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Jim Thompson House with Children – Introduction
We have visited Bangkok a few times, and the Jim Thompson House and Museum twice. And we were captivated by it. The first time the girls and I chanced upon it because we lived on the same street, and we loved it. The next time when we were in Thailand with Nick we wanted him to see it. He was just as entranced as the rest of us by the mix of character, architecture and mystery.
It’s already there on the standard tourist list of things to see in Bangkok – but who wants to visit another old house full of relics? Decide for yourself if, like us, you would rate it as the highlight of the city.
The Jim Thompson house is a delicious cocktail of richness with personality; of history with charm. Our kids loved learning about how silk was made and exploring the house and garden. Most of all though, they loved the girls who manage the tours and cloakroom where you leave your shoes. Read on to learn why.
At the time of his mysterious disappearance in 1967, Jim Thompson was probably the best-known American in Asia. The name Jim Thompson doesn’t sound remarkable. Wikipedia lists 63 of them, so either it’s a very common name or else it’s an exceptional one. This one was a spy, an entrepreneur, an architect, a fabric designer and an antique collector. A fortune teller had predicted that he would be in danger in the year he disappeared, and the mystery has never been solved.
What struck us most was the richness of character, imagination, culture and business sense in the man behind the house. This man had also represented his country at sailing in the Olympics and sat on the board of the Ballet Russe in Montecarlo.
His story wasn’t all about success though. He suffered great embarrassments. The house is a masterpiece of imagination, yet he had failed to qualify as an architect in his home country. His house designs in the USA had to be approved and signed off by licensed architects. Some had called him an impostor for acting as an architect at all. His first civilian business venture in Bangkok led to a rift as he split from his business partners. Later, he had to respond to formal accusations that his collection included stolen items.
This last setback led him to change his will. He had intended to leave the collection to the Thai State. Now he bequeathed it to the private foundation which manages the house today. No doubt these setbacks add to the spirit of the house. He came through all this, and his legacy speaks for itself.
Jim Thompson’s Impact on the Thai Silk Trade
Jim Thompson’s wartime work for the American secret service (OSS) in Sri Lanka introduced him to Thailand. His father had been in the textile industry, and he realised an opportunity here. There was a community of silk workers in Bangkok, but the country was importing silk. For the locals, silk was as an expensive fancy dress fabric not relevant to daily life.
Not just a visionary businessman, Thompson was a gifted designer and a marketer. He created new combinations of bright colours entirely different from Thailand’s traditional silks. The western world recognises Thai silk today from colours and designs inspired by Jim Thompson.
Using his social network, he brought this material to the attention of Vogue magazine in the US. Thompson had previously worked with the husband of Margaret Landon, author of “Anna and the King of Siam”. The Rogers and Hammerstein Broadway musical “The King and I” was based on this book. Thompson persuaded its producers to feature Thai silk in the set designs. This was his major marketing breakthrough, and he exported much of his production after that to the USA.
Thompson’s designs owed very little to traditional Thai design. He reinvented the meaning of Thai Silk just as he had reinvented his own career after his own failures.
As demand grew, instead of industrialising the process, he managed the production of silk by local out-workers. The women gained financial autonomy with the benefit of retaining their position in the family. He brought income to thousands of the most impoverished Thai families, with an impact on the economy of the nation. This strategy accounts for the fond respect that a mention of his name creates today in Bangkok.
How Silk is Made
Friendly experts demonstrate traditional silk manufacture in the courtyard. The girls loved it. Although they are the world’s biggest bug-o-philes, the twins happily learnt that the poor silkworm pupae are boiled alive. This prevents them from cutting exit holes in their cocoons and damaging the thread. The process of boiling, unwinding, reeling, bleaching, and dyeing, was fascinating for us all. The numbers for these things always amaze. One cocoon contains somewhere between a third of a mile and mile of a single filament. These filaments are so fine that they have to be combined into useable threads by hand reeling onto bobbins. It takes a week or two for a worker to make a single kilogramme of silk thread.
Jim Thompson’s House and Garden
Jim Thompson’s architectural creativity must have been bubbling away as he ran his business. He salvaged six traditional Thai houses and reassembled them to form a unique palace. The house stands on the banks of the canal in a plot of half an acre (2,000 sqm)
The house was always intended to be both a home and a showcase. There is a subtle mix of different types of space in the house. There are covered and open galleries and courts. Enormous double height rooms with chandeliers contrast with small, cosy private chambers. The whole is full of personality and character.
The space planning has an intimate complexity reflected again in the content. This includes personal items, photos, furniture as well as the collected treasures.
The structure and flooring above ground level are all timber, burnished with age and the patina of passing feet. Everywhere there are views out into the lush foliage of the garden. The doorways are of traditional Thai form. They have sloping jambs and a raised threshold to keep evil spirits from entering. The guide explained to us that the threshold is also the place for your guardian spirit to perch. Stepping on it is disrespectful. One should take care to step over Thai thresholds.
Not all the building is traditional though. Thompson rearranged the structure, stairs and cladding to suit his own designs. There is great respect for exotic tradition here but never a slavish following. The whole result is subtle, rich and deliciously quirky.
Jim Thompson’s Collection
Thompson collected both Buddhist and secular art and antiques. The eclectic collection is from both Thailand and farther afield in South East Asia including China. He used to go on buying trips to Cambodia, Burma and Laos for his collection, which he intended to leave to the Thai state.
He had already started assembling his finds before building the house. It is likely that some of the courts and vistas were designed around the pieces they display.
Jim Thompson Museum Shop and Coffee Shop
Within the grounds of the house are a Coffee Shop and Restaurant and a Silk and Souvenir Shop.
The Coffee Shop looks out over a formal pond, the coffee and the food are good, a bit pricey but not too much so. The whole is a lovely calm addition to the house.
Nearer to the gate is the Silk Shop, here of course, you can browse and buy the stuff that it’s all about, beautifully presented.
In case you take a little while to make up your mind, there is also a Jim Thompson Silk Shop at the Airport.
How to Get to the Jim Thompson House
The house is here on Google Maps
On our first trip to Bangkok, we discovered the Jim Thompson house by accident because we were staying on the same street. However, on the next trip, we took the BTS to the nearby Siam Paragon shopping mall and walked from there.
The nearest BTS Sky Train Station to the Jim Thompson House is National Stadium (Exit Nº1 ) on the Silom Line.
You can also get there by taxi or tuk-tuk.
Access to the house is only by guided tour. Shoes and cameras are left at the counter in the open yard as you enter the house proper.
There is generally a wait before the tour starts. You are given a time for your tour when you buy a ticket so you don’t have to stand in a queue waiting. You can visit the Coffee Shop or the Silk and Souvenir Shop, or see the demonstration of silk production while you are waiting.
The Jim Thompson House Visiting Hours
Jim Thompson House is open every day from 9am – 6pm.
Entrance fee: 200 baht (about $6.50)
Visitors under 22yrs: 100 baht ($3.20)
Children under 10 years, free when accompanied by an adult.
Visiting Jim Thompson’s House with Children – is it worth the time?
It’s a rabbit warren to explore, full of beautiful things to find. It is set in a delicious manicured jungle. There is a mysterious story about a rich man who disappeared in an exotic land. Yes: our kids loved it as much as we did.
But if I ask them now (two years later) what they remember about this house, they scream “Origami.” Why? The young women who manage the tickets and cloakroom immediately adopted our girls as their best friends. They entertained us by making origami from squares of coloured paper. We still have those little frogs, cranes and lily flowers tucked away somewhere. The girls certainly have them in their hearts.
Was Jim Thompson’s house worth seeing I ask?
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