An Afternoon at Jim Thompson House
I recently had a friend visiting from the US. She stayed at a hotel in the Rama I area of Bangkok. Gazing down from her hotel room, we saw a traditional Thai-style house not too far away. Out of curiosity, we both decided to start on a journey to explore the place that’s situated right in the heart of the city, a five-minute walk from the National Stadium BTS station.
The house belonged to Jim H. W. Thompson, the American silk entrepreneur who founded world-renowned Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company during the 1950s and 1960s. The silk king vanished mysteriously in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia in 1967. Ever since his house has barely changed and even been turned into a museum under the aegis of the James H. W. Thompson Foundation.
It is one of Bangkok’s key must-see places on the tourist trail that would appeal to both foreign and local visitors alike. Having heard about the place for many years, this is my first visit to this iconic spot, something of real architectural and cultural significance.
Sitting on the banks of Khlong Maha Nak (Khlong means canal in Thai), the authentic Thai-style house is the perfect embodiment of Thompson’s lifelong passion for art and antiques. Though called Jim Thompson House, it is in fact not a single house, but a cluster of six Thai traditional-style houses connected together.
At the time of purchasing, Thompson found that these old houses, which date to the 19th century, were still in excellent condition and in need of minimal renovation. True to traditional Thai building technique, the houses were assembled together without a single nail. Each wall is fitted and hung on frames of wooden pillars so that it is easy to take down and reassemble like knock-down furniture.
Our tour started at the main building where Thai architecture is at its best with teakwood asserting dominance over other construction materials. With a steep-slope roof, the house has walls that are inclined toward the center to create an illusion of height. It is an ingenious design influenced by the Thai climate: the high ceiling helps with the updraft of warm air and keeps the house cool.
With the house built on stilts, the raised floor provides an open space underneath. In the old days, the space below served as a living area in the hot season, or for storage of rice crops during harvests. The elevated floor offers protection against flooding during the monsoon season. The house features numerous windows that aid air circulation throughout the interior.
Despite our mid-day summer visit, we could still feel a light breeze blowing, keeping the house nice and cool. The interior is the perfect combination of East meets West. It’s easy to spot some of the Thai influences such as the high threshold in each room that combines Thai culture’s superstitious beliefs with architectural practicality.
The high threshold is believed to serve as a barrier that shields the occupants from evil spirits that might easily make their way in otherwise. But its actual purpose is to hold the wall sections firmly together in place and to keep a baby from crawling out of the room and falling off the elevated floor that is on stilts. Given the Thais’ appetite for superstition, builders of yesteryear probably had used this as a convenient way of communicating safety information to villagers back then.
Western decorations can also be found around the house. There are chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, and a dining table, which would have been quite a sight back then as in the past Thais just sat on the floor for a meal and ate with their hands.
What was most impressive is the Italian black and white marble floor tiles in the foyer and the dark-tone hardwood indoor staircase on the side. The room is furnished with Thaistyle tables, sculptures and the likes found in those classical American-style homes where they also placed a console table in the foyer.
We went up to the living room with a high ceiling where one side of the walls opens up to Maha Nak canal for its serene views. Thompson skillfully converted the four windows into showcases of his antique treasures. Upstairs is also a place to show all of his marvelous art collections where he amassed during his extensive overseas travels.
Besides the house’s stunning design, we can see Thompson’s true passion and respect for Thai culture. The way he preserved art objects and antiques and ensured preservation of the house inside out, has allowed us and the next generation to appreciate the cultural significance and the beauty of a traditional Thai house that is still in its original glory.
His passion and love of art will live on at Jim Thompson House, a must-visit destination not only for tourists, but all Thais as well.
Jim Thompson House
6 Soi Kasemsan 2, Rama 1 Rd.
Tel. 02 216 7368