Ok, I admit it. I’ve always been a sucker for a great expat story. Stories of success – or complete failures – of expats in their chosen countries have always fascinated me. Most everyone has a great story of someone who completely went off the deep end, but it’s the stories of those that have succeeded away from home that rarely get the recognition they deserve.
Jim Thompson’s story, however – a man who, at the time, in the 1960s, was one of the most revered expats in Asia – is one that even 47 years after his demise is still being debated today.
For those who have never heard of him, Thompson was an American operative in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which was the forerunner of the CIA in the 1940s. He later became an investor in the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok after retirement, and eventually, after a falling out with his partners, became better known as the man who is often credited for single handedly reviving the silk industry in Thailand.
The charismatic Thompson eventually became one of the most influential people in high society in Thailand. That honor, of course, brought with it a multitude of enemies due to jealousy from competitors and local government officials, not to mention a home government that was not impressed with his vocal displeasure of the then-ongoing Vietnam war.
His architectural background, which he learned through Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania and a 10-year career in the US, helped him establish one of the most well-known houses in Bangkok – a six-building home built from century-old wood, which he had disassembled and had boated down the river from Ayutthaya at a time when such Thai-style teak houses had gone out of vogue. In 1958, the house, built on stilts among a lush canopy of lavish gardens and immaculately decorated with ancient Asian art and antiques, became a showcase for Thai history and culture.
The Jim Thompson House, as it became known, complete with Buddhist treasures and antiques from Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand – including a dining table used by King Rama V – became a landmark architectural achievement and the city’s most celebrated social center, where Thompson hosted nightly parties for the elite and visiting dignitaries.
Biographer Joshua Kurlantzick noted that the American’s amazing accomplishments brought some inevitable resentment from some Thai’s. William Warren, author of Jim Thompson – The Legendary American in Thailand, also noted in an excerpt from his book just how much of a legend he had become.
“In the twenty years … he had accomplished more than most men in a full life. He had built a major industry in a remote and little known country whose language he could not speak; he had become an authority on an art that, previously, he scarcely knew existed and had assembled a collection that attracted scholars from all over the world; he had built a home that was a work of art in itself and one of the landmarks of Bangkok; and, in the process of doing all this, he had become a sort of landmark himself, a personality so widely known in his adopted homeland that a letter addressed simply ‘Jim Thompson, Bangkok’ found its way to him in a city of three and a half million people.”
At the age of 61 and the height of his success, Thompson mysteriously vanished on a trip to Malaysia. His demise, which to this day has never been solved, has always elicited theories of what actually happened on March 26, 1967 in the Cameron Highlands, after he embarked on a simple hike that was supposed to last, at most, a couple of hours.
His remains have never been found, of course raising the notion of foul play, though authorities searched the area for a month to no avail in Malaysia’s largest manhunt ever.
Thompson, an experienced hiker and survivalist, would more than likely not have had a struggle navigating out of the jungle terrain with his past field training experience from his days in the army, leading many to suspect he was murdered and his body disposed of.
Questions of his disappearance have always raised suspicions. Did he fake his disappearance to reinvent his life elsewhere? Was he murdered by competitors or rivals who would benefit from his demise? Did the Thai, or American government for that matter, have anything to do with his disappearance?
We’ll probably never, ever know.
In 1976, the court-appointed administrator for the property of Jim Thompson received permission from government ministries of the Kingdom of Thailand to establish the Jim Thompson House as a foundation and museum to help preserve and maintain Thailand’s traditional culture.
Though Thompson’s disappearance is one of Southeast Asia’s greatest mysteries that may never be solved, what does remain of his legacy is the monument to Thai culture and history that is a must-visit on any trip to Bangkok.
The Jim Thompson House is located on 6 Soi Kasemsan (2) Song on Rama I Road and is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is 100 baht and includes a guided English or French tour. Call (662) 216-7368 for more information.
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