6 Soi Kasemsan 2, Rama 1 Road, Bangkok
Tel: (662) 216-7368 Fax: (662) 612-3744
Jim Thompson, an architect, an entrepreneur, an art-collector, a spy agent – his name evokes a sense of mystery and admiration. His dramatic disappearance in the jungles of Malaysia further strengthened this aura of suspense. My visit to the Jim Thompson house in Bangkok was an effort to get a glimpse of this legend, who has achieved an iconic status in Southeast Asia. I hoped to find some clues about this man through his much loved Thai teak house where he lived and entertained.
Knowledgeable guides take you through this opulence and explain the significant points of the elegant yet understated style of the construction and the objet d’art of the Thompson collection. Being an architect, he had purchased six traditional Thai-style houses and brought them to the present location from various parts of Thailand. He personally prepared the original architectural drawings and foresaw the construction to its completion in 1959.
The house on the khlong is now a museum and is one of the most beautiful sites you can visit in Bangkok today. Unlike many well known residences and museums, this house has a lived-in feel. With true appreciation and a connoisseur’s eye, Thompson personally furnished the house with priceless pieces of Southeast Asian antiques that would have any art collector turn green with envy: The dining hall, with it mahjong table converted dining table, was especially fascinating, as it was here that Jim Thompson had entertained Thai and international guests, virtually a ‘who’s who’ list, seven days a week.
Jim Thompson was a savvy business man but it was his eyes for esthetics that made him realize the huge potential that awaited the glowing colors and nubbly texture of the Thai silks. He rounded up a group of Muslim (Cham) weavers in the Bangkok neighbourhood of Bankrua, most of whom had taken up other trades, supplied them with the raw silk and dyes to turn out finished products on their crude home looms. He took 500 samples to New York, where the silk drew raves from designers, decorators and fashion editors including Vogue, and the rest is history.
Thompson’s books still sit on his bedside table, just as he left them on Good Friday, 1967. On that fateful day, the Thai Silk King vanished without a trace while vacationing in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia. Massive manhunts were mounted to trace him with no results. The romantic in me like a particular theory that believes Jim Thompson simply ran away in order to start a new life elsewhere, which he had done in a far less dramatic fashion by abandoning America for Thailand decades before, and as he grew older he became more interested in the art of other Southeast Asian nations, so he might have made for one of them. And, his training in jungle survival skills may have made it possible for him to escape with the clothes on his back to somewhere around Vientiane or Rangoon, perhaps with some native lady on his arm.
In any case, whether or not he survived his walk in the jungle, Jim Thompson has left behind a priceless legacy for the Thais: a pride in their craftsmanship, now famous around the world in flags of the shimmering silks that he made famous. And as for me, this close encounter with everything that was dear to this man, unraveled the mystery of the legend.
The Jim Thompson House is located on Soi Kasemsan 2, Bangkok, opposite the National Stadium on Rama I Rd, conveniently reached by car, taxi, Tuk tuk, or the Sky Train. Guided tours around the house are compulsory. Admission: Adult 100 baht; Students 50 baht.