Moviegoing in the Netflix age isn’t quite what it used to be, but as the hopeless romantics who prefer to slink down in a cinema seat staring at a giant screen popcorn-in-hand will agree, there’s no experience quite like it.
Street view of the Mahachai Rama Theatre in Samut Sakhon Province. The theatre has been converted into a parking garage
You lower yourself into the plush but firm seat at one of Thailand’s unexpectedly swank multiplex cinemas, settling in for the latest silver screen extravaganza. “Wow, comfortable seat!” you think, as the seat back effortlessly reclines to that perfect position between supine and sitting. The armrests, you quickly discover, can be folded up. A nice touch should you want to snuggle up with your special somebody, or if you just want more space to shift around in. And to think that these are the cheap seats. Imagine what the VIP section behind you must be like!
After a series of commercials, a few previews and the requisite playing of the Royal Anthem – standard practice in Thai theatres since motion picture first arrived in the kingdom – the movie starts to roll. Is it any surprise that the sound and picture quality are as crisp and clear as you have ever seen?
Of all the things to be world class quality in Thailand, you’d have never guessed movie theatres would be among them. How, you wonder, in a country so well known for its easy-going attitude and hectic, if casual, street life did the movie theatre scene become such a fancy affair?
Truth be told, Thailand has long had a love affair with cinema, and the most tangible manifestation of that romance has been the movie theatres built to watch them in. From the beginning these buildings have been showpieces for the communities they serviced. But unlike today’s theatres, which are almost exclusively multiplexes packed into shopping malls, theatres of yesteryear were standalone structures with a single screen, located in town centres and residential neighbourhoods in just about every town across the country.
The projectionist at small town theatre in Isaan rewinds film by hand, while the old projector clanks away in the neighbouring room.
Thailand’s earliest theatres were rather plain. Despite being built of the most expensive hard woods in the land, to our modern sensibilities they look more like barns than movie halls. Nonetheless, they served as the incubator for the first of many successive generations of Thai cinephiles, while setting the stage for ever more luxurious theatres to come.
Only a few of these proto-movie houses exist today, the most notable being the Sala Chalerm Thani Theatre in Bangkok’s Nang Loeng community. Possibly the oldest existing purpose-built movie theatre in Southeast Asia, in 2016 the Sala Chalerm Thani was the subject of a master plan for preservation thanks to the efforts of the Thai Film Archive – Thailand’s cerebral cortex of cinema conservation. The plan calls for the hundred-plus-year-old theatre to be restored as a living museum and community cultural centre with working cinema functions included. Now more than a year into renovations, the project is nearing completion.
Top- The Sala Chalerm Thani Theatre in Bangkok is the oldest existing purpose built movie hall in Thailand. It will soon reopen a museum and cultural venue following extensive renovations.
The lobby of the New Chalerm P. Theatre in Pak Chong, Khorat. The theatre closed in 2011.
The first of Thailand’s movie theatres befitting of the term “movie palace,” however, didn’t come into existence until the early 1930’s. To honour the city of Bangkok on its 150th anniversary, King Rama XII set aside 300,000 baht of the royal budget for the construction of a modern, state-of-the-art theatre, with the aim of elevating the theatre industry to world class standards. The Sala Chalerm Krung Theatre opened for business in July of 1933, one year late of the city’s official anniversary but to the great delight of its residents. For years to come the Sala Chalerm Krung set the standard for movie theatre design in Thailand. Today, it continues to operate as the country’s primary venue for masked Khon dance performance. Occasionally it screens film.
Bangkok’s Sala Chalerm Krung was the first movie palace built in Thailand since 1933.
The Cold War climate of the 1960s put Thailand in an unusual geo-political position, which, among other things, led to rapid economic growth. Coinciding with the war in neighbouring Indochina and closer ties with the United States, hundreds of modern movie theatres were built nationwide. This movie theatre construction boom gave rise to larger and ever more luxurious movie theatres than the country had ever known.
Arguably the most elegant of all theatres built during the boom is the Scala Theatre in Bangkok. This architectural gem is a unique composite of tropical art deco and 1960s Thai modern, seamlessly melded into one dazzling piece of eye candy. Entering its sumptuous open-air lobby is a treat for any architecture lover. A vaulted ceiling, upheld by concrete pillars tapering down like man-made stalactites frame an assortment of over-wrought embellishments that includes gold-star ceiling medallions, a modernist imperial staircase, a five-tiered chandelier made of frosted glass orbs (weighing three tonnes!) and – most impressive of all – a fifty-foot long plaster wall relief above the auditorium entrance. Crafted by a Filipino artist, the linear work depicts entwining vignettes of Asian civilisations cast in a playful mid-century style.
Façade of the Scala Theatre, Thailand’s lone remaining active movie palace.
On 31 December 2019 the Scala reached its milestone 50th birthday. 50 years in the life of a building marks the official age when it can be reviewed for preservation, a much-needed measure in the case of the Scala. In spite of its status as living cultural heritage, the future of this spectacular building hangs in limbo. The next few years will determine whether it will live on or be levelled to make way for a shopping mall, as part of sweeping redevelopment plan.
The lobby of the Scala Theatre, Bangkok.
Elsewhere, traces of Thailand’s standalone movie theatres, at once grand and intimate at the same time, can still be found in nooks and crannies across the country. Some have been adapted to meet current needs. Others stand vacant and ruined, quietly awaiting an unknown destiny.
So the next time you treat yourself to the latest blockbuster at one of Thailand’s chic multiplex theatres in a shopping mall, don’t forget the great movie-going history that preceded it.
A movie billboard painter stands beside his latest work from the late 1980’s
Philip Jablon is an American independent researcher/photographer, and author of the book Thailand’s Movie Theaters: Relics, Ruins and the Romance of Escape, available at all major bookstores in Thailand.