Saturday, August 18, 2007

(Conclusion, Bangkok series)

You may ask, who was Jim Thompson? Perhaps a brief backgrounder is in order.

A. The Making of the Legend

Jim Thompson was a practicing architect who volunteered for service in the U.S. Army, and arrived in Bangkok as a military intelligence officer attached to the O.S.S. (precursor of the CIA). After leaving the service, he decided to live in Thailand permanently.

The hand weaving of silk, a long-neglected cottage industry, captured his attention, and he devoted himself to reviving the craft. Prior to his discovery and promotion of Thai silk, it was an ailing art with very small prospects of recovery, and was being kept alive by only a few weaving families in Bangkok.

He pioneered innovations such as the switch to high-quality, color-fast chemical dyes; faster looms, etc. to improve the quality and quantity of Thai silk. With his innate color sense, genuine enthusiasm and persuasive salesmanship, he contributed substantially to the industry's growth and to the worldwide recognition now accorded to Thai silk. Hence, he was dubbed the "Silk King" by the press.

He gained further renown through the construction of his Thai-style house, which combined six teak buildings from a variety of places and owners. Most of the houses were at least two centuries old, and were easily dismantled, stacked neatly on barges and brought by river and klong to the present sight, from as far away as the old capital of Ayutthaya.

In his quest for authenticity, Jim Thompson adhered to the customs of the early builders in most respects. The houses were elevated a full story above the ground, a practical Thai precaution to avoid flooding during the rainy season (and supposedly to ward off evil spirits). The roof tiles were fired in Ayutthaya employing a design common centuries ago, but rarely used today. The red paint on the outside walls [see above pic] is a preservative often found on many old Thai buildings.

All the traditional religious rituals were followed during construction of the house; and on a Spring day in 1959, decreed as being auspicious by astrologers, Jim Thompson moved in.

William Warren's book, "Jim Thompson: The Unsolved Mystery" described it as follows:

" The completion ceremony was held on April 3, 1959, a little less than seven months after the first column had been raised. Nine priests performed the requisite chanting, sitting in their saffron-colored robes in a row facing the klong from the open drawing room, and a senior priest, the abbot of a temple, gave his blessings on the house. A symbolic cord was stretched around the perimeter of the property and connected to each of the buildings; this had to be left until it rotted away or its magic protection would be lost. Applications of gold leaf and sandalwood powder were placed above all the principal doors and also on Thompson's forehead, and lustral water was sprinkled generously about the premises. The place having been thus blessed, purified, and protected, the priests were then served a large luncheon, and what was soon to be described in tourist guidebooks as, simply, "Jim Thompson's Thai House" was officially ready."

In 1962, in recognition of his contribution to the country, the Royal Thai government awarded Thompson The Order of the White Elephant, a decoration bestowed upon foreigners for having rendered exceptional service to Thailand.

On Easter Sunday afternoon of 1967, Jim Thompson disappeared while on a holiday with friends at the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. Up to this day, he has not been found, and no one is certain what had happened to him.

B. The House Museum

In 1976, the Court-appointed administrator for the property of Jim Thompson received permission from government ministries to establish a foundation bearing his name. Accordingly, the property was vested in the Foundation; and the house and art collection are now officially registered as a national museum.

This was actually my second time to visit Jim Thompson's House Museum. I had been here once before, on a previous trip to Bangkok; but it was a rushed visit, squeezed in between business meetings. Thus, there was no time to tarry and just simply walk around and take it all in.

Now, on this warm Sunday morning, i had a few hours to kill before leaving for the airport. Without hesitation, i made the choice to revisit the house. Sort of like tying up some unfinished business, i guess.

After paying the entrance fee of 100 Baht, our guide apprised us of their house rules.
Everyone is required to take off their shoes (yes, you can keep your socks on). Lockers are available to store personal belongings. Absolutely no picture-taking inside the house.

Jim Thompson was also renown for his extensive art collection. Among our first stops was this Buddhist sculpture below:

It is described as "a fine torso of Buddha in grey limestone, Dvaravati School 7th-8th century. Wearing a monastic dress, the Buddha held a fold of the robe in his hand. By virtue of its early date and artistic quality, this torso figures among the most important Dvaravati sculptures."

According to our guide, this was the most valuable in Jim Thompson's sculpture collection.

Traditionally, each room of a Thai house was a separate unit, and it was always necessary to go out of one to reach another. Jim Thompson wanted these rooms connected so he could move more easily from bedroom to drawing room to dining room.

This proved to be an especially tricky task, and a group of carpenters had to be brought down from Ayutthaya, where the ancient skills were still practised, to do the work.

The Master Bedroom

As per common Thai folk beliefs, the threshold of the door was raised, possibly for superstitious reasons, i.e. to keep evil spirits from creeping in at night and disturbing the sleep of the inhabitants (as they are supposedly unable to step over this height of more or less 2 feet). It was in fact regarded as bad luck to step on the thresholds when entering or leaving a room.

Jim Thompson's house did not strictly follow traditional Thai architecture to the letter. For example, during those days, modern Western-style toilets were unheard of; instead, bedrooms had a chamberpot, which occupants used for their. . .ahh, bodily secretions.

But Jim Thompson installed Western-style toilets for the bedrooms, most likely as a concession to modernity for his overnight guests.

Nevertheless, the chamberpots were on display, and our group of 5 or 6 people had fun trying to guess where the thing was. For the guest room, it turned out to be this ceramic black and white cat. For the master bedroom, it was a green frog figurine.

The Dining Room

Traditionally, dining room walls were left bare; but Jim Thompson chose to have his paintings displayed. Also on display here is his collection of porcelain teapots, plates, etc. One teapot, in particular, proved to be fascinating. Rather than having a conventional lid at the top, it was filled through a hole at its bottom.

Chinese pawnshop doors

Connecting the drawing room to the corridor leading to the master bedroom was this carved wall that had once been the entrance to a Chinese pawnshop.

The Drawing Room

It features, among others: an immense crystal chandelier (scavenged from an old palace); Burmese wooden figures from Amarapura looking down from niches that have been made from four of the original windows; an ornately carved Thai bed in the center of the room; banisters converted into lamp shades, etc. as pointed out by our guide.

Note the paneled teak walls, delicate carved work under the windows, and the broad floorboards with a beautiful shiny patina, said to be from the thousands of bare feet that had padded back and forth across them.

In my opinion, this is definitely a must-see for visitors to Bangkok, especially first-timers. For me, not only are the house and antique / art collection quite interesting in their own right, i also am deeply intrigued by the unsolved mystery of Jim Thompson's disappearance.

Imagine, forty years on and yet no one knows for sure how and why he literally disappeared from the face of the earth! It ranks right up there with the Bermuda Triangle and Stonehenge, don't you think?

(The Jim Thompson Thai House Museum is located at 6 Soi Kasemsan 2, RamaI Road, Bangkok, Thailand. If you are taking the BTS (Skytrain), get off at the National Stadium station. It is approximately a 100 m walk from the main road.

Visiting hours are 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM daily. There is also a gift shoppe and a cafe-restaurant inside the complex.

Check out for full details)

*Photos courtesy of The James H.W. Thompson Foundation
*Additional photos and text excerpted from William Warren's book "JIM THOMPSON: The Unsolved Mystery"