Every major capital city has historical gems, hidden away below its modern high-rise metropolis. Edwardian splendour at London’s Burlington Arcade and the eerie atmosphere of New York’s now-closed City Hall subway station are just two that spring to mind. Bangkok is no exception – the bustling Amphawa Floating Market, the Artist’s House (known as Baan Silapin) and the majestic Erawan Museum should all be discovered by the inquisitive tourist. But perhaps the most iconic of all Bangkok’s treasures, and one that is woven into the city’s 20th-century heritage is the fabled Jim Thompson House. As its name suggests, this was the home of the American entrepreneur, James H.W. Thompson, founder of the world-renowned silk fashion brand Jim Thompson.
There are three compelling points of interest with Jim Thompson and his house: firstly, there is the legend of the man himself, secondly the architecture of the house and grounds, and thirdly the collection of art and antiques on display within its walls. Having built up fame and fortune with his silk fabric business, so much so he was awarded the Order of the White Elephant by the Royal Thai Government, Jim Thompson, in 1967, went on holiday to the Cameron Highlands in neighbouring Malaysia and was never seen again. No remains, no witnesses, no inquest – he just disappeared. Rumours were rife, and chief among them was that he was actually a CIA agent, who had been neutralised by someone.
The house and gardens itself offer visitors an amazing example of classic Ayutthaya architecture.
Built in 1959, primarily of tropical teak wood, it consists of separate pavilions, purchased from different owners, transported down to Bangkok and assembled together in a lush tropical garden by the klong (canal). The naga (serpent) motifs on each roof gable-end are of particular interest. If the exterior of the house is a work of art, then what lies within is a real treasure trove.
You encounter a blizzard of beautiful silks, sculptures, paintings, porcelain and other fine collectable items. British playwright and novelist W. Somerset Maugham was a guest at Jim Thompson’s house in 1959, and he remarked to his host: You have not only beautiful things but what is rare you have arranged them with faultless taste. The collections of Vassantara Jātaka murals are particularly valuable. Painted in the 19th century by Buddhist monks on cotton and canvas they tell the stories of a compassionate prince, Vassantara, who gives away everything he owns, including his children, thereby displaying the virtue of consummate generosity.
A must for all visitors to Bangkok, the Jim Thompson House is located on Soi Kasemsan 2, close to the National Stadium on Rama 1. Walk from the National Stadium BTS station, or get a Tuk-tuk; admission is THB 150.