Mystery and Beauty Surround an American Entrepreneur in Bangkok
Our first stop in Bangkok was the Jim Thompson House Museum. The story surrounding this man is fascinating, and one that I first learned when visiting Bangkok in 1995. Therefore, I was anxious to return.
Jim Thompson was an American born in 1906 to a well-to-do family. He enjoyed an Ivy League education, was an architect by trade, and apparently was a man with exquisite taste. In 1941 he enlisted in the Army and subsequently joined the OSS (forerunner to the CIA). After serving in North Africa and Europe he was sent to Sri Lanka to work with the Free Thai movement to liberate Thailand from the occupying Japanese. However, by the time he reached Thailand the Japanese had surrendered. Several months later Thompson returned to Thailand to work at the U.S. legation for a former Princeton classmate and used his contacts to help defuse conflicts on Thailand’s borders. Interestingly, one of his co-workers was married to Margaret Landon who wrote Anna and the King of Siam, later to be made into the movie The King and I.
After briefly returning to the States to obtain his discharge from the Army, he went back to Thailand and joined a group of friends who had purchased the Oriental Hotel. During its restoration he disagreed with his partners and eventually left the project. In 1948 he and a friend began the Thai Silk Company. His father had been a textile manufacturer so presumably he knew something about the business. Their big break came in 1951 when a Hollywood costume designer used the company’s silk in The King and I. After that the company flourished. As the company grew, Thompson was always proud that it was a cottage industry and he was able to employ women who could work from home. However, he also was insistent on the quality and reliability of the product.
From the time he arrived in Thailand he was fascinated with the art of the country and spent much time scouring markets for collectibles and antiquities. His most ambitious project was to collect old houses from the country (some were over 100 years old) and re-assemble them along a canal in Bangkok across from where his original silk weavers worked. There were six houses that were put together and when finished they were filled with his treasures. Unfortunately no pictures were allowed on our visit but there is a book called The House on the Klong which I plan to order from Amazon for a great memory. It is beautiful and the lush gardens remain as he planted them.
The finale to the story occurred in 1967 when Thompson and a friend traveled to the Cameron Highlands for Easter weekend. On Sunday afternoon Thompson went for a walk in the woods and was never seen again. This triggered an intense manhunt but nothing was ever recovered. Theories abound, some that he was a spy and was captured by enemies, others that he was somehow trapped or injured. Whatever the outcome, it is an enduring mystery.
Sax, our guide, brought us to the flower market where we spent about 45 minutes navigating the stalls full of very talented people creating thousands of floral tributes to be left at temples. The designs are very intricate and each little rose petal or jasmine piece takes on a life of its own.
Everything is put together by hand.
There was also a fruit and vegetable market. The sellers apparently have designated parking spaces where they put their small trucks and sell the produce out of the back.
Olives after which Bangkok is named. “Bang” means city and “kok” olives.
After visiting the outdoor market we walked through a warehouse where we saw huge bags of potatoes, garlic and corn on the cob. This led to another street which was home to many food vendors. A string of sausages was drying next to a food cart selling both grilled fish and chicken that were served with several vegetables and peppers.