Down a narrow, nondescript Bangkok lane, the graceful red roofs of a traditional Thai residence rise above a lush tropical garden, in serene contrast to the city’s modern clamor all around. This is the home of an American named Jim Thompson, and it stands today as a continuing memorial to a remarkable man and to his love for Thailand’s rich culture.
So reads the promotional description of the ‘house on the Klong’ that I stumbled upon while researching gardens I should visit when travelling in Southeast Asia. I thought the house would be difficult to find—like who would know about it—and upon arriving in the city was much surprised to see that it is on just about every must-see list.
That’s not to suggest the garden is grand for in fact it is rather modest compared to other well-known ones. The house is interesting but not at all like the estates you see in England. But the place is serene and that is what seduces the visitor.
Bangkok is a city that glitters—it’s covered with gold. Thompson’s place is brown and green (with a touch of preservative red). He set out to have a garden that was a mini-jungle, an informal, rather wild landscape. But not a haphazard one, for Thompson was meticulous in his execution of house and home.
The garden has been significantly reduced since his time, given over to revenue-generating activities, but there is still enough property to successfully shut the city out. There are rain forest trees and they grow tall. Below them are specimens like palms and flowering bananas. Hugging the ground are dense plantings of tropical ornamentals.
Jim Thompson himself was certainly interesting. He went to Bangkok as a military officer at the end of WWII, fell in love with the country and returned to live there permanently. He was well regarded in many circles because he revived the Thai silk cottage industry at a time when fabrics were being replaced by cheaper, machine-made ones.
He was also very interested in Southeast Asian art and architecture. The house he built on this property was considered a showcase, constructed out of six separate teak buildings, most of them two centuries old. They were dismantled, brought to the site and reconstructed.
He followed local practices, consulting astrologers before moving in, having Buddhist priests preside over the raising of the first wooden pillar and including a spirit house. When his house was finished he filled it with his collections.
Jim Thompson disappeared while on a visit to the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia in 1967. He’d gone for a walk and never returned. His house and garden remain open to the public (http://jimthompsonhouse.com).
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2012