Seeking Jim Thompson in Thailand & Malaysia

Jim Thompson’s House Museum is a serene escape from the busy city and has a fascinating story to tell, making it an essential stop on any Bangkok stopover or city tour itinerary in Thailand.

In fact it is not one but six houses linked together around lush gardens and limpid pools. The traditional Thai houses nestle naturally into the setting of palms and water lilies; decorated with huge bowls of floating orchids.

Jim Thompson House gardens in Bangkok

The houses did not originate here in Bangkok but were brought laboriously from the Ayuthaya province of Thailand. Built from teak wood and fastened using wooden pegs rather than nails, they are relatively easily dismantled.

Seventy years ago this was the idyllic home of the highly successful American businessman Jim Thompson. Credited with rescuing Thailand’s ancient hand-woven silk industry, he took it from a fading cottage industry to a glamorous, internationally desirable product. He adapted Thai silk colours and designs to suit western tastes and achieved a coup when his silk fabrics were used in the Rogers and Hammerstein musical The King and I.

Lotus buds in Bangkok, Thailand

In the Jim Thompson House there are a number examples of the wooden panels used to block print the silk with Chinese-style patterns of fish and flowers. They even have removable sections so as to change colours during the printing process – so you can change the coloured fins of a fish from red to blue.

Several stunning Buddha statues in stone and wood sit around the precinct – also brought from Aythaya – and there is a different Buddha position for each day of the week. So on Monday the Buddha has one hand raised indicating peace; on Saturday the Buddha is seated, meditating with hands in lap and eyes cast downwards.

Jim Thompson Thai House in Bangkok

The main house has some western elements and idiosyncratic adjustments have been made to suit Jim Thompson’s requirements. There is a ground floor reception room (which in Thai houses would always be built up off the ground) and air conditioning in his study. Two 19th-century mah-jong tables have been joined together to make a dining table rather than following the traditional Thai practice of sitting on the floor.

Thompson had the window frames turned inside out so the carved panels at the base could be better seen – and he turned the resulting alcoves into places to display his collection of south-east Asian art. There are many paintings, on both cotton and paper, as well as exquisite ceramics, carvings and pieces of furniture. There is even a Victorian chandelier.

The Jim Thompson House, Bangkok

Perhaps the cutest items are the little chamber posts: a cat for boys (just lift off the head to pee into it) and a fat frog for girls with an opening in the middle of the back. Decant the urine from the mouth and they even have handles for easy carrying.

It was this collection of objets d’art that prompted him to design and build his Bangkok sanctuary beside a quiet klong. From the garden I could hear the muezzin call from the mosque across the canal. The Muslim community here was important in the manufacturing of the silk while Thompson was still alive (now it has moved to a factory).

The final act in the life story of the famous American silk trader took place not here in Thailand but in the serene Cameron Highlands hill station of Malaysia. Thompson mysteriously disappeared from his holiday bungalow there in 1967. Despite massive public and private searches he was never found.

Tea planters village, Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Here green terraces of camellia sinensis and little villages of pickers and tea processing machinery give way to epiphyte-draped jungle with enormous Birds Nest ferns and exotic Pitcher Plants. Strange birds and monkeys and monkeys scream in the canopy and at 1,200m it is good trekking country.

Whether Jim Thompson got lost in the trackless forests, was abducted, or staged his own disappearance may never be known. Some pointed to his previous careers as an army officer and a spy as possible reasons.

Back in the Jim Thompson House in Bangkok his un-returned library books still sit on the bookshelves in his study. There is also a framed fortune, stating a lucky time and date to move into the house and also a declaration that something bad would happen to him at the age of 61. This is – of course – the age at which he disappeared. A well-organised or a self-fulfilling prophesy?

Regardless of the mystery, or perhaps because of it, a visit to his former home is a must for any visitor to Bangkok.

By Natasha von Geldern

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3 Replies to “Seeking Jim Thompson in Thailand & Malaysia”

  1. Sophie

    Fascinating story. I remember reading about Jim Thompson before going to Thailand for the first time (many years ago) but haven’t visited his house yet. Or for that matter, Cameron Highlands. Tempted to go back, maybe without kids this time, and explore this mystery a little….

    Reply

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