Going to the movies in Thailand
is a bit different from going to the movies elsewhere at least different from the U.S., with which I am most familiar.
Just so you know, there are basically three large movie theater companies in Thailand: Major Cineplex, EGV, and SF Cinema City1. I believe that Major Cineplex and EGV are in the process of merging, so soon there may just be two. As I see 90% of my movies at Major Cineplex theaters, they will be the biggest focus of this write-up.
“You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll kiss two bucks goodbye!”
The first thing you’ll notice about movie-going in Thailand is the price. While regular ticket prices of nine, ten, twelve dollars in the states practically tell the customer “We have a bet going to see how much of an idiot you are.” or “Dude, just wait for the video”, ticket prices in Thailand are two to three dollars2.
Now, in my opinion, two to three dollars is a great price for a movie. It gets you seeing a lot more movies, because as my friends have said “Even if the movie turns out to be no good, c'mon, it’s eighty baht3!” (two dollars). (I should point out that while $2-3 is great for visitors to Thailand, because of the different standard of living here, it's not so cheap for the average Thai)
Before you head out to the theater you’ll obviously want to know what’s playing, when, and where.
Chiang Mai, where I see most of my movies, has two main movie places: Central Airport Plaza4, which has good theaters and concessions, and Kad San Kaew (also called “Central”) which has so-so late ‘70s theaters and pants for concessions. Obviously, when I can, I opt for the former.
Thailand doesn’t get all of the films from abroad, mostly just the bigger titles. Romantic comedies and action films have the best chance of screening in Thailand, although horror films do seem to get a lot of play as well.
Unless there’s a film festival5 happening, you’re not going to see any European films. Sorry. There does seems to be at least one European festival and one “Best of the Oscar contenders” festival each year. I caught some films at the last EU Film Festival in June; some were good (ex: the Hungarian Stracciatella and the entertaining French thriller Read My Lips) and some were absolutely horrible (ex: the mother-raped, son-killed fun-filled extravaganza that was the Portugese Police Woman). Truly a case of hit or miss. I remarked to a friend that it was like some countries said "What, a film festival in Thailand? Here, send this one! Get this home-grown stinker out of the country!".
Aside from festivals almost all of the imported movies are from the U.S., although occasionally you’ll see one from Korea (ex: the weirdly cute My Sassy Girl) or Japan (ex: the horrible looking Battle Royale).
If a film is popular enough (ex: Harry Potter, Spider-Man) it’ll play in several theaters at a cinema. Some of these may be dubbed in Thai, so pay attention. If the listing says “Soundtrack” that means it’s in its original English with Thai subtitles6. Also, outside of Bangkok and Chiang Mai, the two largest cities, the possibility of Thai dubbing goes up. I saw Monsters, Inc. with a friend in Ubon Ratchathani where the movie was only offered in Thai (“nong Boo! By nai ma?”).
Short of an actual trip to the theater, I find the newspaper to be the best source of movie times. Take a look in the Outlook section of the Bangkok Post for the days movie times. Just a side note, while the Bangkok Post has actual mini-reviews of current films on their film page, the other English daily The Nation just has these cut-and-paste marketing blurbs from the film companies making even the worst stinker sound like cinema gold.
There’s a web site called movieseer.com that lists most theaters in Thailand. Movieseer is usually correct although in a couple of instances they’ve given me bad start times. We’re going to counseling to see if we can work past that. The only other caveat is that while the film’s titles are listed in English (unless it’s a Thai film) the address of the theater is shown only in Thai. So if you’re going to a theater for the first time, you may need to ask a friend to translate the address for you. Or you could do your best to copy the Thai text onto a piece of paper to show a cabbie/song taew driver.
There is a movie line number for Major Cineplex but I’ve never tried it. It could be in Thai, it could be in English, it could play out-takes from Fraggle Rock I just don’t know. My luck is always a bit hit-and-miss as far as Thai payphones go. Maybe I don’t have change, or the phone won’t take my pre-paid TOT card. I dial and get a recording in Thai, or I get some boop-boop-boop noise and I don’t know if that means that the line is engaged or if it’s a bad number... So, unless I’m bleeding profusely, I avoid payphones. And, really, during the hot season the last thing you want to do is climb inside a phone booth that is essentially a cross between a steam room and that “powers-be-gone” isolation booth from Superman II.
Buying your tickets
Thailand has the best way to buy movie tickets I’ve ever seen. You go up to the window and tell the person the movie and the time you want to see it. She (and it’s almost always a young woman) clicks the movie title and the time on a screen imbedded in the counter7 and this brings up a map of the particular theater. “Screen’s here” she says as she moves her hand in front of her. You see every seat in the place. “Do I want to sit there? No, wait, am I crazy? There are two people right in front of me…”. So, like a concert, you get to see and pick your actual seat beforehand.
This is great when you’re going with a bunch of friends. No more having to wander around in the dark like a Dickens character beggingly asking “...those seats taken?...”. No need to break your movie team into smaller groups “Okay, we’ll split up, you guys go that way... here, take this whistle and unroll this ball of string so we can find each other after...Stick with your buddy!”. Also, you don’t get stuck in the front row because the theater filled up while you were out getting popcorn.
I cannot express how much better this ticket system is compared to the stupid you’re-on-your-own “festival seating” in the U.S. In the states it's a two-part harmony of joy: you’ve got that “running of the bulls” sprint into the theater first thing, then you’re trying to splay your jacket over nine seats to “save” them “Damnit, the arms won’t stretch far enough....if only I had worn that muffler my aunt gave me! ...maybe I can use one of my socks for those three seats..?”
Because most movie-goers in Thailand have a mobile phone, you can also order tickets by phone. I think it’s an automated system where you call a number and use your keypad, although perhaps they just have one of the ticket sellers take the call. Not having a mobile I’ve never used this feature. I’m not sure if you actually buy the tickets over the phone, billing to your credit card or mobile phone, or if you just reserve your tickets, then paying for them when you arrive. I would think it must be the former so that the theater wouldn’t lose money for any no-shows.
When you’re buying your ticket in person at the theater you may notice that some of the “seat taken” icons are in a different color. Those signify people who called in for their tickets. Nothing useful here other than you can note that people actually do make use of the call in feature.
The low ticket prices also carry over to the concessions stand where you can get a large popcorn and drink for 70 baht (about $1.75 USD).8
You know, at some movie theaters (cough... ACT III in Portland...) you have two choices for your popcorn: salty dry or salty soaked in oil. When I visited the Prince Charles Cinema in London I was surprised that they had a third option: “sweet” (although I opted out as I think it was sugar sprinkled on top).
Well in Thailand, at least at the newer theaters, you have three options:
- regular theater popcorn (which they called “salt” or “salted”),
- caramel corn (which they call “sweet”), and
- usually a third “guest star” flavor. This third flavor gets rotated so every time you go you may see something different. Last time I went it was “pizza” flavor. I’ve also seen “cheese and onion”, “strawberry” (the same idea as caramel corn), and “barbeque chicken”.
Lately, I’ve found it interesting to go with a 50/50 mix of the caramel and the guest star. I think this may be how The Flash
got his powers although perhaps that's just the popcorn talking. The term 'guest star' always brings to mind Tom Bosley
, but thankfully these flavors have not yet appeared on the menu.
Besides popcorn and soda pop, concession stands may stock M&M's, Chupa Chups, potato chips, bags of dried peas, Hanami brand prawn crackers, and bags of dried flavored cuttlefish strips. I’ve had a pack of the cuttlefish strips and they’re a bit like flavored beef jerky.
Now, often when a big movie comes out the film company does the whole marketing blitzkrieg thing and has custom plastic popcorn and beverage containers made up. If a movie-goer buys a large popcorn and drink they can get them in these custom holders. The latest is a head-sized Alien egg (from the current court-room custody-battle tear-jerker Alien vs. Predator) with a face-hugger on the side this holds your popcorn. Let’s see, there was the Hedwig the owl beverage cup for Harry Potter 3, and a cup shaped like Spider-Man’s right hand for his sequel (before you ask, the straw went into the web-come-out-of place). For me, these tchotchkes hold no appeal although I’m sure one could make a killing on eBay, or at least die trying.
A couple of weeks ago I finally figured out how to put into words something about Thailand. You remember back in high school when you’d have a spirit assembly? The different grades were supposed to shout “We’ve got spirit, yes we do. We’ve got spirit, how ‘bout you?!” and, being high school, most everyone was just embarrassed. Well, Thailand has spirit. They get into things. Sanook, having a good time, holds a place of honor in Thailand and people are not afraid of acting a bit goofy for fun. Back when Spider-Man came out in 2002 there was this propane tank delivery guy in Bangkok... now here’s a guy who spends all day, every day fighting traffic, lugging heavy metal tanks up and down staircases... well he starts delivering propane tanks to customers in a full-on Spider-Man outfit. The kids loved it and the guy had a great time, he felt like a hero truly a good time had by all (until, of course, lawyers in the US got all pissy). Anyway, this was all a long way to say that when I went to see The Village, all of the employees were done up in yellow cloaks. Which, in the U.S., I wouldn’t expect to see without a lot of bitching on the cloakwearers part.
Before the movie starts
Now like most movie theaters, Thailand does have it’s share of advertisements9 before the film. In Thailand the majority of ads seem to be for mobile phone related stuff. Ads are annoying, but occasionally you get silly ads that aren’t too bad to sit through. And of course they’re all in Thai so you can always just close your eyes and let the sound wash over you.
After the ads there’s usually a couple of previews followed by a slide or a quick short reminding you to turn off your mobile.
Right before the film starts the theater goes quiet and the following words appear on the screen:
“Please pay your respects to the His Majesty the King”
At this point everyone in the audience stands up quietly (the muffled sound of hundreds of cushioned movie seats folding up fop, fop, fop
) and a short montage film plays with the King’s song. Depending on the theater and the season, you’ll see one of a dozen or so tributes. Photos are shown of the king and queen throughout his reign, traveling around the kingdom, helping the poor, visiting schools. The King’s song is sometimes sung by children, sometimes by choirs, sometimes the song is instrumental using traditional Thai instruments.
I once asked someone who’s lived here several years if there was a place I could hear the song sung live. You know, like how The Star Spangled Banner is sung before ball games in the states. Unfortunately, he didn’t know of anywhere that this happened.
When the King’s song is finished, everyone sits back down and the film starts in the darkened theater.
As the credits start playing, you might notice something like “TH09-SPM” burned into the upper right hand corner of the picture for a second or two. This is an anti-piracy measure so that when a copy hits the street on VCD they know what theater it came from.
“Take your jacket! You’ll catch your death a cold!”
Thailand being rather warm, movie theaters are air-conditioned. Now, being of Scottish extraction I am... well, quite the hairy bastard. But occasionally, even I, a yeti in Siam, get a bit cool. If I’m seeing a movie in the evening, especially during the rainy season, I take my fleece vest. And, definitely, when I see a movie with my friend Kaew I always bring a fleece for her since she gets cold easily.
The endnote graveyard
1 Currently, there’s a push in Thailand to conserve energy. Khun Thaksin, Thailand’s billionaire prime minister, has called for shopping centers and gas stations to close earlier. The thinking is that if malls are closed earlier it’ll be less energy used on air conditioning, lighting, et cetera. The closing of gas stations (after midnight I think)... I guess teaches people that they can’t just fill up anytime..? Or perhaps it keeps people with just a litre of petrol from going out in the evenings... I’m not sure. Although the prospect of running out of gas at two in the morning and having to push my Honda Wave home like a plow might keep me at home watching VCDs.
Now, why the mention of the energy conservation? Well, a lot of the theaters are located in malls. With the malls looking to close at ten that means theaters can’t really show movies later than 7:30pm. The thinking is that theaters will lose 20% of their business. Major isn’t as worried because they have stand-alone theaters outside of malls. However SF has most, if not all, of their theaters in malls. They’re feeling a bit picked on that not only will they lose business, but also their customers will probably be funneled over to Major. They are asking that if movie theaters are affected by the early mall closings, that it should actually affect all theaters, “in mall” or not.
2 Now, there are some “honeymoon seating” or “V.I.P.” theaters, especially in Bangkok, where the ticket prices can be as high as ten dollars, but really, these are just for people that like to be seen spending money. Sure the seats may be a bit more cushiony, but often, since there are less seats, the theater, and hence the screen, is smaller. I sat in one of the VIP theaters recently (it was the only theater playing a movie I wanted to see at 10pm) and I was rather disappointed. The seats were grouped in twos with little tables in between, but the tables were just boxy wooden things with the obligatory hole to accommodate the beverage.
And where the hell are my gold-plated popcorn tongs?!
3 As of this writing, the Thai baht is about 40 to the US Dollar.
4 If you see a late movie at Central Airport Plaza (one which lets out after the rest of the mall has closed) and you’ve come by motorcycle, you’ll want to take the elevator to the basement then walk out of the parking garage; if you try to exit by the stairs you'll only end up on the 2nd or 3rd floor of the parking garage and then you have walk down the car ramps with the cars. Yeah, I don’t know how this plan made it past the fire codes.
5 When I saw Monster's Ball during the “Oscar contenders” festival, it was the first and only time I’ve ever seen the “black tape over naughty bits” phenomenon. Honestly, I didn’t think this was done any more. Also, during the same festival I saw In The Bedroom but somewhere along the way they had put the reels in the wrong order. “Now this is certainly a funny way of them laying out the story...” I thought. I caught on after a couple of minutes. I’m sharp like that.
6 A little piece of trivia for you… About 70% of all the sub-titled English movies in Thailand that is, English-language movies with Thai subtitles are translated by just one person; a woman named Thanatcha Saksayamkul. She first started about ten years ago with the translation for "Independence Day" and has been doing it ever since. Khun Thanatcha has just released a new book explaining slang titled Sub Sang Salang Nang ("Slang in Movies"). If you’re interested (and can read Thai) you can pick up for 175 baht at your local book seller.
7 At some of the older theaters (such as the stand-alone Scala), this seat-selecting might be all be done on paper, the women checking off the seats with a pencil and telling their coworkers.
8 On my last visit to the states, I went to a matinee of A Mighty Wind and was appalled at the prices the theater was asking for concessions. I mean, really, it’s f’ing insulting.
You know those MPAA ad’s with the guy talking about how he met his wife while working on a movie and how he made sets for Dick Tracy, oh and “Don’t pirate movies because you’re given my daughter rickets...”? We need a counter-point short of some kid talking about his life and then saying “Movie theaters, listen up… I love movies! My friends and I want to see them, but when you charge me $10 to get in and then have your concession prices set by highway bandits...?!”
Okay, I’ve just discovered that someone has made up something very similar to this (although it’s related to the MPAA anti-piracy ads as opposed to concessions). It's called Who Watches Movies? and you can see it at http://www.loadingreadyrun.com/showmovie.php?x=320&y=240&url=anti.mp4
9 Recently while in Bangkok I hurried to catch a 10pm showing at the Mahboonkrong mall [MBK]. I was worried that I wouldn’t make it, but my friend told me “What are you kidding? They’ll show thirty minutes of ads”. Being familiar with movies in Chiang Mai starting ten to fifteen minutes after the start time I figured he was exaggerating, but sure enough the film didn’t start until 10:30.Love movies hate ads live in Portland? Head on over to the wonderful Cinema 21.
(If you haven't already, be sure to check out anthropod's great write up on Bhumibol Adulyadej, the King of Thailand.)
TenMinJoe remarks "... I wish cinemas were like that here in the UK." leading me to believe that they're of the US variety.
Princess Therion let me know that in South Africa they "also get to choose our seats from a screen, I thought that was normal I had no idea it was special :-)"
exceptinsects covers my six with "I've been to the movies in Thailand too, and it's just like that."
sekicho let me know that "Many Japanese theaters also have preassigned seating... Toho Cinemas even lets you pick seats online, which totally rocks"
evilmoxie says "When we used to go to the movies as a family, my dad would make us sit in the front part of the back section so he could stretch out his very tall American legs. And the only place I've heard the King's Anthem live was before certain school assemblies (usually like the ones for celebrating Songkran and the like), when the school choir would sing it. Very very pretty."