An Afternoon Lesson from the Enigmatic Mr. Thompson

House for spirits in JT House & Museum


It was a sunny day last Friday when I stepped out to roam the streets of Bangkok. My priority was to get a tour of the Jim Thompson Museum. The museum is really Mr. Thompson’s house that the Thai government turned into a museum to commemorate him. For those who are not acquainted with Jim Thompson, he is an American who exported silk fabric to Europe and the Americas, giving Thailand a big boost in export revenues from the production and export of silk.  He came from a privileged family and became an intelligence officer for the United States in the 1940’s.

The JT House is off the main streets, hidden in a narrow lane with grand, old houses with high fences and gated driveways. The driveway is flanked by a cafe on the right and a showroom on the left. Beyond is a garden lush with ferns, a variety of orchids, other fragrant flowering plants and greens. Sunlight peeks through small openings made by the trees. The round pond and the walkway paved with brick makes the garden very romantic. I could just imagine evenings there as Mr. Thompson gave one of his fabulous private parties. A low fence camouflaged by plants separates the estate from the canal. Even now, the canal is a buzz with activity of motor boats.

The main house remains faithful to Thai architecture and style with a few western amenities and enhancements. Thai houses are sectioned and separated, meaning that the owner has to go out to reach the kitchen, the dining room and the bathroom. An enhancement made by JT is that he joined all six units together and constructed the bathrooms inside the house. Thai architecture uses broad beams to elevate the house from the ground. The whole house is made of dark Teak wood, reminding me of our old Hispanic houses. A unique feature of Thai architecture is that the upper part (roof) is built more narrow than the base, to make it more structurally sound. Old wooden presses, with intricate carvings and designs, hung on the lower level walls. These presses, ranging in size, were used in dying and pressing the designs on the silk.

Another enhancement made by Mr. Thompson is adding and enclosing a receiving room. His receiving room has antique wooden statues that act as sentries with Italian black and white marble flooring that give the otherwise homely house a hint of grandeur. (It is only much later that I learn that the statues are Buddhas from Burma.) The wooden staircase, simple enough, of dark soft wood, leads to the ‘main’ level. The living room, the biggest part of the house, is lit by a crystal chandelier brought over from Belgium. Settees and armchairs are all European with antique China vases and oriental decors that all make for a comfortable elegance. An oriental daybed takes center stage, but it is the antique reclining Buddha that draws attention with its pinkish hue. The most unique feature of the living room is its back wall. Mr. Thompson had the external face of the wall used inside, giving the living room a very textured back wall. The living room wall facing the canal could be slid sideways so guests could get a full view of the garden and the canal. It was a perfect setting for parties and dinners that Mr. Thompson gave for royalty, diplomats and business people.

The subtle elegance of the living room is in contrast to the stark functionality of Mr Thompson’s tiny office. A small wooden writing table is settled near a tall window that overlooks a garden and the driveway. One wall is lined with books and the other with oriental paintings. Once again, there are ancient Buddha statues in the room, this time from the 8th century.

The master’s bedroom is simple with little European and Chinese décor but well lighted as it is surrounded with high windows and a balcony. As in all the other rooms of the house, there is a statue of an antique Buddha.

There are two other small huts in the estate, one that was used to store rice and the other for storage of food. Nowadays, one hut is used to showcase the Mr. Thompson’s collection of ancient Siam maps and the other for his other collections.

A structure that caught my attention was a tiny elevated wooden hut at the far corner of the estate, almost hidden by tall ferns. At first I thought it was a birdhouse, but the arranged flowers in the entrance was a bit too elaborate for a birdhouse. I was later informed by the tour guide that the tiny hut was a house for the spirits that guided the estate.

With all the Buddha’s in the house and the observance of Buddhist tradition echoed in and out of the house, it was but natural to wonder and ask if Mr. Thompson converted to Buddhism. I was very surprised to learn that he didn’t convert but remained a Christian. With all the ‘evidence’ of Buddhism and tradition and rituals spread throughout the estate, you would wonder. But then again, Mr. Thompson was a man of contradictions, a very enigmatic man. US Government reports that Mr. Thompson was a retired spy when he moved to Thailand; others say that he never retired. Even his supposed death is shrouded in mystery and contradiction. Reports say that in 1967, he went out for a stroll in the mountains of Malaysia and never returned; but his body was never found. Others believe that the missing report was circulated so he could secretly return to the US.

I suppose that in the world of espionage, you are supposed to be enigmatic. But in the ordinary world of ordinary people like me, being too mysterious or enigmatic doesn’t help. Which led me to ponder the question, what would people say when I’m dead and gone. Will it be a shallow ‘she was nice and kind’, ‘she was helpful’, ‘she was successful at what she does’, or heaven forbid, ‘oh, I didn’t know she was a believer in Christ’! Though I won’t go down in history as someone famous or having acquired millions or done fantastic work, I would like to be remembered as a woman who loved the Lord and is beloved by the Lord. I would like to be remembered as a woman who shared Jesus’ love with others in the workaday life. I would like to be remembered as someone who prayed for others and encouraged others. Now, the only problem between then and now is to live out Christs message every day.

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