The man, the mystery, the house
Published/Last edited or updated: 3rd September, 2017
Jim Thompson was a famous architect, designer, silk magnate, Asian art lover and, incidentally, a spy for the Allies during World War II. Draped beside the San Saeb Canal, the house that he pieced together and filled with antiques now stands as one of Bangkok’s most popular museums.
The burly American became infatuated with Thailand when the US Secret Service (predecessor to the CIA) assigned him to Bangkok at the end of the war. After encountering the silk weavers of Baan Krua Nua, he launched a company that revitalised the Thai silk industry and remains one of the world’s best-known producers and retailers of silk wears. In 1967, Thompson disappeared in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, a mystery that has never been solved.
To learn more about Thompson’s extraordinary life and mysterious disappearance, check out The Ideal Man: The Tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War, by Joshua Kurlantzick. It’s not sold at the museum but you can read our review here.
A visit to the man’s house is less of a journey through history and more of a window shopping tour where everything is old, quietly beautiful and unfortunately not for sale. The lair of one of the most legendary Westerners in Asia during the mid 20th century is a work of art unto itself, with the elegance of a traditional Thai house arranged in an American-style layout.
To create the house, Thompson procured centuries-old teak beams, fretted boards and fired ceramic tiles from as far away as Ayutthaya. Not a single nail was used during construction, which followed a traditional Thai format along with a schedule based on the advice of Thai astrologers. Thompson opened the house to visitors before his disappearance, making it one of Bangkok’s longest-running museums. It remains a mainstay on the sightseeing circuit.
A compulsory small group tour will lead you through rooms filled with Chinese porcelain, classical Thai paintings and Buddhist statuary from ancient Thai, Burmese, Khmer and Dvaravati civilisations (though the guides call the latter “Central Thai”). Thompson purchased most of the furniture and art himself, including some pieces that are up to 1,200 years old.
Well-trained guides who speak clear English rely on a memorised spiel to point out some of the most notable antiques while focusing mainly on how the house was designed and built; you will not learn too much about Thompson himself or the company he founded. Tours last a half-hour at this highly manufactured tourist attraction in which groups are ushered through on a tight schedule. Photography is not allowed in the house and visitors must deposit bags and shoes at a locker before entering.
While the guides mention the nearby Baan Krua Nua community, it’s disappointing that they don’t explain how a few of the original family-run weaving workshops employed by Thompson still produce (and sell) silk wears by hand directly across the canal. After Thompson’s disappearance, members of his extended family moved production to a factory in Nakhon Ratchasima province, abandoning the weavers who collaborated on styles that first made the brand a hit in the 1950s. Do stroll over there to see where it all began.
Also worth a look is the Jim Thompson Art Centre, a contemporary gallery on the upper floor of one of the front buildings that hosts exhibitions by established artists who tend to focus on experimental art in a wide range of mediums. The property also includes verdant gardens, an excellent restaurant and bakery, and, of course, a Jim Thompson store.
After hitting Jim Thompson’s House and Baan Krua Nua, you could pop over to the nearby Bangkok Art and Culture Centre or take a canal boat west to the old quarter. Those who are into traditional Thai houses turned museums should also consider checking out Suan Pakkad Palace, Kamthieng House and Bangkokian Museum.
The house is a 300-metre walk from National Stadium BTS Station. Leave the station through exit 1, walk straight west and turn right on Soi Kasem San 2, and the house will be on the left at the end of the lane. Alternately, take a San Saeb canal boat to Baan Krua Nua Pier, walk east alongside the canal and take the footbridge to the other side.
Address: 6 Soi Kasem San 2 (off Rama I Rd)
T: (02) 216 7368;
Coordinates (for GPS): 100º31'42.19" E, 13º44'57.14" N
See position in Apple or Google Maps: Apple Maps | Google Maps
Admission: 150 baht for adults ; 100 baht for children
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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