The fabric ‘silk’ needs no introduction. Capturing the hearts and imaginations of couturiers, weavers and fashion lovers the world over, this natural fabric has managed to associate itself with luxury, glamour, mystery and royalty. Pondering on the origins of the threads of royalty for generations will most definitely take you all the way back to the Far East. The coveted fabric enchanted patrons from all over the world and served as an all important link between the Orient and the Occident. This connection was earmarked geographically via The Silk Route.
If your next holiday wish list includes a little bit of history and culture, an air of mystery and a hankering for some silk souvenirs, look no further than Thailand. The hand woven silk of Thailand is noted for its sheen, remarkable texture and strong, contrasting jewel tones complementing each other in perfect harmony. Its capital city Bangkok is home to the Thai Silk Company founded by Jim Thompson better known as the Thai Silk King. This man almost single handedly revived the silk weaving industry in Thailand, an ailing indigenous craft that fed a substantial percentage of its population. Also known for his charismatic personality and enviable social skills, the American entrepreneur was touted the best known foreigner in Bangkok and perhaps, in all of South East Asia. Despite his mysterious disappearance in 1967, he left behind a ‘legacy en soie’ for Thailand and the world through his architectural masterpiece and museum, The Jim Thompson House.
Jim Thompson: The Silk King
Born in Greenville in the United States in 1906, James Harrison Wilson Thompson was educated at St. Paul’s boarding school and Princeton University. Putting aside his love for art, he chose to study architecture at The University of Pennsylvania and was a practicing architect in New York until 1940. With the increase in US involvement in World War II in the 1940s, Thompson enlisted for military service the same year. He was assigned to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) which allowed him to travel globally and opened his eyes to the world. His duties had him travel to Africa, Italy, France and the Far East, for which he underwent rigorous jungle and survival training.
On travelling to Thailand, he developed a sense of deep love and affection for the country and its people and considered settling there permanently. Following his discharge from the army in 1946 and his divorce from wife Patricia Thraves, he returned to the country and devoted his life to reviving the indigenous Thai hand woven silk industry.
Thompson and his colleague George Barrie founded the Thai Silk Company valued at $25000. They each owned 18% of the company’s shares and sold the rest to Thai and foreign investors. Thompson was an art aficionado and was enamoured by the quality and beauty of Thai silk. Weaving of the hand woven fabric was a cottage industry but was on the verge of extinction, a threat to a large number of families dependent on the trade. The demand for silk was low as it was a fabric used occasionally and ceremonially. The industrial revolution created a massive setback to the slow, hand woven silk industry which couldn’t compete with mechanized markets. The decline of the industry seemed unavoidable and irretrievable. However, Thompson had faith that the product would do well in the country and overseas.
Thompson worked hard to customize his product in so as to enhance the quality, consistency and marketability according to international market preferences. The fruits of his labour extended far beyond international acclaim and astounding profits. He invented the distinctive jeweled tones and contrasting colours synonymous with Thai silk today. He uplifted the poor, especially the women of Thailand who formed the bulk of his workforce by allowing them to work at home.
Thompson was also a renowned antique collector and used old properties to create his magnificent architectural masterpiece to showcase his enviable collection. Now a museum, the Jim Thompson House is open to the general public and is widely visited.
In 1967, Thompson disappeared from Moonlight Cottage in Malaysia where he was holidaying with his friends and was never seen again. A number of theories attempt to explain this disappearance but none of them are conclusive or definitive. He was declared dead by absentia and his life and death were bound together by legend.
The Jim Thompson House, Bangkok
Started in 1958, this phenomenal project is a mere glimmer of Thompson’s legacy. At first glance, all you will see is a seemingly dense jungle elegantly cluttered with green flora. On closer inspection, a Thai style house comes into view. Thompson built this ‘House on the Klong’ using dilapidated country properties to form a six house complex on his estate. Preserving the nostalgic appeal Thomson so greatly revered, the house has been maintained just the way he designed it.
A fitting abode for his antique treasures dominated by Buddhist art collections, sculptures and paintings The Jim Thompson House is a must visit on your trip to Bangkok. On visiting the museum, you can see the eccentricities and perfectionism Thompson employed in his endeavours in the units from Ayutthaya and Bangkrua, the indoor staircase and the reversed wall panels. Keep your eyes peeled for Chinese Ming pieces in blue and white, Belgian glass, Cambodian carvings, Victorian chandeliers, Thai stone images, Burmese statues and a dining table once used by royalty. There is also a retail store selling Jim Thompson brand products and a museum of silk treasures.
This enchanting attraction is accessible by both public and private transport and is open between 9:00 am and 5:00 pm. There are guided tours around the property with an admission fee of 100 baht for adults and 50 baht for students.