BANGKOK, Thailand, Oct. 3, 2015 – Sherlock Holmes. Hercule Poirot. Charlie Chan. They all conjure intriguing images for travelers. But those master detectives were fiction. A real unsolved mystery still thrives in the teeming jungles of Malaysia and amid the klongs of Bangkok.
Just three short sentences are all it takes in Edward Roy de Souza’s book Solved! The Mysterious Disappearance of Jim Thompson, the Legendary Thai Silk King to immediately hook you on this real-life mystery of American entrepreneur Jim Thompson:
“The hunt was for one man. He came to the Cameron Highlands for a short holiday. Two days later he disappeared!”
An unsolved disappearance in the exotic wilds of mid-20th century Asia was not uncommon, but, when the victim was James (Jim) H.W. Thompson, the international celebrity who revived the silk industry of Thailand, suddenly conspiracy theorists and imaginative writers came out of the woodwork to “solve” the mystery.
Nearly 60 years later, the Jim Thompson mystery remains a source of conjecture that not only arouses your curiosity but will enhance your experience when traveling to that part of the world.
Besides the locale, which also makes this story intriguing, is the multitude of theories surrounding Thompson’s vanishing act.
Thompson was involved in espionage during World War II, working as an OSS operative. Following the war, he fell in love with Bangkok despite the numerous inconveniences of living there.
There was a nostalgic appeal to old Bangkok that appealed to Thompson. So much was the “character” of Bangkok’s past a part of his soul that he preferred using the name of “Siam” rather than the new name “Thailand.”
Jim Thompson was an avid walker. He especially enjoyed long strolls in the country and, whenever possible, off the beaten path. Of particular interest were the ancient ruins that abound throughout the country.
While visiting friends in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia during Easter of 1967, Thompson left the villa for an unannounced walk while his hosts opted to rest during the intense afternoon heat. Everyone expected Thompson to return by 6 p.m. in time to prepare for dinner. He never did. Jim Thompson has not been seen or heard of since.
One of the things Thompson loved about Bangkok was its “organized chaos” that seemed to confuse Westerners. Unlike European centers, Thailand’s capital was a myriad of congestion and confusion with no great squares or intersections of major thoroughfares that could be used for orientation.
Much as they are today, pedicabs, or “samloh,” were a popular form of transportation. The three-wheeled two-seated vehicles were famous for their jingling bells that echoed throughout the city like crickets on a warm summer night in the country. It was “like a chorus of strange insects calling to one another,” wrote William Warren in his book, “Jim Thompson: The Unsolved Mystery.”
Thompson was an American entrepreneur of the first order. His first endeavor in Bangkok involved the Oriental Hotel, which nestles along the shores of the Chao Phraya River. The Chao Phraya flows through the city with thousands of “river roads,” known as “klongs,” spreading its aquatic tentacles into the bustling metropolis.
Later, Thompson became rich and famous by reviving the silk industry of Thailand, a thriving venture that is legendary even today for its quality and design.
In the middle of the 20th century, Jim Thompson was an eclectic anomaly in his adopted home. He was an architect, a retired military officer, an ex-spy, a silk merchant, a multimillionaire and an internationally recognized antique collector.
As Thompson’s collection grew, so did the need for a place to house his artifacts, resulting in the construction of a home that was also a museum. The “House on the Klong,” as it is called, was created from parts of six old Thai up-country houses.
It took nearly a year to re-assemble the sextet of homes into the architectural masterpiece that is one of the most popular attractions in Bangkok. Scattered throughout the massive home are blue-and-white Ming treasures, stone figures from Cambodia, elaborate chandeliers, Burmese statues and a dining table once used by King Rama V of Thailand.
Appropriately, the Jim Thompson house nestles in a jungle setting along one of Bangkok’s klongs.
In the 21st century, the silk industry of Thailand thrives, and the Oriental continues to be one of the finest hotel properties in the world. Thompson’s “House on the Klong” is a major tourist attraction in a region where “disappearing” is not unusual.
At least 12 theories have been offered as a solution to the Thompson mystery; one is that he may have planned his own disappearance. None has produced a satisfactory answer.
So the mystery of Jim Thompson continues. All you need to do is travel to Southeast Asia and immerse yourself in discovering the answer.
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About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe. He is founder of the Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com).
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
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