Whatever happened to the good old days of movie cinemas, where you would enter a grand entrance with fluted columns, large winding staircases and gabled ceilings. Attendants wore uniforms complete with hats and gloves, and there was only one large screen, not eight, sixteen or twenty-four small screens. The large cinema would often even have balcony seating.
Notwithstanding numerous proposals to knock it down, Bangkok has so far managed to retain one of its icons of classic cinema, namely the Scala Cinema. This beautiful icon to the movie world is a pioneer of the Vietnam conflict era and was a popular location for American service personnel and their families who were stationed in Bangkok during the conflict.
It opened in 1967 in Siam Square (on land owned by Chulalongkorn University), and has remained timelessly unchanged since its original opening, whilst everything around it has transformed significantly. The Scala is owned by the Apex cinema group in Thailand, who built two other cinemas nearby (all of which opened in the 1960s). The others were the Siam (the largest at the time) and the Lido. The Siam perished by fire during the 2010 Red Shirt riots. The Lido suffered a fire in the 1990s and lost its original ambiance, being redeveloped into a small multiplex. Just recently, the Lido closed its doors for good due to plans to turn the site into a shopping mall.
Other old-world cinemas around Bangkok have almost all succumbed to similar fates as the Siam and Lido. For instance, the President (part of the Hollywood shopping street complex) was torn down and turned into apartments. The Hollywood was torn down and the site is currently under development (possibly a multi use building of apartments, offices and shopping). The Villa cinema building still stands on Soi 33, but is un-used. Thailand’s original cinema, Chalermkhrung Theatre, still stands, but is now used exclusively for theatre rather than screening movies.
Scala is therefore the only remaining classic cinema in Bangkok.
Instead, as in the West, Bangkok has replaced all of its classic large screen, multi level, cinemas, with modern multiplexes housed in shopping centres. The big move these days is more cinemas, and more luxurious options including gold class micro cinemas with table service, members lounges and private bars, kind of like flying first class on an airline. The modern changes are nice, but every now and then, it is nice to return to the roots of cinema and refresh memories of going to cinema as an experience, rather than just catching up on the latest instalment of blockbuster franchises.
The Scala is therefore the only classic cinema remaining in Bangkok.
On the outside, the building is nothing special and in fact is easily missed by most tourists, especially given all of the other flashing signs and modern buildings in Siam Square. However, once you step inside you are rewarded with an instant step back in time when you are greeted with the lovely art deco interior, with high ceilings, intricate columns, a large staircase leading up to the mezzanine level, the intricately patterned ceilings, the large hanging chandelier, and the old-school ticket booths. To add a bit of an Asian touch to the building, the walls are all clad in interesting wooden carvings.
When you purchase a ticket, they still hand-write your seat number manually onto the ticket, and you then present it to a yellow jacketed cinema attendant who can show you to your seat. In the main cinema itself, the seats are arranged in a slight arc around the main screen, so as to improve your viewing angle no matter where you sit.
In addition to the classic experience, the Scala Cinema is also a good place to see some of Bangkok’s more famous expatriates, who continue to frequent some of the old Bangkok haunts. One notable regular is Bernard Trink, also known as the Night Owl. Bernard is internationally known for writing the nightlife column for the Bangkok Post and for coining the phrases “TIT” or “This is Thailand” and “I don’t give a hoot”.
Sadly, the entire Siam Square area of Bangkok is currently undergoing massive renovation, and the area inhabited by the Scala is currently slated for demolition in 2016, to be replaced with a modern shopping centre. To be honest, the thing that was really nice about Siam Square was that it contained old world Asian shop houses containing boutique stores, mixed in with market-style side-street stores, all selling locally designed fashion items. The modern shopping centres will be too expensive for these boutique stores to set up in.
You can find the Scala Cinema on Ploenchit Road, at the intersection with Siam Square Soi 1. It is directly opposite the Siam Centre/Siam Discovery shopping centres. To get there by BTS, get off at Siam (Interchange) Station, and take the southwest exit.
Another reason to go to Scala is because it is currently one of cheapest cinemas in Bangkok, with prices being around the 100 baht mark. The more up-market places in Bangkok are now getting closer to the 200 baht mark for movies (and lots more if you go for gold class or equivalent).