When Jim Thompson decided to build his house on the klong in central Pathumwan District, little did he know it would become one of Thailand’s most celebrated architectural treasures. Occupying an area little more than a hectare in size, Jim Thompson’s “House on the Klong” actually comprises six separate traditional dwellings bought from owners in old Ayutthaya and Bangkrua. Shrouded by swaying palms and waterways, one initially gets the impression Jim Thompson created this gigantic structure to fulfil a childish whim, but on closer inspection you’ll come to realise his vision was far more than a boyish tree house fantasy. From the ornate carved wall reclaimed from a Chinese pawn shop to the soaring gable roofs finished with beautiful curved ‘naga’ (serpent) heads, this fantastical building yields much about the man whose vision led to its creation.

 

The Legend of’ Jim Thompson

Few Westerners will have heard of the “Legendary American of Thailand”, but for natives, former architect turned silk entrepreneur Jim Thompson (aka James W. H. Thompson) remains one of the most prolific saving graces of the 20th Century. A former Princeton graduate, Thompson was both an architect and respected political entity in his home town of Greenville, Delaware, yet chose to leave all this behind for a career with the U.S Office of Strategic Services at the height of the Second World War.

It wasn’t until the breakdown of his marriage and subsequent divorce in 1947 that Thompson turned his attentions to the art of silk-weaving. Fascinated by the organic beauty of Thai silk, and its fabled past, he began to revive the dying industry with the help of life-long friend George Barrie. In 1948, the Thai Silk Company was established in Korat, and later moved to Bangkok – the place that would set the stage for Thompson’s finest masterpiece yet.

Thompson is singly credited with the revival of Thai silk weaving during the late 1950′s; a time when postwar Thailand’s export industry was suffering, and the economy was in severe decline. He single-handedly transformed silk-weaving from a dying art into a powerhouse cottage industry in under a decade, changing the lives of thousands of poverty stricken women in the process. Sadly his success is marred by the tragedy of his disappearance on Easter Weekend 1967, whilst trekking with friends in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia. Despite extensive searches of the jungle and huge reward sums offered, no trace of the “Legendary American” was ever found.

 

What to See

Jim Thompson’s envisioned “House on the Klong” attracts a diverse range of visitors to Pathumwan, many of whom are keen to learn more about how this intriguing building was constructed. It is essentially a frame of wooden pillars and joists onto which sheets of teak are individually slotted into place – without screws or nails. You’ll notice within the guest and master bedroom that several of the walls feature stunning carvings – many of which depict wild animals native to the surrounding jungle, and scenes marking key points of Buddha’s life journey.

Of course, there are elements of the house which don’t conform to the traditional Thai style. The impressive black and white check marble flooring in the main corridor is distinctly European in appearance, yet was actually rescued from a 19th Century Bangkok palace. Situated to the rear of the property, the main living room is an expansive, echoey space filled with quirky Khmer sculptures and limestone statues of Siva, Buddha and Uma. Cast your eyes upward and you’ll notice the living room’s centrepiece – a glittering French chandelier surrounded by a series of carved Burmese spirits from Arapura.

By far the most interesting exhibits at the Jim Thompson House are those of his private collection. An avid fan of Buddhist sculptures, Lopburi-Khmer pottery and sacred cloths, Thompson amassed a large collection of artwork and curios on his travels. The Picture Gallery, an entire house devoted almost exclusively to paintings and small statues, is a time-line of both amateur and notable works dating back to the 15th Century – including a series of 27 paintings commissioned by American missionary Dr. J. h. Chandler. Thompson’s collection of limestone Buddha images is particularly impressive, although perhaps best appreciated with a guide who can explain the symbolism behind the varying postures.

 

Getting to the “House on the Klong”

Located in the South-Central Pathumwan District, the Jim Thompson House is easily accessible from all corners of Bangkok via most types of public transport. If you don’t want to pay over the odds for your fare, your best bet would be the BTS Skytrain or Subway – both of which have stations at the intersection of Rama I and Phayathai Road directly opposite the National Stadium.