True: Bangkok, Thailand, can be a very confusing place at times.
It's hot, crowded, incredibly polluted, and functions, by and large, in a language most of us can neither speak nor read. Nevertheless, you might find yourself spending some time there, for Bangkok is a hub of Asian travel and a wonderful city in its own right. The trick to enjoying your time in Bangkok is to do only one thing per day - the legendary traffic jams ensure that any more will only result in frustration and tears - and intersperse each day of errands with a day of sightseeing. There are some lovely things to do in the City of Angels, and one of the most pleasant is a visit to Jim Thompson House, a museum of traditional Southeast Asian arts.
Jim Thompson House is comprised of six antique teak houses brought from the countryside and assembled into a gorgeous compound overlooking a sleepy canal in the heart of the city. This used to be the home of one James H. W. Thompson, an American businessman who arrived in Thailand in 1945 as a member of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a clandestine US intelligence service that operated during the war. Originally charged with parachuting into the remote northeast of the kingdom to foment resistance against the Japanese who were occupying the kingdom at the time, his orders were changed after Japan's surrender in the wake of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and instead, he flew to Bangkok and became OSS Station Chief.
Discharged in 1946, Thompson was already enchanted by Thailand and determined to stay on. He worked on the renovation of the famous Oriental Hotel in the capital and travelled widely around the countryside, buying beautiful artworks. In the isolated and poverty-stricken northeast he discovered an almost extinct cottage silk industry. Raw silk had been produced there in the previous century by farmers - the silkworm's food, mulberry, grew well in the arid northeast - and sold to weavers in Bangkok. However, as inexpensive machine-made fabric from abroad began to flood the Thai market, the indigenous silk industry went into decline, and by Thompson's time, only a handful of northeastern villagers still produced raw silk for their own use.
Thompson thought the slubbing (rough texture) and traditional designs and colours of the locally woven silk beautiful, and very different from the smooth machine-made silk that he had seen elsewhere. So he set about researching the traditional silk industry and seeking ways to revive it. He found that the weavers in Bangkok were dispersed around the city, having abandoned weaving in favour of other forms of a livelihood; only in the impoverished canal community of Ban Krua were weavers still living close together, though they too looked on weaving as a auxiliary source of income rather than a living. This particular community had remained cohesive because they were Muslims in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country; descendants of Cham prisoners of war captured from Cambodia a century earlier, their shared culture of worship and diet had kept them bound them together in their new home.
Thompson began to visit Ban Krua regularly. He persuaded one weaver - working as a plumber to support himself and his family - to produce several lengths of silk in traditional colours and patterns to use as samples. Thompson flew these gorgeous fabrics to New York and showed them to an acquaintance, the editor of "Vanity Fair", who introduced Thompson to Edna Woolman Chase, editor of "Vogue" and arbiter of all things fashion. Legend has it that she fell in love with the fabric at first glance, and within weeks a dress in Thai silk graced the pages of "Vogue". And so a craze began.
Back in Thailand Thompson founded the Thai Silk Company Ltd, purchasing silk from the Ban Krua weavers. Although advisers urged him to set up centralized factory production, Thompson was adamant that the weavers should work independently, from their homes, as had been done in the past; he always bought fabrics on consignment. He set up his restful compound across the canal from the weavers and furnished it with treasures from around Asia, visiting Ban Krua daily to buy silks and suggest new patterns and colours. Many residents of Ban Krua prospered in their newly rediscovered livelihood; the community saw a marked rise in coveted material possessions like televisions and motorcycles, and in hajji, those who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca. Other Thai silk businesses were soon set up, and Thai silk is today a thriving product, much prized throughout the world.
In March 1967, while on holiday in Malaysia's Cameron Highlands, Thompson disappeared; he walked out of his cottage and was never seen again. Speculation was rife about his fate: kidnapped by Communists, killed by bandits, ensorcelled by an aboriginal woman and living with her in the jungle. The truth is probably more prosaic: he may have fallen into a concealed cave or been attacked by wild animals. In any case, we may never know, for his body has never been found.
Today much of the Thai silk industry has been mechanized, but the Ban Krua community remains the centre of a cottage industry, just as it was in Thompson's day. His house is gorgeous, quiet and serene, and impeccably furnished with artifacts and furnishings that reflect traditional Thai culture. The surrounding lush gardens and the quiet (if smelly) canal make it seem you're in a Bangkok far removed from the one you left behind just down the alley. A perfect place to relax from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, and only enhanced by the fact that tour groups are not allowed.