Jim Thompson’s House is a kind of Ideal Home in elegant Thai style, and a peaceful refuge from downtown chaos. The house was the residence of the legendary American adventurer, entrepreneur, art collector and all-round character whose mysterious disappearance in the jungles of Malaysia in 1967 has made him even more of a legend among Thailand’s farang community.
Apart from putting together this beautiful home, completed in 1959, Thompson’s most concrete contribution was to turn traditional silk-weaving in Thailand from a dying art into the highly successful international industry it is today. The complex now includes a shop (closes 6pm), part of the Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company chain.
Above the shop, the Jim Thompson Center for the Arts is a fascinating gallery that hosts both traditional and modern temporary exhibitions on textiles and the arts, such as royal maps of Siam in the nineteenth century or an interactive show that celebrates the hundredth anniversary of Thompson’s birth and the vibrant evolution of Bangkok over the same period. There’s also an excellent bar-restaurant (last food orders currently 6pm, though it may start to open in the evenings till 11pm), which serves a similar menu to Jim Thompson’s Saladaeng Café. Ignore any con-men at the entrance to the soi looking for mugs to escort on rip-off shopping trips, who’ll tell you that the house is closed when it isn’t.
The grand, rambling house is in fact a combination of six teak houses, some from as far afield as Ayutthaya and most more than two hundred years old. Like all traditional houses, they were built in wall sections hung together without nails on a frame of wooden pillars, which made it easy to dismantle them, pile them onto a barge and float them to their new location. Although he had trained as an architect, Thompson had more difficulty in putting them back together again; in the end, he had to go back to Ayutthaya to hunt down a group of carpenters who still practised the old house-building methods. Thompson added a few unconventional touches of his own, incorporating the elaborately carved front wall of a Chinese pawnshop between the drawing room and the bedroom, and reversing the other walls in the drawing room so that their carvings faced into the room.
The impeccably tasteful interior has been left as it was during Jim Thompson’s life, even down to the place settings on the dining table – Thompson entertained guests most nights and to that end designed the house like a stage set. Complementing the fine artefacts from throughout Southeast Asia is a stunning array of Thai arts and crafts, including one of the best collections of traditional Thai paintings in the world. Thompson picked up plenty of bargains from the Thieves’ Quarter (Nakhon Kasem) in Chinatown, before collecting Thai art became fashionable and expensive. Other pieces were liberated from decay and destruction in upcountry temples, while many of the Buddha images were turned over by ploughs, especially around Ayutthaya. Some of the exhibits are very rare, such as a headless but elegant seventh-century Dvaravati Buddha and a seventeenth-century Ayutthayan teak Buddha.
After the guided tour, you’re free to look again, at your leisure, at the former rice barn and gardener’s and maid’s houses in the small, jungly garden, which display some gorgeous traditional Thai paintings and drawings, as well as small-scale statues and Chinese ceramics.