Empire of Silk: The Jim Thompson House

Bangkok is better known for its markets and temples than its museums, but a delightful option for viewing art and architecture is the Jim Thompson House Museum.

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Sited on the largest canal in the city, this was the home of Jim Thompson, an American architect who fell in love with Thailand during World War II and decided to stay. A talented colorist and designer, he is credited with reviving the country’s flagging silk industry (he famously provided the yards and yards of colorful fabric used in Roger & Hammerstein’s 1951 production of The King & I).

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Thompson is also famous for disappearing: in 1967, he vanished while on a trip to Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands. Rumors about his disappearance abound — I’ve heard that he got lost and injured and devoured by ants, that he was eaten by a tiger, that he was kidnapped, that he went into hiding in another country because he was a CIA agent, that he was killed because he was a CIA agent, and that he was killed in a hit-and-run — but no one really knows where he went or how he died. Now he lives on through a private foundation, “Jim Thompson,” an international brand that sells everything from scarves and handbags to pillow covers and neckties.

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When you arrive at the Jim Thompson House, you are sold a ticket (roughly $6.50 USD) and asked to wait for your tour time. The only real place to wait is their extensive store, outside of which you can briefly study the elements of the silk-making process, from silk cocoons to skeins of thread:

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It’s not necessarily clear at the start, but you also have the option of investigating the plants in the compact and tidy garden (the house was once surrounded by jungle, but is now sits in the middle of a bustling neighborhood).

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There’s a lot to see outside, from beautiful bowls of lotus flowers …

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… that have been carefully-unfolded …

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… to ancient statuary …

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… to spirit houses …

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… filled with tiny figurines …

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… to orchids …

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… to awesome orange umbrellas:

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One of my favorite outdoor pieces was a table inlaid with this ceramic platter:

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I loved the details of the riverboats and of the godowns and shophouses on shore:

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It’s worth taking time to study the exterior of the six teak buildings, most of which were brought in from other parts of Thailand and reassembled (and sometimes reconfigured) on site. In typical Thai fashion, the interior of the major rooms stand a fully story aboveground (to deal with flooding, which seems to happen all the time in Bangkok):

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But while Thompson maintained many traditional Thai elements (including giant eaves for rain runoff and large windows for good air flow) in his building, he also incorporated western innovations such as bathrooms with flush toilets and rooms lit by elaborate crystal chandeliers.

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This was a home, yes, but Thompson also created the space specifically to display his vast collection of Thai, Chinese, Burmese, Cambodian, Indonesian, and Laotian art. The tour of the house moves quickly, so you have to take in everything at a good clip. And while you can’t take pictures of (or spend much time with) the art inside Thompson’s residence, you can linger and enjoy the art displays in the spaces that once served as homes for members of Thompson’s personal staff.

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There are few, if any, signs available to explain the art, so you’re pretty much on your own in figuring out what’s what inside the small, crowded rooms.

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My not-very-sophisticated analyses led me to mental labels such as “Southeast Asian gold jewelry” …

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… “probably-Chinese porcelain urn” (I liked this piece because it features what appears to be a dog-shrimp-dragon) …

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… and “vaguely Southeast Asian incense burners”:

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Indeed, the only art with any helpful curation was the display of shwe chi doe, appliqued pieces of sequins, fabric, and intricate stitching done in silver- and gold-wrapped thread:

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Prints for sale in the gift shop provided us with clues about ancient scrolls depicting signs of the horoscope. Here are the years of the monkey …

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… the horse …fullsizeoutput_4ffa

… the goat …fullsizeoutput_4ffb

… and, from a different series, the chicken:

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I was a big fan of things I could decipher on my own, like the crocodile that’s about to eat what may be a mermaid on this bowl …

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… and this slice-of-life series that includes scenes from the rice harvest …

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… including these wonderful tiny animals …

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… a coconut and other palm fruit harvest …

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… life on the river …

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… and this rare depiction of an intersection of East and West:

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For most of the pieces, however, I just had to draw my own conclusions about what was going on:

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But even if the art is less than well explained, it’s fascinating stuff! And when you’re done with a morning at the museum, you can enjoy a lime soda or a delicious lunch at the museum restaurant. It’s a great way to spend half a day!

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