The Jim Thompson story

Many people come to Thailand, fall in love with it and never leave. Thailand has so much to offer. From culture to heritage and amazing architectural marvels. These days it’s easier than ever to make your move. Whether you decide to construct your own house like Jim Thompson, or purchase one from Koh Samui Real Estate (or similar), your move is going to be seamless.

Born in Delaware, USA in 1906, Thompson worked as an architect until World War II, when he volunteered for service and was sent to the European theatre. Towards the end of the war he was posted to Bangkok, where he worked in military intelligence for the O.S.S. After his repatriation and release from the military, Jim Thompson returned to Thailand forever.

Thai silk Travelstripe
Thai silk Travelstripe

The art of Thai silk weaving captured Jim Thompson’s imagination and he set about reviving this almost lost industry. With his talents as a designer and textile colorist, he had a great deal to contribute to the manufacture and production process. A skilled marketer and promoter, he soon won worldwide recognition for Thai silk and it became a highly desirable commodity. The production of exquisitely designed and produced silks still continues under the Jim Thompson label. The main showroom is 9 Surawongse Road in Bangkok but Thompson silks can be found all over Thailand in prestige boutiques and top-end department stores.

Just as famous as Thompson silk is the Jim Thompson house, or rather complex of houses, on the Klong (canal) at 6 Soi Kasemsan 2, Rama 1, Road Bangkok. Consisting of six teak houses, which Thompson dismantled brought from sites all over Thailand, It represents the best in traditional Thai architecture,

Authentic Thai traditions were followed in the construction of the Jim Thompson House. All the buildings were elevated a full story above ground to avoid floods in the rainy season. The roof tiles were fired in Ayudhya using an ancient design. The outside walls were preserved with rare, old red paint. Even the “modern” chandeliers came from 18th and 19th century Bangkok palaces.

In 1959 the house was finished. After all the correct traditional religious observances and on an astrologically auspicious day, Jim Thompson moved in. In time, the house and its collection of art and antiques, became such a point interest to Thais and tourists alike, that he opened it to the public. All revenue from the Jim Thompson House is donated to the preservation of Thailand’s cultural heritage.

On March 27, 1967, while on holiday in Malaysia’s Cameroon Highlands, Jim Thompson vanished. The mystery of his disappearance has never been solved. Still, his beautiful silks and his famous Thai house remain as lasting evidence of his creativity and his love of Thailand.

Kanchanaburi and The Burma Railway

Kanchanaburi, 130 kilometres to the west of Bangkok on the Myanmar border, is Thailand’s third largest province, covering 19,473 square kilometres. It is a region of breathtaking beauty, with dense mountainous jungles, calm, slow-flowing rivers, hidden caves, and waterfalls. Pristine national parks offer all kinds of jungle adventures from elephant treks to white-water rafting.

Beautiful Kanchanaburi, from the Burma Railway
Beautiful Kanchanaburi, from the Burma Railway

Today, it seems unbelievable that this beautiful peaceful province, with its friendly gentle people, should have been the scene of one of the worst chapters of World War Two.

In the War Cemetery at Kanachanaburi, row after row of simple white headstones tell of tragic, cruel and needless deaths of 6,982 British, Australian, Canadian, Dutch and New Zealand men, some as young as 16 years and some as old 56. Across the road, the War Museum tells how those lives were lost in the construction of the Burma Railway.

Also known as the Death Railway or the Thailand-Burma Railway, this 415 kilometre line runs between Bangkok in Thailand and Rangoon in Myanmar. Its route was first surveyed by the British at the beginning of the 20th century but plans were abandoned as the mountainous jungle terrain made construction almost impossible.

On June 22, 1942, however, the Empire of Japan, seeking a route to supply their forces in the Burma Campaign, began work on the railway, starting at both the Thai and the Burma ends simultaneously. Most construction materials were carted overland from the dismantled rail system of the Federated States of Malaysia. About 200,000 Asian “slaves” and 60,000 Allied prisoners laboured on the railway, living and working under appalling conditions. By the time construction was completed on October 17, 1943, 100, 000 Asian and 16,000 Allied POW workers had died from exhaustion, malnutrition, cholera, malaria and dysentery.

Today, only 130 kilometres of the railway are still in use. Tourists can ride, in rattling wooden carriages with open windows, along steep jungle cliffs which fall away to a slow yellow river below. Through the treetops on the far banks, the temples of Myanmar flash in and out of view. It’s beautiful, picturesque and tranquil but haunted with ghosts of those men who gave their lives to build it.

The most famous section of the Thai-Burma Railway is Bridge 277 over the Khwae Yai River, probably because it was immortalized by the David Niven movie classic The Bridge on the River Kwai  and its unforgettable theme tune the Colonel Bogey march. Ghosts linger at Bridge 277, too, but they’re the ghosts of Niven et al and the phantom voices in the river below are the whistling chorus of the Colonel Bogey march.

The construction of the Burma Railway was a major event in the “Asian Holocaust” in which millions of civilians, soldiers and prisoners of war lost their lives.