "Ruby Land." The historic source of much of the world's supply of high quality rubies. 

The origins of this spectacular town on the Shan plateau begin centuries ago when what is now Mogok was nothing more than a high altitude hinterland of the Shan princedom Mong Mit. Legend has it that a band of Shan hunters casing the forest for a good kill chanced upon some lovely red stones in the foot hills. The hunting band gathered up said stones and brought them to the Sawbwa of Mong Mit, who later organized mining expeditions to the hills above.

Some time later, the mines of Mogok were bequeathed to the Burmese king at Mandalay, who continued excavations in the name of the crown. To this day, Mogok township is located in Mandalay Region, even though its geographic kinship is with the Shan plateau, not the alluvial plains of the former.

In the age of European imperialism, it was the French who initially had interests in the gem mines of Mogok. But it was only after the British conquered upper Burma in 1886 that its ruby mining industry took on an industrial character. An excavation firm called the British Ruby Mines Ltd. took charge of the mines, as the colonial administration turned what had been a collection of makeshift mining camps into a permanent town.     

Stunningly framed by a string of verdant hills, the Baho Cinema of West Mogok. 

Mogok consists of two unequal (in terms of size and population) halves. East and West Mogok, for lack of better designations. Both halves developed in the vicinity of nearby ruby mines, and both halves were eventually graced with their own movie theaters. 

The theater highlighted in this post, the Baho Cinema of West Mogok, is a real jaw dropper. I would go out on a limb to say that it is very possibly the most strikingly situated movie house on this warming planet. Its monumental scale juxtaposed against a low slung residential neighborhood and tied together by a backdrop of verdant peaks calls to mind an alpine village, cinema substituting for church.    

The neighborhood across from the Baho is built into the side of a steep hill, offering excellent views of the cinema and surrounding landscape. 

The Baho Cinema was built in 1961. It was the first permanent movie theater ever built in West Mogok and the second in the city overall.

It's not clear whether or not the Baho was ever nationalized. During the Ne Win government (1962 - 1988) the vast majority of Myanmar's theaters were brought under state control. But due to its relative inaccessibility (there's no airport and the road is slow and treacherous) and the fact that ethnic armies opposed to the central regime were stationed nearby, Mogok retained a larger degree of autonomy than many other places. 

Whatever the case, the Baho remained in operation until about 2013. It's been dormant ever since. But not for much longer.

Late last year, a permit was obtained from the Ministry of Construction to start renovations. A local entrepreneur has apparently purchased the Baho and plans on restoring it to a fully functioning movie theater. Had I arrived just a few weeks earlier I've have been able to photograph the auditorium with its original wooden seats in place. It was completely gutted during this photo session in mid-January.

Old posters still cover the walls in the main office of the Baho Cinema

The former projectionist of the Baho Cinema demonstrating how films were rewound by hand. 

While the exterior of the Baho Cinema boasts of a svelte modernist design, interior details like the stairs to the balcony seating are elegant works vernacular architecture, utilizing tropical hardwoods.  

Staircase details

Facade close up

Getting the best views of a theatre - or any urban building, for that matter - often involves accessing nearby buildings. In the above photo, the daughter of the shop-house owners posed for a portrait on her rooftop, which offered the best view of the Baho around.    

Some elevated footage of west Mogok and the Baho Cinema.

Mogok is one of those spirited kinds of cities that are few and far between these days. Upland Southeast Asia at its most charming. It deserves a lot more attention than I'm willing and able to give it in this little post. For one, getting there alone requires advanced permission from the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, a private tour guide and a private driver, all of which can become quite costly. 

The second theater that I documented in Mogok isn't nearly as visually dramatic. For my next post -if I can dislodge my head from my mundane reality at the moment - I'll spend less time on the theater and go into more detail about Mogok itself.