The heart of Bangkok City has many surprises and one of them is the Jim Thompson House along the Saen Saeb Klong. With a quiet Soi leading to the house, it would have easily gone unnoticed with the exception of the front placard stating the name of the residence. Looking at the front entrance, it is hard to imagine the splendours of the houses within the compound which is rich in exotic tropical plants, beautiful landscaping, a great collection of Eastern and Western antiques as well as a history of silk weaving in Thailand. There are remarkably six authentic Thai styled teak wooden houses nestled within the compound now converted into a museum, retail outlet, restaurant and silk demonstration area. These houses were transported piece by piece from Ayutthaya and Ban Krua, and then reassembled in this present place.
How did a post war “farang” as foreigners are called in Thailand, achieve such a legendary status in the then mysterious Far East and of all places in Thailand? In the mid-1940s, Thailand though not actively involved in the war between Japan and the Allied countries was hardly a place frequented by the average tourist. Coming out into the post war years, Bangkok, the capital city of Thailand was not what you would expect now. There were no proper four or even five star hotels to cater to the tourists let alone great shopping and sight-seeing places.
Jim Thompson was a man intrigued by Thailand and the people after he was posted to Bangkok as an OSS officer just a little after the war ended. An architect by profession, prior to joining the military, his love for creativity in colours and design played predominantly in his life in Thailand. He was a keen collector of art objects and before long while in Thailand, he discovered the silk industry. Captivated by the vibrant and lively colours of the fabric, it soon became a passion for him to not only revive the silk trade but also improve the quality and market of this amazing material to the outside world. He soon dedicated thirty years of his life to the silk industry in Thailand until his mysterious disappearance while on holiday in Cameron Highlands, Malaysia. His disappearance still remains a mystery to this day and there are many speculations as to the nature of Jim Thompson’s previous involvements with the OSS and later CIA. Nevertheless, his efforts to promote and market the silk industry and building the Jim Thompson brand name has seen the introduction of beautiful silk fabrics and clothing into the fashionista houses and glittering catwalks of famous brands in America and Europe.
The Jim Thompson House in Bangkok is an epitome of his private collections of objects d’art; marvellous Teak houses which he relocated from Ayutthaya and Ban Krua are reassembled piece by piece in his property in Bangkok. There are in total six beautifully restored traditional Thai Teak houses now made into museums and a retail outlet at the Jim Thompson House. A trip to this East meets West enclave gives a peek into the colourful existence of a man’s passion for the Eastern lifestyle while maintaining his Western roots.
A little after walking in through the gateway are life displays of what the silk industry is all about. You can watch the traditional clad ladies and men hand processing silkworm cocoons ready for the looms. One would never think that such beautiful threads could come from a caterpillar! The first display stand shows you how the silk worm cocoons are boiled in hot water to loosen the threads of the cocoon. As the threads unravel in the hot water, the thread is woven into bundles ready for the next process. These raw threads are a tinge of brown and require a bleaching process to turn them white in order to make the dyes used to turn them into vibrant colours be more prominent. The dyes for the threads are made from various natural ingredients. An example is the bright indigo colour which is unique to silk threads. This colour is derived from the petals of the purple pea flower. This colouring is also used in Thai desserts such as sticky rice and snacks. The silk threads are then dipped into the dye and soaked until the colour is absorbed. It is then further treated to make the colour permanent in the thread before being sent for drying and rolled into spools ready for the loom. It is fascinating to understand the various stages of learning that Jim Thompson must have gone through to indulge in the industry wholeheartedly and turn the industry around from an ailing art form into a multi-million dollar cottage industry.
Behind the display booths is the Jim Thompson Retail store. You can choose to go into the store first or on your way out after completing the tour of the Jim Thompson house facilities. It is slightly cheaper to buy from this retail outlet as compared to the stores outside under the same brand and the variety is slightly different as it is a much larger store. There is everything from the signature clothing to silk fabrics by the meter or bags and other souvenirs. Those who love the artistic designs of the Jim Thompson clothing range will not be disappointed on their visit here! Across from the retail outlet is the café and restaurant. Here you can have a snack and drink or even entertain your guests to a full authentic Thai meal. There are signature dishes here that would appeal even to the Western palate and off course a boon for the Thai food connoisseur. Some of the ingredients used in the dishes come from the Jim Thompson Farm in Nakhon Ratchasima province.
Take your time to walk the exquisite compound of this little piece of cultural sanctuary. There are a variety of old rare trees, a beautifully landscaped garden with a nice koi pond, some exotic ginger plant varieties and plenty of carved stone statues some of which are antiques from his collection adorning the garden. It is a cool and shady place where you can sit for a breather or just indulge in some really good picture taking. There are more exhibits on the silk industry housed in one of the teak house foyers including a silk weaving loom. This huge contraption is used to weave the beautiful yards of silk by hand. Weaving of the silk fabrics is not an automated process and still requires the many man hours and manpower to weave each piece, which is what makes silk an expensive fabric but worth the price. You can also see exhibits of the actual silk worm caterpillars and the cocoons. The cocoons are bred in round rattan baskets to make them easier to harvest. Did you also know that some of the silkworm in the cocoons can be consumed? They are a local delicacy and the bigger ones are normally deep fried and served with a sprinkle of soy sauce. You can only find this at street stalls or the Chatuchak Market.
The interior of the Jim Thompson House compound houses the famed all teak buildings of traditional Thai design. Within these houses are beautiful collections of antiques collected by Jim Thompson over the years.
The first house which is the entrance foyer introduces two beautiful sculptures in the wall niches. One is of a standing figurine of Buddha and the other a teak carved figurine. This is the tour starting point of the Jim Thompson House. It costs a small entrance fee for a guided tour of the Jim Thompson House and tour times are at approximately two hour intervals. If you join a tour such as those provided by Thaitourismguide in their sightseeing in Bangkok tour packages, then it is a lot easier to get there and have all the ticketing and transfers arranged. The last tour is at five in the evening. You can buy tickets from the entrance for the tour and prior to starting the tour you will have to remove your shoes before stepping into the house. It is a Thai tradition and there are shelves and lockers for you to put your shoes.
The tour will take you upstairs and unfortunately, photography is not allowed in the house. However, you can still see the many antique murals acquired over years by Jim Thompson from various temples in Thailand. These intricate and highly detailed murals tell the story of Buddha in his passage of time through the process of enlightenment. Further into the house, in what used to be a kitchen but now refurbished into a living museum is the collection of Benjarong ceramics, which by the way is an almost complete set! Next you will head for the villa which is the dining room laid out in anticipation of welcoming dinner guests. One can imagine Jim Thompson himself during his peak years in the house, entertaining guests with the fine blue and white chinaware which was a fashion in those days.
The living room villa is a century old and was bought from the Muslim weavers of Ban Krua which was just across the canal. These weavers were the first to be employed and trained by Jim Thompson in his silk industry. Living near the weaving village meant he no longer needed to travel a distance to keep watch over the production line and more frequent inspection trips to ensure the quality of the silk products. In the living room are four magnificent figures of the “Nats”, which are believed to be spirit guardians of Burmese belief. These figures were bestowed as gifts to Jim Thompson by the Burmese Government.
One can imagine that Jim Thompson must have been a very wealthy man at the height of his disappearance in Malaya. When you tour the facilities in these houses, you cannot help but imagine the lifestyle he lead as a Westerner in Thailand, his many achievements in the silk industry and the building of a brand through his exquisite taste for finery and opulence. He was a man with keen foresight as can be reflected in his design of the houses which he acquired. These designs are only now being reflected in the architecture of homes and resorts in Thailand. He incorporated Thai traditions with Western culture to refine the layouts and design of the original housing arrangements. You might not think much of these points as you walk through the tastefully furnished enclave which displays all his collections of wealth in an artistic rather than garish manner.
In Thai tradition as is with the old traditional Thai houses, toilets are always on the outside and all windows in the house face outwards. This was redesigned by Jim Thompson when he relocated the houses to his property. All the houses were grouped in such a manner as to be interconnected with well laid out walkways, internal toilets and inward facing windows as well as out. Small little changes but now adopted by designers and architects in their building of world-class resorts and spas across the country!
The compound of the Jim Thompson House is large enough to host mid-sized events for dinners, weddings and catwalk fashion shows for the discerning customer. There are facilities provided for banquets by the restaurant that can plan your menus, displays and even for your special event. The terrace located along the canal makes for a very romantic event setting and one can actually imagine a Colonial styled white coat black tie event which would fit in beautifully to this setting!
One could say that Jim Thompson was a man ahead of his times and his lavish lifestyle is what most Westerners can only dream off to obtain in a faraway Eastern country. The romantic era of such famed persons is few and far between. The legacy of Jim Thompson is a great historical example of one man and his love of the Orient with a passion to make a difference.