Located along a klong (canal) in Bangkok, silk tycoon Jim Thompson’s house is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Thailand. Featured in many magazines, books and blogs, it stunningly combines Asian and European aesthetics and has influenced domestic design around the world. But as many gardeners will no doubt realise, the garden is also a feature of this property and is probably as well known as the house.
The garden was at the top of my list of places to see whilst in Bangkok, as I had long drooled over pictures and articles about it in books such as William Warren’s classic, The Tropical Garden. I had also spent a week in the Cameron Highlands a couple of years ago and stayed at the Smokehouse, a location where the ‘Thompson legend’ was a part of the local history. I was not disappointed by my visit and spent a pleasant morning exploring the house and garden.
The destination is very popular with tourists. It is advisable to arrive early, as in a short time the crowds arrive in droves. However the facility is well prepared for the masses. As you arrive and purchase tickets, they ask you what language you speak and in no time you find yourself in a group with your tour leader. Take the tour of the house first, as you will learn about Jim, the house, the garden, the Thai silk industry and the legend. Then you are free to walk around the garden at your leisure.
The Thompson house is made up of a number of traditional Thai homes which were moved from both Ayutthaya (the former capital) and Bangkok. Four of these were reassembled and combined together to form a larger house, whilst other houses were used as servants quarters and were placed in other parts of the property.
Jim Thompson was a renowned and gracious host and entertained guests at the house most nights. The house was thus designed for entertaining and has a large open area below as well as a large lounge and more intimate dining room. The lounge is stunning with doors that slide back effectively opening the house to the terrace, the garden and the klong below.
The house is now a museum showcasing an amazing collection of Buddhist art and Thai ceramics. However unlike many museums, the items were selected and placed for the owner’s pleasure, with both style and flair. An early visitor, Somerset Maugham wrote: :”You have not only beautiful things, but what is rare you have arranged them with faultless taste”.
Jim Thompson arrived in Bangkok as an officer in the US Army in 1945, just 2 days after the Japanese surrender. He went on to establish the Thai silk industry, but did this by supporting small cottage industries across the country. He was instrumental in revolutionising silk dying; selecting silk colours and patterns; and marketing Thai silk around the world.
Sadly Jim only enjoyed living in the house for 8 years; for on the Easter weekend of 1967, while staying with friends in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, he mysteriously disappeared. The hosts and guests had returned home for a nap following a picnic. While everyone slept, Jim disappeared, never to be seen again. To this day no one has ever been able to explain what happened, although there are numerous theories. The four possible explanations are:
1. He was kidnapped for a ransom by a Malaysian gang
2. He committed suicide
3. He was kidnapped or left for political reasons
4. He had an accident while walking in the nearby forest
However after 46 years of examination, there are no facts that support any one of these possibilities more than another. No ransom note or body was ever found.
No wonder the Thompson garden is known as ‘the jungle’. For unlike many traditional western gardens, most of this garden is sensibly located in the cool shade of tall trees and palms. There is no lawn, just a large gravel parking and turning area outside the main house; a network of brick pathways that wind through the lush understorey garden; and some terraces at which to sit and relax.
A pond with fountain is located towards the centre of the rear garden. Further water is introduced to the garden by a number of large ceramic pots replete with aquatic plants and fish. In one corner of the garden is a traditional Thai shrine, daily decked with flowers and floral chains.
The elevated terrace area below the lounge once had clear views over the klong. Steps led down to a jetty and Jim used to catch a boat across the klong to his silk weavers who lived and worked on the other side. Today a fence and plantings provide screening to the klong below.
Many of the older trees were retained on the property when Jim constructed the house. A huge rain tree (Samanea saman) shades the garden area near the klong. There are also many taller palms including slender betel nut palms (Areca catechu), Foot stool Palms (Livistona rotundifolia) and Fan palms (Licuala spinosa). The tall canopy and large space below the tree canopies gives the effect of a cathedral. The bright semi-shade supports a lush and richly varied understorey of predominantly foliage plants and these contribute to the distinctive character of the garden.
Near the front door of the main house are some magnificent native Dracaena plants. These are Dracaena loureiri that are found in the mountainous limestone areas of the country. It has recently become available in Australia and shares the attributes of the famous Dragon Tree (Dracaena draco) but is much better suited to the dominant summer rainfall of subtropical and tropical regions.
The majority of the understory plants in the garden belong to the Arum family – Araceae. These plants include numerous Aglaonema (and there are many in Thailand), Anthurium, Caladium, Dieffenbachia, Epipremnum, Philodendron, Rhaphidophora, and Scindapsus. I was particularly interested to see the Quilted Heart Anthurium (Anthurium radicans), Satin Scindapsus (Scindapsus pictus) and an unfamiliar but distinctive grey leaved Scindapsus which all made great groundcovers.
A philodendron caught my interest. On my return home I found that it was Philodendron ‘Thai Congo’ and available locally. What a great shade loving groundcover it makes. Heliconia, Calathea, Tacca and Aspidistra also feature in the plantings adding contrasting texture and colour. I came away being inspired and intend to try some of these plant combinations in my own garden.
The overriding feeling is of lush and calming green – an effective and complementary backdrop to the house. I understand that author William Warren was responsible for the renovation of the garden, as at one stage it had become overgrown with self-sown trees and neglected plantings. The renovation introduced some new plants but aimed to retain the character of the garden Jim had designed.
Warren is author of two books specifically about the property and its owner Jim Thompson; The House on the Klong and Jim Thompson the Unsolved Mystery.
When you have finished your tour of the house and garden, you can head over to the Jim Thompson shop – and then finish your visit by relaxing at the coffee shop. I am a sucker for the ice milk tea and I can’t resist pandan flavored deserts. The café verandah is at the edge of a koi pond so you can relax while watching the fish.
Today the Jim Thompson House is managed by the James J. W. Foundation. It is located at 6 Soi Kasemsan 2, off Rama1 Road. And opens daily between 9.00 am and 5.00 pm. It is easy to get there using the metered taxis which have very reasonable fares. I travelled there by train, using the excellent BTS and getting off at National Stadium. The property is nearby and well signed.