Weird & Wonderful: The Disappearance of Thai Silk Company Founder Jim Thompson

Photo by Twang_Dunga

What prompted a New York City architect to leave behind the United States and set up residency in Bangkok in the late 1940s? That part of Jim Thompson’s story is documented, but what happened to him afterwards remains a mystery.

A visit to The Jim Thompson House offers insight into this eccentric expat’s life in Thailand. Charismatic and colourful, Thompson was perhaps the most well known “farang” (foreigner) in Bangkok and possibly Southeast Asia. His passion for the silk business saved a dying craft and transformed it into a world-class designer brand. He even successfully marketed his products to Broadway. Touring the grounds and the property, it’s clear that he was profoundly influenced by Thai culture, intricately fused into the décor and architecture of the house. His furniture is original, and tour guides talk of the guests that stayed in the house.

Dancers greet guests at the Jim Thompson houseFirst, start your tour with a bit of background on Thompson: With the escalation of the war in Europe in the early 1940s, Thompson volunteered for service in the United State Army. During WWII, he was assigned to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), forerunner of the CIA. This post allowed him to travel, including to Asia, and in preparation for such an assignment, he undertook rigorous training in jungle survival. Yet, en route to Bangkok, Thompson received word that the war ended and received orders to return to the United States.

Thompson's scarf

Thompson’s scarf

Peace was at hand and the adventurer was confident that air travel would expand, including leisure travel to Asia. Few Bangkok hotels during this time would be accepted by visiting Westerners, therefore he helped reorganize the Oriental Hotel on the Chao Phraya River; the central nervous system of Bangkok. By this time Thompson developed a fondness for Thailand and its people, and once he received his discharge, he abandoned his American marriage and homeland to permanently establish himself in Bangkok.

In the late 1940s, Bangkok was a peaceful canal village. Thompson spent his days interacting with the Thai people and became immersed into their culture. He also nurtured a small cottage industry of silk weavers into what is now a multinational corporation.

Photo by marianabigal

Photo by marianabigal

On a spring Sunday in 1967, Thompson was vacationing in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia and set off by himself for a hike, to never returned. Search groups never found a trace of him. Theories of what happened to him include heat; a tiger attack; or got lost in the jungle and died. If he was kidnapped, he died before his captors could demand ransom. However, nothing of his person was left behind, and alleged kidnappers would have made some effort to profit from their crime.

Perhaps Thompson decided it was time for a new life. OSS training would have come in handy, and there were also rumours swirling about his sexuality.

This international businessman’s disappearance only adds to his mystique and makes a visit to his homestead a must for anyone visiting Bangkok.

IF YOU GO:

The Jim Thompson House is located on Soi Kasemsan (2) Song, opposite the National Stadium on Rama I Rd. Take a car, taxi, Tuk tuk, or Skytrain (Bangkok Transit System) to get there.

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