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Travel Report: Jim Thompson House, Bangkok.

Jim Thompson House Thailand.

Jim Thompson House, Bangkok.

Cover photo courtesy of D Ramey Logan.

April 2015.

I do hope, at the very least, that my series on Bangkok changes a few minds about the Thai capital. Time and time again I hear the same thing from travellers. That there’s “nothing to see” and that it’s “not the real Thailand!”

I find this especially irksome because a) it’s complete rubbish and b) this highly authentic “real Thailand” people talk about usually involves getting stoned on some island beach. Each to their own I suppose.

Hopefully, by the end of the series, I will have put forward nine solid reasons to include the Thai capital in any cross-country trip around The Land of Smiles. Of these spots, I particularly loved Bangkok’s beautiful and fascinating museum on the life and times of a man called Jim Thompson.

Jim Thompson House in Bangkok.

Jim Thompson House, Bangkok.

Prior to arriving at the house, I knew only the basics about Jim Thompson. Chiefly that he was a hugely successful American businessman who, in the words of Time Magazine, “almost singlehandedly saved Thailand’s silk industry from extinction”.

Indeed one of the first things you’ll see when you enter the compound is a pair of local women weaving in the main courtyard. “Welcome to Jim Thompson House!” sang one of the ladies with a pristine smile.

Visit Bangkok The Jim Thompson House.

Jim Thompson House, Bangkok.

Fascinatingly, the museum tells Jim’s story within the actual residential compound he called home in Bangkok. Yup, this is the traditional wooden Thai house Thompson had custom made in 1959. And where he lived, on and off, until his mysterious disappearance in 1967.

Jim Thompson House, Bangkok.

Traditional wooden Thai building Bangkok

Jim Thompson House, Bangkok.

To visit the Jim Thompson House you have to take a guided tour. The interior is, they say, largely as he left it before he disappeared off the face of the Earth. It’s also stuffed with the antiques and rare Asian art he passionately collected throughout his life. Hence they don’t want people poking around unsupervised. Moreover, they aren’t keen on photography while touring the interior.

Visit Jim Thompson House Bangkok.

The Jim Thompson House, Bangkok.

Out in the compound our guide gave us a potted history of Jim’s amazing life. Born in Greenville Delaware in 1906, he graduated from Princeton in 1928 before representing the United States in the 6-metre Sailing Event at that year’s Summer Olympics. He later studied architecture in Pennsylvania, though never completed his degree.

Nevertheless, by the 1930s he was working in New York designing fancy East Coast homes for the renowned company Holden, McLaughlin & Associates. Come 1940 Jim had grown weary of the job, thus he chose to turn his back on a promising career to join the Delaware National Guard. This soon led to an undercover position with the Office of Strategic Services, an institution that eventually became The CIA.

Jim Thompson House Bangkok.

Jim Thompson.

During the Second World War, Jim worked on numerous intelligence projects around North Africa, Sri Lanka and, at the war’s end, Thailand. According to friends and family, he instantly fell for Bangkok’s rough charms. As a result, following his discharge from the military, he returned to the Thai capital in 1948 to form The Thai Silk Company.

“Silk in itself possesses a great deal of glamour.

It has an aura of exotic mystery and richness about it” – Jim Thompson.

Jim Thompson The Thai Silk King.

Jim Thompson House, Bangkok.

From humble beginnings the business rapidly grew, leading to a huge coup in 1951. This was when Hollywood designer Irene Sharaff employed Jim’s silk for the costumes of the hit movie The King and I. Sharaff subsequently won an Academy Award and people started calling Jim the “The Silk King of Thailand”.

The King and I movie 1956.

A game changer for Jim Thompson.

When Jim found fame and fortune he quickly set about designing his dream home. Impressively, he managed to source six nineteenth century wooden buildings from around the country, which he then transported to Bangkok.

Interior Jim Thompson House.

Inside the Jim Thompson House.

Photo courtesy of Jim Thompson House.

The main building, elevated a full floor above ground level as a safeguard against flooding, features several grand staircases designed by Thompson himself. Bits and pieces of his beloved art are everywhere. There’s 16th century Chinese porcelain, for   example, in the hallways. Along with a number of antique Thai paintings and carvings depicting the life of Buddha.

Traditional Thai art Bangkok.

Jim Thompson House, Bangkok.

In the master bedroom, which the guide insists has barely changed since the last night Jim slept in it, I was able to grab a cheeky photograph. It’s a small but exceptionally tasteful space with an adjoining enclosed balcony that catches the sun in the morning.

Jim Thompson House, Bangkok.

Bedroom Jim Thompson House Bangkok.

Jim Thompson House, Bangkok.

Some weeks after my visit, I was sifting through the museum’s official Facebook page when I came upon a photograph of Jim sat on his bed. I’ve always found it a somewhat haunting shot, as I invariably wonder what on earth happened to this talented, well-liked man who seemingly had everything.

Bedroom Jim Thompson House.

Jim Thompson House, Bangkok.

Happily, I was able to explore the gorgeous garden area alone, away from the tour group. You can see the love and care that has gone into it, with plants, flowers and antique sculptures set between the various ponds, fountains and walkways.

The garden at Jim Thompson House.

The garden complex at Jim Thompson House.

Towards the back of the compound, I found myself quite alone, almost swallowed up by the towering palm and banana trees. Even the ever-present background noise of faintly buzzing traffic had died out.

Visiting Jim Thompson House Bangkok.

Jim Thompson House, Bangkok.

It was also cool to see the museum’s little Spirit House, which is a replica of the main building. Most Thais are really superstitious about ghosts and spirits living in houses. This little roofed structure serves as a shrine to any protective spirits attached to the buildings. I guess that means Jim.

Thai spirit house Bangkok.

The spirit house.

Jim Thompson disappeared while on holiday in Malaysia’s Cameron Islands on Sunday the 26th of March 1967. He had gone for a walk and… quite simply… never returned. When it became clear he was missing, a huge search effort began involving the Malaysian Police, tourists, reward hunters, students and a pair of British servicemen. Nobody found a shred of evidence as to the 61 year old’s whereabouts. Eleven days later the search was abandoned.

The Disappearance.

Jim Thompson Memorial Bangkok.

Jim Thompson House, Bangkok.

Naturally, there are all kinds of wild theories regarding what happened to Jim. He was eaten by a tiger, he was murdered by The CIA. He fell off a cliff into the sea and drowned, he was assassinated by Malaysian communists who had discovered his past work as an American spy.

But it seems we’ll never know for certain. All we have now is the wonderful Jim Thompson House, a beautiful, fascinating piece of history tucked away in central Bangkok. For more info on how to visit, take a look at their Facebook page.

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  • Lookoom

    Bangkok has never attracted me and yet Jim Thompson House is one of the places that interests me.

    March 31, 2021 - 12:32 am Reply
    • Leighton

      It really is an essential city sight and one that often gets overlooked.

      March 31, 2021 - 12:44 am Reply
  • Memo

    An ex-CIA man mysteriously disappears and the investigation lasts all of 11 days. Has this ever been made into a book or movie? Love museums of all kinds but this type is particularly appealing – Anne Frank, Frida Kahlo. I now need to get a spirit house for my garden. Thanks for the idea.

    March 31, 2021 - 12:34 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha ha I want pictures of the Memo Spirit House! #seriously

      March 31, 2021 - 12:50 am Reply
  • damirsalkovic

    A fascinating place, an enigmatic man. Definitely worth a return visit.

    March 31, 2021 - 12:43 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

      March 31, 2021 - 12:51 am Reply
  • Little Miss Traveller

    This post brought back fond memories of our own visit to Jim Thompson’s house. Such a tranquil spot in a crowded city. I remember having drinks in the garden after the tour and it was like being in an oasis of calm. It’s very strange that no-one knew what happened to him.

    March 31, 2021 - 12:46 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Very cool that you’ve also been here Marion. Thanks for reading my take.

      March 31, 2021 - 12:49 am Reply
  • Rebecca

    What a fascinating life of a fascinating man! His house is certainly paradise in the middle of seemingly nowhere, even if in the middle of a bustling capital. Really cool he supplied material for the costumes in “The King and I,” and I suppose it would be worth a pop-over whilst in Bangkok!

    March 31, 2021 - 4:37 am Reply
    • Leighton

      It’s such a cool story, with a sad and mysterious ending. Glad you liked it!

      March 31, 2021 - 8:59 am Reply
  • 100 Country Trek

    We loved our visit there. It was quite the site to see.

    March 31, 2021 - 4:41 am Reply

    Bangkok was where we started our South East Asia trip which was curtailed through COVID and we enjoyed every minute. We visited Jim Thompson House on the same day as Chatuchak Market – as you probably did too. There was a lovely peace about the place despite it being an attraction. You’re right about Bangkok; it’s a terrifically varied city with so much to enjoy.

    March 31, 2021 - 9:00 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for following this series guys, despite being familiar with the locations. Sorry to hear your trip was curtailed. Do you plan to try and resume it later in the year? Or maybe in 2022?

      March 31, 2021 - 9:05 am Reply

        Yes we do. We did Bangkok-Koh Lanta-Chiang Mai-Nongtao (tribal village – fantastic!)-Chiang Rai-Mekong-Luang Prabang-Nong Khiaw-Hanoi-Halong Bay-Tam Coc. From there it was meant to be a month travelling slowly south in Vietnam, a month in Cambodia, finishing off with a week in Singapore. We absolutely intend to pick up again, when we can, starting again from Halong Bay where it all started to fall apart.

        March 31, 2021 - 9:09 am
      • Leighton

        A lot of familiar places there that make me smile, you must have been gutted when it all fell apart. Hoping for even better future travels to come!

        March 31, 2021 - 9:12 am

        Yes. In the end we didn’t do too bad, we grabbed the “travel corridor” opportunity and spent 5 weeks in Croatia and then 9 weeks in Turkey. Nothing like our original plan but we were flexible and grabbed 148 days away in the end. Simply can’t wait to get it all going again.

        March 31, 2021 - 9:18 am
      • Leighton

        Ha, we also ended up doing some time in Turkey after we exited Cambodia.

        March 31, 2021 - 9:26 am
  • Monkey's Tale

    We didn’t visit Jim Thompson house so thanks for the tour. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it looks nicer than I expected. Maggie

    March 31, 2021 - 10:28 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Maggie, it’s a really lovely spot.

      March 31, 2021 - 10:42 pm Reply
  • Michelle B.

    This is really fascinating, thank you for sharing. I like to think Jim walked off into the forest, laid down and died peacefully in his sleep. What an interesting life he lived! 🙂

    April 2, 2021 - 1:17 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading Michelle!

      April 2, 2021 - 9:22 am Reply
  • Expat Alien

    He tried to get the silk industry going in Burma as well but it never got off the ground. My mother loved his fabrics.

    April 3, 2021 - 6:44 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      I didn’t know about his attempt to launch in Burma, interesting. The fabrics are indeed lovely. Thanks for stopping by!

      April 3, 2021 - 6:48 pm Reply
  • InsideMySlingBag

    Beautiful captures and a nice post Leighton!

    April 23, 2021 - 4:56 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for catching up!

      April 23, 2021 - 5:01 pm Reply

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