“Did you know there’s a movie theater here?!”
Mari rushed up to me excitedly, pulling me over with one hand and clutching her massive navy blue rolling duffel with the other. The bag was large enough to fit a body or two and stuffed to the brim. It trailed slowly behind us as we made our way past the racks of clothes and appliances to the aforementioned movie theater.
“Oooh! They’re playing Spectre!”
Mari gasped. An avid James Bond fan, the excitement was clear on her face as we checked the show times. We could barely believe our luck – though it was 8:45 pm and the mall closed in 15 minutes, the theater stayed open later and there was a late show at 9:20 pm. Theresa decided she was up for it as well and the three of us shrugged off the fact that we didn’t have a hotel room reserved yet, nor were we completely sure of how to get back to town. We’d figure it out later! For now… James Bond.
There was undue excitement at the prospect of watching a movie in a theater. Though we have regular movie nights at an expat friend’s house, there is currently 1 movie theater in the entire country of Laos that plays English movies, and that one is an overnight bus ride away in Vientiane. We had seen Crimson Peaks when last up there – less so because we had wanted to see the movie and more so out of excitement of being in a theater and stuffing our faces with popcorn.
Plus, it was a solid end to our day thus far. I’d woken up early and biked around some of the more scenic parts of town before grabbing coffee at our favorite cafe. I’d been craving American breakfast food for the past few days, so threw together some bacon, scrambled eggs, and cinnamon chocolate chip pancakes for our brunch and the three of us wolfed it down before hopping on the next bus to Thailand for our monthly visa run.
Thailand in general has come to represent a certain degree of hedonism. With large malls and shopping centers and fast food, Thailand embodies some spirit of consumerism and capitalism that we embrace as reminiscent of home. Though this degree of materialism embarrasses us to a not insignificant degree, our discomfort is swallowed between bites of KFC*, Dairy Queen, Mister Donut, and sushi. Getting excited about the smallest luxuries unavailable in Laos while meandering up and down the aisles of large grocery stores further hints to us that to a certain degree, money can buy happiness – or at least, coloring books** and chocolate, which are close enough.
After fumbling around for a few minutes buying tickets and taking awkward group selfies (groupies? welfies? usies?) with a Spectre poster, one of the staff suggested we check in our large bags. We slunk off to the bathroom to move some beer from Mari’s massive duffel into my backpack before checking in the bag. Settling down comfortably in the velvety plush red seats of the theater, we sat back and watched the promos, a mix of Thai ads and English movie trailers. Mari and I silently pried open our bottles of beer. As the Thai flag appeared on the screen, we stood up alongside the rest of the audience for a several minute tribute to the King of Thailand – a confusing montage of pictures of the king that transformed into dramatic watercolor depictions.
Settling back into our seats, we squealed excitedly, thrilled to be watching a new release so soon after it had come out. The movie started. We looked down the barrel of a gun and saw the iconic silhouette fire two shots before the screen went red. Mexico City on Dia de los Muertos. Men and women in beautiful dresses and skeletal masks or make-up paraded across the screen. Bond appeared, accompanied, as expected, by a beautiful brunette when suddenly, the two began conversing. In Thai.
Mari uttered the word in disbelief and the three of us looked at each other in horror for a minute. Maybe we had just misheard. Maybe we hadn’t understood their accents. Maybe they were supposed to be talking some other language for the interest of the narrative. Between dialogue-free builds of action as Bond hopped out of the window and ran around the city buildings, we sat with baited breath. It soon became clear, however, that this was no trick – the movie was dubbed in Thai and we couldn’t understand a word. Flooded with confusion, we waved over a nearby attendant and whispered in a mix of languages, trying to understand why the movie wasn’t in English or why it didn’t at least have English subtitles.
“She says that since we already entered the theater and ‘watched the movie,’ she can’t refund us…”
“‘Watched the movie?!’ You can’t be serious – it’s been less than 5 minutes!”
“Yeah… but that’s what she’s saying. She said that if we had asked them what language it would be in before we entered, they could have refunded us.”
My immediate reaction was outrage. While the tickets were cheap by American standards, we still felt duped and disappointed. What I couldn’t comprehend was how none of the 4 or 5 employees we spoke to – and to whom it was no doubt painfully obvious that we did not speak Thai – had thought to mention that, by the way, even though the poster for the movie is in English, it’ll actually be shown in Thai.
Theresa stepped out to talk to a supervisor while Mari and I slumped down in our chairs and chugged our bottles of beer. We walked outside to see a defeated-looking Theresa.
“They said we can’t get a refund since the movie already started. Plus, it sounds like it’s too late for English subtitles.”
I decided to try talking to this supervisor myself, since I couldn’t really make the situation worse. Walking up to the counter I tried to formulate my strategy. The two ideas that came to mind embodied what the reactions of my mom and dad would have been. My dad would have approached the counter indignantly and angrily ranted about how poor of customer service this was, bringing up a sense of being duped. Though this was my initial plan, I decided at the last minute to take what I imagined would have been my mom’s approach. I kept my voice low and friendly and tried to explain how we were just confused since no one had thought to mention this small detail to us and that no, we hadn’t been told by the lady at the ticket counter and that we understood the theater’s policy but wasn’t there anything she could do like give us a voucher to come back or something.
Luckily, she signed off on the voucher idea right away, running to some back office and coming back several minutes later with a few coupons. With a red marker, she crossed off the nearby expiration date and wrote “Free ticket” across the back of the slips. Clearly this was a new situation, and the other employees standing around at the counter kept offering suggestions, like stamping the back of the vouchers and taking photos and sending them to the manager of the theater in Vientiane so he would know what they were. Totally official stuff.
Smiling and thanking the staff, they ushered us to the theater’s exit, pointing us down a dingy, unpainted stairwell that went down two stories. We glanced at each other, our massive bag, and with some help from the one of the theater employees got to the bottom of the stairs and the exit of the mall. Awkwardly, we asked about where to get a tuk tuk, receiving the answer we had expected – it was too late at night – and taking the supervisor up on her offer to call us a taxi. While the logistics of that were being figured out, she made small talk with us, claiming that no foreigners that didn’t speak Thai had ever come to the theater, before returning to her post and leaving us to wait a few minutes for the taxi.
We plopped ourselves on the curb, tired from the day’s excursion, and looking back and forth between each other burst into laughter at the ridiculousness of our situation.
“Can we just sit back and think about where we are?”
Mari said, as our frustration at missing the movie turned into amusement. Settling into life here is surprisingly easy, but every once in a while we are again struck with the realization that we’re living in a fairly small town in the middle of South East Asia. These moments sneak around corners and poke us in our sides just as we fall into the lull of routine; surprising us with a reminder to not sweat the small things, to make the most of our experience, and remember to bring our feelings of gratitude regarding the opportunities we have here to the forefront. Unfortunately, watching Spectre in English doesn’t seem to be one of those opportunities for the near future.
* Ironically, I’ve only had KFC one time in the states and now 4 times in Thailand. It still makes me think of home.
** I have a problem where I keep buying adult coloring books. Hey, at least it’s a fairly cheap addiction.
*** This reminded me of how before movies in India, the national anthem is played, which just goes to show how Bollywood is pretty much the equivalent of a national sports league.