Back in 2013, when I lived in Bangkok, I had more than enough time to go around the city and visit places that not so many tourists get to see, like the Fertility Shrine, as well as the more popular ones, like the Grand Palace.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to write up most of the places I’ve been — there’s just so many things to do in Bangkok that I wasn’t able to keep up!
Fortunately, I got to visit again last year, when the Tourism Authority of Thailand (Philippines) and Thai Airways brought some of us to Thailand. I saw a bit more of the country, including another chance to go to the Jim Thompson House.
The Jim Thompson House, set at the end of a long road and surrounded by landscaped gardens, was owned by American businessman and art collector James H.W. Thompson. He was a prominent figure in his day; as the founder of a world-renowned luxury Thai silk company, he had the prestige, the wealth, and the connections to hold popular social gatherings in his beautiful home.
Today, the Jim Thompson House is considered a national treasure that’s worth visiting not only for its charm and beauty but also for the story and the man behind it.
Who was Jim Thompson and what happened to him?
Jim Thompson was an architect before World War II brought him to the shores of Thailand, where he served in the American intelligence community. When the war ended, and following his military discharge in 1946, he moved to Bangkok and took on a series of business ventures.
Thompson’s most successful business was silk weaving. From importing dyes and hiring villagers as weavers to introducing Thai silk to the international arena, he helped revive an almost-forgotten art and a dwindling industry through the Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company (which lowly backpackers like me can never afford!).
Jim Thompson had been in Thailand for more than two decades when he mysteriously disappeared in 1967 while out for a walk in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. Years after his disappearance, his house and art collection were turned into a national museum.
How the Jim Thompson House came together
Thompson’s house is actually a complex of six structures bought from all over Thailand and brought to Bangkok in 1958. They were already quite old, just restored and reassembled into one of the best examples of traditional Thai architecture.
The oldest (and largest) structure in the complex is the drawing room, which is actually an early 19th-century house from the Baan Krua Muslim community in Bangkok. The kitchen wing, which came from the same village, was once part of a mid-19th-century palace. And the living room was constructed from a 100-year-old house, also from Baan Krua.
You will get to set foot on structures from the province of Ayutthaya as well, including a 19th-century-house-turned-dining-room.
In putting his home together, Jim Thompson both preserved the local style and added a modern Western twist. Three sections, for example, are close replicas of the original houses. The bathrooms and staircase, traditionally found outdoors, were placed indoors.
And instead of the usual open courtyard, the entrance hall and corridors were designed with a covered walkway. The façade, too, leads to a decked entry foyer, which isn’t a common feature in old Thai houses.
In addition, Thompson made sure to incorporate modern conveniences, including indoor plumbing and electricity.
What’s inside the Jim Thompson House?
The compound’s layout and architecture is not the only thing that will impress you when you drop by. You also have Thompson’s Asian art and antique collection to look forward to. (Note, though, that you’re not allowed to take pictures inside the house, which is why I only have exterior photos!)
The collection includes paintings on paper, wood, and cloth. One of the houses, in fact, was built for the display of Thai paintings that date back to the 1860s and portray everyday scenes from traditional Thai life.
Thompson was also drawn to paintings depicting the legend of Prince Vessantara (who gave up his family and worldly possessions to reach enlightening) and the story of Buddha’s life and spiritual journey.
Wall hangings from Buddhist temples will welcome you as you head upstairs. You’ll also come across Buddha images throughout the house, with most from Cambodia and Thailand and a few from Burma.
Among these are a limestone sculpture of Buddha’s torso, a sandstone statue of Buddha meditating on a serpent, and a limestone bust of Buddha.
A range of porcelain ware graces the house too, including the blue-and-white Chinese porcelain set on the dining table, the colorful and ornate Thai Benjarong pieces in the kitchen, Sukhothai and Sawankhalok ceramics, and Lopburi-Khmer pottery.
How to go to the Jim Thompson House
Guided tours of the museum cost 150 baht (100 baht for students 22 years old and under). It opens at 9:00 a.m., with the last tour scheduled at 6:00 p.m. It is located opposite the National Stadium on Rama I, best reached via the BTS.
While you’re there, I also highly recommend their café and restaurant. You will enjoy dishes there that’s more palatable to tourists new to Thai cuisine (i.e., not too spicy).
If you have more than a few days in Bangkok, definitely include the Jim Thompson House in your itinerary. With its history, legacy, and fascinating architecture, it is definitely a must-see in the Thai capital.
Have you been to Bangkok? Would you include this in your itinerary?