The House That Jim Built
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
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
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
The octagonal dinning table has
a blue and white rotating ceramic plate depicting a scene of Canton's
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.
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
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
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 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.