New Book Explores Thailand’s Lost Movie Theaters

Amarin Theater, Thailand - Publicity - H 2019
Philip Jablon

Philip Jablon’s 'Thailand's Movie Theatres: Relics, Ruins and The Romance of Escape' showcases an American photographer's decade-long quest to document the unique buildings in the country.

The course of Philip Jablon’s life was altered forever when he stumbled upon a rundown movie theater in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai back in 2006. Although the American didn’t know it at the time.

Intrigued by the kooky-looking complex — and slightly bored by the usual multiplex cinema-going experience — Jablon suggest to friends they should revisit and take in a film. But by the time they’d organized themselves the building had been torn down for redevelopment.

And that’s when Jablon took to thinking. What if there were more of these unique structures out there across Thailand?

“That what the watershed moment for me,” says Jablon. “I decided I would go from town to town. I would explore the corners of the old parts of town and look for these old buildings and take photos. Sometimes I’d find them, sometimes I wouldn’t. Sometimes I would find ones that were intact, and looked exactly like they always had.”

And how did it feel when he did find one?

“Like Indiana Jones,” he says. “Indiana Jones and the Movie Theatre of Gloom. They’re ruins, man. They’ve been forgotten. In rural places people tend not to go near them as there’s a greater level of superstition with ghosts and they tend to just deteriorate. But I find it exhilarating. Going there to take a picture I know I am bringing a little known piece of Thailand to the rest of the world. Some of them are pretty cool, too.”

Jablon has spent more than a decade traipsing around the backblocks of Thailand looking for remnants of the country’s cinematic history, one- or two-screen cinema houses that date back as far as the 1912 and have — mostly — fallen into either ruin, or now disappeared from the landscape entirely.

The fruits of his labor can be found in the newly released Thailand's Movie Theatres: Relics, Ruins and The Romance of Escape in which, through photos are words, Jablon breathes fresh life into a world mostly forgotten in Thailand and unknown to the outside world.

We’re given a look inside Bangkok’s majestic (and wooden) Sala Chalerm Thani theater, which dates back to 1918 and is thankfully undergoing restoration. There’s also the lamented Fah Siam theatre of central Suphanburi city, built in 1972 and once host to a market in its foregrounds that served the local community its food and dry goods. It made way for an apartment building in 2012.

“In the beginning it was pretty much universal that people thought I was weird,” he says. “But over 10 years they seem to have an appreciation for the buildings. It’s become part of local nostalgia, I guess. They’re more empathetic.

“People in the West are used to classic movie houses. These are kind of weird modernist structures. There’s a lot of interesting stuff, architecturally. It was kind of a self-perpetuating movement within the modernist movement. They were getting their ideas from other theaters and you got this evolution of the movie theater.”

Jablon first visited Thailand as an exchange student in 2001. He went on to take a masters degree in sustainable development at Chiang Mai University and now splits his time about evenly each year between the kingdom and family in Philadelphia. Help with his quest came from the Thai Film Archive, enabling Jablon to launch the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project, which has seen the photographer expand his search for old movie houses through Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. He’s found more than 300 — and more publications are in the pipeline.

“I’ve got enough material to do a book now on the movie theaters of Myanmar,” Jablon says. “So I guess I’ll just keep snooping around.”