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The House That Jim Built

If moving house is regarded as one of the four most stressful experience we have in live, imagine trying move six houses from various locations throughout Thailand, transporting them to Bangkok and re-assembling them as a one home . Well that is exactly what American Colonel, Jim Thompson, the Silk King of Thailand did with his House on the Klong.

But how would one go about such a project? Luckily he had study architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. During the 1930's he practiced as an architect in New York City specializing in traditional country house building many on the east coast of America. So he not a complete beginner are far as building a home was concerned.

It would appear that he inherited gardening skills from his parents, father had been chairman of Princetown's Grounds and Building Committee, mother played and significant role in the restoration of an historic Delware town, a task that has shared with her daughter Elinor who conincidentally had studied landscape architecture. Jim Thompson wrote letters to his sister, setting out in great details his plans and ideas for his unique home.

Early plans he sent to her had included a traditional Western-style lawn. But even before construction had started he decided that it would be aesthetically wrong for a traditional Thai house. The result a terrace much larger than on the original plans.

The decision to build a traditional Thai house and live in it in the 1950's was unique. Then urban Thai and expatriates living in Bangkok preferred Western style homes. Although the house on the klong was traditionally Thai in style it did have several Western exceptions. The staircase was inside the house rather than the more conventional open-air one. There was be a proper bathroom with Western facilities. To enable Thompson to work comfortably his study was the one room that would air-conditioned. And he decided to paint the house in a dull-red creosote, believing that it was a local product, having seen it on a few old buildings around Bangkok. Only to discover that it was imported from England.

While the final result may not have been a true classic arrangment, it did suit his own personal style of living. A fitting and proper setting for both his collection of Asian antiques and somewhere that he could entertain.

The largest of the six houses dated from around 1800. It came from the Muslim community of silk weavers in Bangkrua, just across the klong. When it was reassembled as his drawing room Jim Thompson had reversed the walls bring the fine carved panels into the interior.

The kitchen wing also from Bangkrua is belived to be mid 19th Century. It was originally part of an old palace, that had been sold and brought to the village 50 years earlier.

The entrance hall, dinning room, master bedroom and the bathroom walls are from selection of buildings that were found in the village of Pak Hai, northwest of Aythaya. They were thought to be about 60 years old and were dismantled and brought to Bangkok stacked on a barge by river and canal. Sections of other buildngs from Pak Hai were used as links to the various buildings. The cook's house, left of the entrance gate comes from the Banglampoo district of Bangkok near to the Grand Palace. The only non-Thai part of the house is the ornately carved and gilded doorway from the drawing room to the master bedroom. It was started life as the doorway to a late 19th Century pawn shop in Bangkok's China Town.

Having creative wonderful ideas was one thing, executing them another. As Jim Thompson wanted his house traditionally built not using a single nail, he found it hard to find the craftsmen in Bangkok. He had to bring a team of skilled carpenters from Ayutthaya to do the job.

Thais believe that the building should start at an auspicious time to ensure a comfortable and rescuer stay for future residents. 9am 15th September 1958 was decided to be the right moment to erect the two most important pillars of the house. A Brahmin and Buddhist ceremony was conducted to keep the house, its builders and future residents safe. The next ceremony was to find the suitable place for the spirit house where the guardain spirit of the compound is belived to reside. The shadow of the main house should never be cast over the spirit house and vice versa. There are some that may say so what's the big deal, have ignored the ritual and respect of the spirits and lived to regret it. Best to play safe and go along with it however you feel. The house was finally officially opened on 3rd April 1959.

Although Jim Thompson didn't keep an official guest book some of his celebrity visitors included movie actress Anne Baxter, the late US President Robert Kennedy and his wife Ethel. Musical comedy star Ethel Merman sang "Hello Cocky" to Thompson's pet white cockatoo. But the celebrity visitor that best summed up the place was Somerset Maugham when he wrote a note concluding "You have not only beautiful things, but what is rare is that you have arranged them with faultless taste."

The house a significantly attractive piece of architecture. But after all, it is just a pre-fab. What is most significant is the content, a statement on the true style of Jim Thompson.

The Thompson collection has great originality. While having great diversity the common theme appears to be objects and images that appeal to the eye or have their own unique charm. Monentary value does not appear to have been a consideration. According to the well-known antique-dealer Peng Seng, Jim Thompson had been a collector since 1946. He used to enjoy visiting the Chinese district of Nakhon Kasem in search of the next piece to add to his collection.

The first Buddha Image passed on the ground floor is from Lopburi. Carved in the 6th Century out of green lime stone in the Tarawadi style with a Khmer influence. Now with neither head nor hands it is believed to be the oldest Buddha image in South East Asia. A little further on I passed 19th ceramic tea containers that are believed to come from a Chinese Tea Shop in Bangkok.

For his 60th birthday, his employees bought Jim Thompson an elephant carved out of a single piece of teak. Nearby the 18th Century ceramic gold fish bowl was a gift from Bangkok's Chinese community.

The octagonal dinning table has a blue and white rotating ceramic plate depicting a scene of Canton's European district.

The small house once a rice barn is home to the watercolour collection of images of Thai daily life. They were purchased in the States from retired missionary Dr J.H.Chandler.

The two small house, formerly the gardeners' quarters now house the collection of 30-35 19th Century paintings of the life of Lord Buddha. The original collection had the horoscope of the twelve characters of the Chinese Zodiac. Today just nine remain. Of those missing is the original of my Chinese character - The year of the goat. I bought a print of it on my first visit to the house nearly 20 years ago. I had it framed and for many years hung my home in England. Now it's in my apartment in Bangkok.

The former maids' quarters now house the most important pieces of porcelain in the collection. I particularly liked the Lotus leaf wine cup with the stem acting as a straw to suck the contents through.

The original weavers in Bangkok were from the Muslim community directly across the klong from the house, And its still there today.

When Jim Thompson was in residence he would leave his garden through the gate on the landing. Then on cross the klong by boat. But today the entire compound is protected by a seamless high fence for security.

The Thai spirit house still stands where it did when the house was built. Then it was the Northeast corner of the property. Now in the mid way as the compound has been expanded to encompass the enlarged gift shop, restaurant and bar.

The floor of the entrance lobby is covered with black and white chequered Italian marble from a former 19th century palace in Bangkok.

The 17th century Buddha on the ground floor is rare as it's from the Aythaya period, a time that Siam was at war with Burma and many works of art were lost. Made by Chinese artisans it has their style of eyes. At the top of the stair case there are two 16-17th Century painting from Surat Thani province in the south of the Kingdom. On the opposite wall there are three 18th Century hanging scrolls from a temple in Bangkok. There purpose to teach the people about the teaching of the Lord Buddha. On the landing a collection of 13 19th century paintings on cotton screen in a set of nine and four. They were originally from a Bangkok temple. Between then are figures of the three Hindu gods Vishnu, Shiva and Uma.

Thai homes were traditionally built wider and the bottom and narrower at the top to improve ventilation. Windows without glass would be opposite each other to increase the circulation and the roofs would have a large over hang so that the shutters could be open even during the rain. When they did need closing, they were held shut a wood peg at their base that was slotted into the frame.

In the former Dinning Room the table for six is two Mahjong table. Each side is intricately carved with the emblem of King Rama V in a Chinese style but using the Thai alphabet. The blue and white tableware is from the Ming dynasty. The chandelier above was made in the famous Belgium town of Val St Lambert. It is believed that it was originally been in a former Bangkok palace before being bought by Jim Thompson.

On the left wall of the Drawing Room are four inset Burmese wooden figures of the god - Nat. On the right hand side of the room is a carved head half male half female. Shiva on the right side and Uma on the left. In the Angkor style, the carving came from Cambodia.

Adjoing the Drawing Room is the former study. home of another two 17th century Buddha images in the same style are those in the reception hall. The features are Chinese eyes, elongated eyebrows a flat nose and generous sized mouth. On the wall are both are the Chinese horoscope of both Jim Thompson and his house - born Friday 3rd April 1959 in the Chinese year of the horse.

From the guest bedroom there is a beautiful view across the dense tropical garden. The paintings in the room are from the North of Thailand. Easy to detect as the characters have Burmese feature.

In the passage way connecting the guest and master bedroom there is more black and white Italian marble as in the Reception Hall downstairs. When the weather is hot it's cool to walk on and when cool it's comfortable underfoot.

When Jim Thompson lived in the house the balcony of the bedroom was not glassed in. But to protect the exhibits from the elements it has became necessary.

An interesting feature in the bedroom is the 19th century Chinese Children's game, the mouse house. Each child would put their mouse into the house, and whoever's mouse was first through the maze was the winner. One visitor to the house was so enchanted with the game that they made is the subject of a children's book The Mouse Palace.

At the far end of the bedroom is a screen that would be placed near to the doorway of a temple to deflect evil spirits from entering . It had 450 ceramic and glass Buddha images. Eighteen wide, Twenty-five deep.

Adjacent to the master bedroom is the seventh house that was added a year after the main house was built as additional guest accommodation.

One of the most beautiful Buddha's in the collection, with hands in the meditation sits in front of the building that was the kitchen. When the house became a museum it was the gift shop and is now home to the Benjarong collection - a five-colour porcelain used by the Royal Family in the 17th Century.

Two exhibits that may confuse a visitor are what looks like a pair of teapots but infact wine jugs. With no opening at the top, they have to be inverted to fill with liquor. When righted the internal mechanism allows the wine to follow through the spout.

The last exhibit on the tour is of a carving with four images of Buddha with opened lotus flower. There are four stages of human beings, below ground, above ground, in the air and enlightenment.

From 1959 until his unsolved disappearance in 1967 the House on the Klong was Jim Thompson's home in Bangkok. An perfect cool and calm escape from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok.

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(March, 2001)

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