The other half of the Jim Thompson story
Published/Last edited or updated: 5th September, 2017
Many travellers visit Jim Thompson's House to experience the legacy of this famous American spy turned silk magnate, but few are aware that some of his original suppliers still weave silk a stone’s throw away. If you miss the Baan Krua Nua silk village, 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 Siamese, Chinese and Portuguese ranks that re-claimed Siam. In the early 1780s, the Thai king rewarded them with a piece of land along the San Saeb Canal. Known as Baan Krua, it remains Bangkok’s largest Muslim community. A group of the Cham descendants 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 just after World War II.
Community elder and silk shop owner, Khun Loong (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 canal. 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 hit 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 right up until his mysterious 1967 disappearance in the Malaysian highlands.
With a slight tone of resentment, Aood told us how after Thompson’s nephew took over the business in the early 1970s, he turned his back on the village and opened a factory in Nakhon Ratchasima. While Jim Thompson’s House now rakes in baht from tourists and the Jim Thompson brand rubs shoulders with Louis Vuitton and Gucci in lavish shopping centres, Baan Krua Nua has been 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 the village's pivotal role in the Thompson saga by visiting the weavers in their workshops. Compared to the highly commercialised Jim Thompson’s House, the nearby village offers a more evocative and offbeat 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 affordable prices.
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 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 Khun Loong Aood (the name rhymes with "boot") welcomes visitors to observe the process of dying and weaving silk before viewing some fascinating photos, including one that shows a young Aood working with Thompson. If you wander around, you’ll find a handful of other houses with small silk workshops, including Khun Niphon’s Phamai Baan Krua.
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. The village can also be accessed from Baan Krua Pier on the San Saeb canal boat line.
Address: North bank of the San Saeb canal near Jim Thompson's House, Bangkok
T: (02) 215 9864;
Coordinates (for GPS): 100º31'39.2" E, 13º45'0.04" N
See position in Apple or Google Maps: Apple Maps | Google Maps
Admission: No entry fee is charged, but we highly recommend picking up a scarf or two—they start at around 500 baht.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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