jim thompson

April 8, 2008

One last post from Bangkok and then we can move on to Indonesia! So much has been written about Jim Thompson, the American secret service agent who settled in Bangkok after the Second World War (New York being far too dull for his liking) and who brought beautiful Thai silk to the world, revitalizing what had been a cottage industry until then. Its popularity exploded after being featured in the costumes in ‘The King and I’, and Thompson was made.

His story is all the more intriguing for the fact that he disappeared without a trace during an afternoon walk on Easter Sunday, 1967, while staying with friends in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. Theories accounting for his disappearance abound, from a CIA kidnapping, being attacked and eaten by unidentified wild animals, a staged disappearance, to falling down and disappearing into a ravine/animal trap. The latest theory for which there is apparently ‘fresh’ evidence faults a fatal accident with a Malaysian lorry driver who subsequently hid his body. Either way, he is gone, but his beautiful house in Bangkok just off Siam Square is still there, and his disappearance adds an extra edge to a visit.

The house is often touted as being typically Thai-style, however the reality is that it is a mish-mash of styles and features. Six traditional teak houses were cannibalized, dismantled, and floated downriver to create this one. Although he had trained in architecture, the houses were more difficult for Thompson to reassemble than he had counted on, and apparently he had to go back to Ayutthaya to find a group of carpenters who still practised traditional building methods to solve the problem.

Some of the features he included were the turning inside out of some wall and decorative panels so as to be able to appreciate the carving better from the inside, the staircase being inside rather than outside the house as is traditionally the case, and the use of an intricately carved Chinese pawnshop wall to separate different living areas. Despite all of these, the house comes together beautifully well and must have been a joy to live in. My favourite was the living area (pictured above) facing wall-less onto the garden and the klong, with the perfect daybed in the centre.

Of course you can pick up his silks and other products from the shop conveniently located in the same compound, but if you are keen on buying more, or just on a bargain, a trip to the Jim Thompson Factory Outlet on Sukhomvit 93 might be in order. There are other branches too, in Phuket and Pattaya. I got a beautiful piece of bright blue lining silk to give an old winter coat a new life for just 300 Baht a metre.

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