By Steve Bergsman
The sprawling mall called CentralWorld in Bangkok held no attractions for my wife until she stumbled across a store called "Jim Thompson." Curious, she entered to look at the beautiful silk purses and articles of clothing, all with this unfamiliar label. Outside of Thailand's capital city, the name Jim Thompson is meaningless — almost sounding like a fictional character in a 1940s film noir.
However, Jim Thompson was a real person and his home in Bangkok is now a stunningly beautiful museum. His death is still one of the great mysteries in the annals of spy-dom and the subject of a book by Joshua Kurlantzick called "The Ideal Man: The Tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War."
All that begs the questions why is there a store named after him and why is his home so revered? In my estimation, the Jim Thompson House is one of the top five sites visitors should see when in Bangkok, and that list includes the Grand Palace and Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.
The easy story is that Jim Thompson, born in 1906 into a wealthy Delaware family, came to Thailand in 1945 two days after Japan surrendered, thus ending World War II. Trained as an architect with a sharp aesthetic eye, he became enamored with the commercial possibilities of handmade Thai silk, an industry fast disappearing due to mass production. He created an enterprise called the Thai Silk Company Ltd., and probably because he had considerable contacts in America and was a natural conversationalist Thai silk was adopted for use in the Broadway play "The King and I" and in the movie, as well. In the 1960s Thai silk became the country's most famous export. That explains the store.
In 1958 he began building his abode on the banks of a canal. Most of the buildings on his property, including the prime residence, were constructed from existing structures found in small remote villages. He had the buildings dismantled, shipped to Bangkok and re-established as part of his compound, which would eventually include an extensive garden. The whole feel of the property is as if one were walking into a historic building. The columns are ironwood, the main wood teak and it all has the dark feel of a Thai palace, including step-overs in entryways to keep the evil spirits from oozing into the rooms.
It's most common to see ancient artifacts and works of incredible beauty in large, famous museums, but it's a rare treat to see the artworks and treasures in the original places where a collector brought them all together so he could enjoy the presence of great art. With an unerring eye, Thompson collected ancient statures, prints, paintings, ceramics and bric-a-brac from across Southeast Asia. By the time of his death he had acquired hundreds of worthy examples of ancient Asian art. It was, and still is, an amazing collection spread across the six houses on the property. The oldest, major piece is a seventh-century stone Buddha.
The three key areas of the home are the large drawing room, which was created from a house built around 1800 in the village of Baan Krua. This room is where Thompson entertained, and it boasts large carved Asian furniture with myriad pieces of artwork all around, including a sandstone head of a Buddha image from the late13th century.
Also of interest is Thompson's bedroom, decorated with numerous sandstone deities from as early as the 11th century. Most curious, however, is a wooden maze for pet mice built in the 19th century. I found his study of particular interest, and it was the only air conditioned room in the house. What caught my eye here was a map of Siam (Thailand) drawn in 1686.
Thompson originally came to Bangkok working for the Office of Strategic Services, which was the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency. Although he eventually would make his home in Bangkok and create a successful silk enterprise, Kurlantzick suggests he remained in, or close to, the intelligence business for the rest of his life: "... when Japan surrendered Thompson stayed on in Bangkok as a spy; everyone knew that — he'd been working all over the region, with the Thais, Lao, Cambodians and Vietnamese. Even after Thompson formally resigned from America's spy service ... many assumed he never really left his old job."
Then one day in 1967, while visiting the Cameron Highlands in western Malaysia, Thompson went for a walk. He was never seen again. Coincidentally, or not, that same year his sister was murdered in the United States. When Thompson didn't return from his solitary ramble, a search party of local trackers, American military and the CIA undertook a large-scale rescue effort to no avail — the King of Thai Silk was never found.
Fortunately, you can find his house in Bangkok.
WHEN YOU GO
While in Bangkok, I stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott: www.marriott.com.
The Jim Thompson House was a short ride away by BTS Sky Train: www.jimthompsonhouse.com.
Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
This former temple is now part of the compound at the Jim Thompson House in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo courtesy of Steve Bergsman.