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When he vanished in the Malaysian highlands in 1967, American spy turned Thai silk tycoon, Jim Thompson, left behind an impressive legacy that can be experienced at his historic house turned museum. Yet most visitors are unaware that a handful of his original suppliers still weave silk a stone’s throw away. If you miss the Baan Krua Nua silk-weaving community, you’re missing half of the Jim Thompson story and a compelling attraction in its own right.
Rooted in the ancient Champa kingdom that once ruled vast swathes of what’s now central and southern Vietnam, the story of Baan Krua begins long before Jim Thompson was born. From roughly the 14th to 18th centuries, civil war and conflicts with the Vietnamese caused thousands of Muslim Chams to flee into southern Laos and Cambodia. Some made it all the way to the Ayutthaya kingdom that predates modern Thailand, and their exquisite silk-weaving skills came with them.
After Burmese forces seized Ayutthaya in 1767, many Cham warriors fought among the Thai, Chinese and Portuguese ranks that re-claimed Siam. In the early 1780s, the Thai king rewarded them with a sizable piece of land along the San Saeb canal. Known as Baan Krua, it remains Bangkok’s largest Muslim community. A group of the Cham descendents in Bang Krua Nua (North Bang Krua) have woven silk there ever since, though it was a fading cottage industry when Jim Thompson came along in the late 1940s.
Community elder and silk shop owner, Loong Khun (venerable uncle) Aood, who knew Thompson personally, told us how Thompson used to explore the hidden corners of Bangkok in his free time. One day, he happened upon Baan Krua Nua while rowing a boat along the San Saeb. When he peaked his head into a silk-weaving workshop, a light-bulb went off.
The first Thai silk samples taken to New York by Thompson were supplied by Baan Krua Nua weavers, and the two parties soon collaborated on new styles suited to Western tastes. When some of these were featured in Vogue magazine and later used for costumes in the 1956 film, The King and I, Thompson became a star. More modest but still notable prosperity came to the village, which continued to supply Thompson’s silk straight up until his mysterious disappearance.
With a slight tone of resentment, Aood told us how after Thompson’s nephew took over the business in the early ’70s, he turned his back on the village and opened a factory in Nakhon Ratchasima. While Jim Thompson’s House now rakes in millions of baht from tourists and the Jim Thompson brand rubs shoulders with Louis Vuitton and Gucci in lavish shopping centres, Baan Krua Nua is largely forgotten.
A sign near the village relates, “Because of Ban Krua Thai House, we have known Jim Thompson Thai House“. Today, you can show your appreciation for this fact by visiting the silk weavers in their workshops. Compared to the highly commercialised Jim Thompson’s House, the nearby village offers a far-more evocative experience.
With 60 years of experience, Aood and his family are one of a few remaining Baan Krua households that still produce silk scarves and other garments using traditional weaving methods. Made from natural dyes and silk thread that comes from Surin province in northeastern Thailand, the craftspeople sell their wears at far lower prices than what you’ll find at the Jim Thompson’s House store.
This is one of those increasingly rare places in Bangkok where a traditional craft lingers gingerly into the future. The Baan Krua workshops occupy century-old wood houses that sag over the narrow alleys, and it’s easy to imagine Jim Thompson attracting wide-eyed stares as he wandered through. To the residents of Baan Krua, he was just another character in a far greater story.
Little English is spoken in Baan Krua but Loong Khun Aood (pronounced ‘uut’ as in “toot the horn”) welcomes visitors to observe the silk weaving process and view some fascinating photos, including one that shows a young Aood working with Jim Thompson. If you wander around, you’ll find a handful of other houses with small silk workshops, including Khun Niphon’s Phamai Baan Krua.
How to get there
To reach Baan Krua Nua from Jim Thompson's House, which itself is located on Soi Kasem San 2 near National Stadium BTS station, take a left (north) out of the front gates and walk to where the road ends at the San Saeb Canal. From there, take a left onto the canal-side footpath and keep walking until you reach a pedestrian bridge. After crossing to the north side of the canal, take an immediate left then walk another 50 paces or so, and you'll see the signs.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 15th May, 2014.