“Siamese pink was the navy blue of Thailand and Mr. Thompson had a way of combining this with colours no one had dreamt of. He was a talented colourist, above all else.”
Our hostess, I’ll call her Lily, shows deference to her ‘boss’ as we slowly wind our way through the Jim Thompson House in Bangkok. To build his home, Thompson sourced six traditional structures which were dismantled, loaded onto barges, then floated to the plot of land he had bought in 1958.
As a former architect, Thompson would not only fashion an elegant residence which became a landmark in Bangkok, but his preservation of traditional Thai buildings would encourage wealthy Thais to better preserve their heritage.
Jim Thompson was the founder of The Thai Silk Company. Throughout the late fifties and into the sixties, when one’s ship docked or plane landed in Bangkok, one naturally made a beeline for the company’s trendy shop. In the early days Thompson would often be there, draping customers in vibrant silks with his refined, creative eye. It is recounted that few women could resist the newly exotic, must-have fabric…or indeed Thompson’s charms.
If you had a little money or notoriety, you might garner an invitation that evening to his renowned home, the heart of Bangkok’s social scene. Thompson treasured it and shared its unique ambience most evenings by hosting drinks and dinner parties.
“It’s in the evening when the house is at its best,” Lily says dreamily as we approach the large drawing room with its stage-like design open to the elements; the orchids, the palms, and the klong, a backdrop in silhouette. “It is magical when the soft lights illuminate centuries old buddhas, tapestries, sculptures and rare paintings. But it’s also when the mosquitoes come out and maybe even the spirits.”
I do wonder if Jim Thompson’s spirit is felt. He disappeared on Easter Sunday 1967, and in the years before that tragic time, he built a legacy of bringing Thai silk to the world and awakening the need to preserve Thai and Asian artifacts. He collected these with passion. It is still inconceivable to many that all these years later, Jim Thompson’s disappearance remains a mystery.
Thompson had exchanged a former life as an architect and a stage designer, to serve as an OSS (forerunner of the CIA) operative and a major in the US Army. Landing in Bangkok at the end of the second world war, the urbane, soft spoken American was charmed by the cities vestiges of old-world character, its canals, floating markets and the royal history of Siam. That first visit captivated Thompson and he returned to the US hoping to convince his wife of the possibilities of a new life in Bangkok. Instead a divorce ensued and he returned to Bangkok a bachelor, thus beginning another phase in his fascinating life.
My first visit to the Jim Thompson House was in January 1989 and for nostalgia’s sake, I now allow myself a journey of discovery, and a little sentimentality on this trip. A silk-bound book, House On The Klong, is in my handbag. Purchased on that initial visit, a note on its inner sleeve reads… Merry Christmas to my traveling companion, Christmas 1989…
It was penned after six months of backpacking with that traveling companion and six more of teaching English in Japan. We had fallen in love on our through journey Thailand, India, Nepal and China. Today, he’s my husband and I love that he’s the guy who ported my backpack far and wide. The travel companion with whom I’m lucky enough to still be discovering the world with.
Returning together to Bangkok with its bejewelled temple roof-lines, its hectic waterways, evocative streets and to Thompson’s home, brings floods of memories.
It was more soulful and quiet then. Without tour guides and with only occasional travellers, one had time to savour; the objects d’art, the finely carved doors, the priceless collections of Chinese blue and white, the delicate bencharong, five coloured porcelain.
Back then one could easily gaze out across the murky canal and hear the click, clack, click, clack of the silk looms in Bangkrau, the small village of Muslim weavers, long since swallowed up by the city.
The boardwalks of their Thai-style homes were lined with hanging skeins of freshly dyed strands of silk, their thinest of threads teased from silkworm cocoons. Not long after settling in Bangkok, Thompson began acquiring lengths of the weavers silk fashioned for sarongs; pasins for the ladies and pakomas for the men. Many of these weavers would come to produce silk for his company, bringing them wealth they could scarcely have imagined. Thompson would have no idea that in just a few years, the weavers would become his neighbours, just across the klong.
One of Bangkrau’s old Thai structures would provide the main part of Thompson’s home, the renowned drawing room. It was a charmed setting where movie stars, writers, politicians and the social elite were entertained by the generous businessman. It is fondly recalled that Thompson would re-tell the same fascinating stories night after night with the exuberance of a first-time story teller. Music by Thai performers floated towards the drawing room as an accompaniment.
As we meander through the luxuriant garden, Lily points to the spirit house nestled in a corner, its precise location chosen by a Brahmin priest who specialized in such matters. It’s said that it took a full morning to locate the spot as a complicated set of astrological charts were consulted of the genealogy of the compound spirits, traced back 2000 years. Spirit houses are tiny abodes and replicas of Thai-style house or temples which must not fall under the shadow of the main house. For the Thais, there’s an innate believe that spirit houses offer a residence for the guardian spirit of the house and surroundings.
“There are four things the spirit house must have,” Lily enlightens us, “food, water, incense and flowers…oh, and a candle is nice too.” On this day, orange marigold garlands appease the spirits and please our cameras.
Jim Thompson would grow the ancient process of silk weaving and with other investors, form the Thai Silk Company in 1948. Almost instantly, its fine silk was sought-after worldwide. Before this, silk was considered old fashioned and something that your elderly relatives wore to a family wedding perhaps.
This would change as Jim Thompson’s silk soon graced photo spreads in magazines, exhibited in expensive stores and orders filled worldwide. The entrepreneur was seemingly indefatigable. Along with opening a company retail outlet and overseeing a thriving company, Thompson would also consult as a costume designer for movies such as The King and I, and Ben Hur…with specially designed silk of course.
Thompson had little free time, a recognized rebuttal after his disappearance which asserted that he had time to be a covert agent. But despite his frenetic schedule, he did find time to trek into the jungle, ideally emerging with an unknown species of orchid of which he was fond of; another rebuttal as to how someone knowledgable with the jungle could disappear in it.
Fittingly and perhaps in memory, the Jim Thompson House and gardens are fragrant with orchids poised in Chinese blue and white pots, with lush lily-padded ponds and replete with antiquties…I leave reluctantly.
The next day, I decide to visit Thompson’s first residence, The Oriental Hotel. On my way I turn onto a side street from what was once a worn elephant trail, New Road, the first proper road in Bangkok. It is the area where colonial-styled embassies congregated and antique shops opened for the travellers who began to trickle into the city at the turn-of-the-century.
I stop at a showroom, its sweeping decorative rooflines delightfully incongruous with its former use as a tractor repair shop. It stands defiant amongst modern buildings. As I admire antique handicrafts, I meet the second-generation shop owner. She patiently explains lipao, a beautiful dark climbing plant used for weaving and intriguingly, solves the mystery of why bamboo rice holders must to be smoked periodically. You’ll want to know it’s to prevent mites, of course. I then broach the topic of Jim Thompson.
“Oh yes, we remember him,” she says. “I recall when I was a small girl he came to buy a valuable Thai headdress which was part of a matching pair, he owned the other one of course. It was put on my tiny head and very heavy.” I smile at the recollection and mention that I’m writing about the famed silk legend.
“What do you think happened to him?” The shopkeeper seems genuinely curious.
It is not a surprising question as three or four theories persist.
First and perhaps the most widely accepted is that Thompson innocently set out for a jungle walk from the Moonlight Bungalow where he was staying with friends in the Cameron Highlands in 1967. After an Easter church service followed by a picnic, the others had retired for an afternoon siesta. Thompson said he also planned to rest.
He didn’t however and a scrape of a lawn chair and the crunch of footsteps on gravel were heard sometime later. Thompson’s friends assumed he had decided to walk, which he was inclined to do at every opportunity. Despite weeks of full-scale searches, no trace of him or his body was, or has ever been found. Did he meet his demise accidentally plunging into a ravine or falling into a tiger trap set by local tribesmen?
A planned suicide theory persists, but is most often debunked, “Jim would never have done that to his friends and business,” a former colleague insists.
Other theories involve a kidnapping, a secret departure to start a life elsewhere (a few supposed sightings were reported in places like Tahiti), or a planned escape underground with his past OSS career having caught up with him.
What is known is that family, friends and colleagues waited tortuously for weeks and months in the hope that Thompson would stroll back into his beautiful home.
“I really don’t know,” I confess to the shop owner. “Even I’m a little haunted by it, I can only imagine the grief of his those that knew and loved him.”
I take my leave and walk the short distance to the legendary Oriental Hotel, more imposing and glorious than ever. Commandeered by the Japanese during the war, the grand old Oriental was threadbare and worn-at-the-heels after liberation. American soldiers and liberated Dutch, British and Australian prisoners of war had also sought refuge in it’s once glamours surroundings.
Thompson, ever a designer, was serving as an unofficial political advisor to the American embassy at the time but couldn’t resist the charm of The Oriental. “We could make this a great hotel again,” he is quoted as saying to Germain Krull who became one of his partners. Thompson relished the opportunity to use his creative skills, yet the partnership lasted only a year with Thompson being squeezed out.
He continued however, to live in its revolving-door lifestyle for a year or two more, setting up his first silk shop. Framed prints pay homage to his time at The Oriental. In one print, Thompson’s parrot, Cocky, is perched on his shoulder in front of his home. It is said, the verbose parrot died of heartache when his master did not return.
I stay for a late lunch, taking in the elegant surroundings and the glimpses of Thai silk all around me; the furniture and cushions, the staff’s vibrant sarongs and jackets…patterns and splashes of smokey greys, oranges, emerald greens, tawny browns and of course siam pink. Jim Thompson’s colourful signature is everywhere.
This is still where the rich and famous gather and I notice some dressed for lunch as if for a cocktail party. Short silk dresses and sarongs mix with gentlemen in linen jackets and polished Gucci shoes. Thompson would be pleased. “He was a terribly elegant man, always dressed immaculately in Thai silk,” gushed one admiring lady.
Despite numerous affairs with married women, a few apparently more than ready to leave their husband, the bachelor never remarried. “He was rarely alone, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t lonely,” mused one of his confidants.
I gaze out to the Chao Phraya river and watch the myriad boats ply the waters. Orange robed monks and tidy businessmen catch ferries, tourists alight at the hotel’s dock, long-tail boats speed past with their bright strands of fabric flapping from their prows. Elegant Thai roof tops have given way to modern buildings.
I remove the silk covered book from my bag and write of yesterday’s visit to the House…Bangkok, Feb. 25th, 2017, A return to the lovely and beguiling Jim Thompson House, yet this time with one of our sons. And what a joy to still be discovering and finding inspiration with my traveling companion...it’s been some twenty-eight years after all…