Tag Archives: thailand

He Just Disappeared !

For several weeks now the media here in Winnipeg has carried stories about a woman who simply disappeared one morning when she went for a walk.  

The news story reminds me of my visit to the Jim Thompson home in Bangkok, Thailand.  Jim too simply disappeared one morning while going for a walk.  Thompson, an architect from Delaware, was sent to Thailand as a military intelligence officer during World War II. Enamored with the exotic locale, he returned there immediately after being discharged.

Jim Thompson

During the coming years, Thompson would successfully revive a dying art in Thailand. Colorful hand-woven silks had once been a prized part of Thai culture but by the late 1940s were gradually being pushed aside by mass production. Thompson set out to change that. Armed with samples of genuine silks made by local Bangkok craftswomen he went to New York where he caught the eye of major fashion designers. Soon Thai silk was all the rage. Valentino, the dress designer began fashioning clothing with the material, raving about its luster and texture. The costume designer for the movie The King and I used Thai silk to create the outfits for the all the actors. Big hotel chains like the Hilton and Savoy featured draperies made from Thai silk. The industry took off and continues to flourish. Today more than 20,000 families in Thailand make their living weaving silk for an international market

Jim Thompson with some of the art he collected

Though busy with his new enterprise in the fabric industry, Thompson was still an architect at heart, and set about fashioning a unique home for himself in Bangkok. He purchased six old teak Thai houses decorated with hand carvings and designs. He connected them all together on a thickly- treed area of jungle land he purchased right on one of Bangkok’s famous canals. Like all traditional Thai houses his stood on stilts high above the ground. Thompson proceeded to use the substantial wealth he was accruing from his silk business to fill this home with Asian art and antiquities. Soon his collection was to be envied world-wide.

Jim Thompson House in Bangkok

Then in 1967 Thompson was vacationing in Malaysia with friends. One afternoon he set off on a walk and never returned. No evidence has ever been found to suggest what could have happened to him. Theories abound of course. Was he eaten by a tiger? Did slip down into a ravine and drown? Was he kidnapped and died before a ransom could be demanded? Did he just want a new life? His military intelligence training would have served him well in a bid to simply disappear and re-locate. The mystery has never been solved and adds an extra air of intrigue to the Jim Thompson house.

These women welcomed us to the JIm Thompson house

These women welcomed us to the Jim Thompson house and happily posed while I took their photo

Today Thompson’s home has been turned into a museum by the Kingdom of Thailand. Lovely young women, wearing Thompson designed silk skirts and blouses and fluent in many languages, guide you through the carefully preserved series of houses. 

Thompson is something of a hero in Bangkok. He was instrumental in boosting the economy a half century ago by introducing Thai silk to the world. Despite of, or perhaps because of, his mysterious disappearance he continues to be a financial asset to Thailand as his art collection, lovely home and interesting life story draw people from around the world to Bangkok.

Other posts about Thailand…….

Monk Chat

A Giant Recycling Project


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A Giant Recycling Project- The Temple of Dawn in Bangkok

temple of dawn bangkok towerI thought I’d never reach the top when I climbed the huge tower at the centre of the Temple of Dawn in Bangkok. Built in the 1700s by King Taskin the tower reaches more than 79 meters upward and features steep stairs that are said to lead all the way to heaven.

Me standing outside the Temple of Dawn

Me standing outside the Temple of Dawn

The outside of the tall tower is covered with millions of broken bits of porcelain. They have been arranged into intricate patterns and pictures in a way that is incredibly lovely and required gifted artists to design.

My friend Anna and I pose in cutouts at the Temple of Dawn

My friend Anna and I pose in cutouts at the Temple of Dawn

I learned that ships coming to Bangkok from China centuries ago carried two valuable exports for sale, tea and silk. The tea and silk needed to be carried in the middle sections of the ships because they were sensitive to the water damage that could occur in the upper and lower sections. But to balance the boat so it could sail properly about half of the cargo’s weight needed to be below the waterline in the ship’s bilge. temple of dawn bangkok porcelainChinese porcelain dishes were the perfect solution. They were not susceptible to water damage. They were sufficiently heavy and could be produced cheaply. Often however storms and high waves caused the porcelain to break, leaving the boats’ holds filled with mountains of pottery shards. What to do with the pieces? King Taskin knew. He had his royal artists and craftsmen use them to decorate his now famous temple tower. temple of dawn bangkok detailThey put wet plaster on the exterior and then imbedded the porcelain in complicated designs and patterns. They also created beautiful nature scenes with the bits of colorful pottery. Taskin had probably never heard of recycling but he certainly knew how to do it in a big way.

temple of dawn bangkok Walking slowly around the temple’s first level and looking at all the lovely artwork that had been created out of the colorful porcelain it was almost impossible for me to imagine the endless hours of labor that would go into such a project. What an amazing recycling project!

Other posts about Thailand…..

Monk Chat

Thai Traditions to End and Start a Year


Is Asia Still Authentic?

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wave by sonali deraniyagalaThe pages of Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala grew heavier and heavier. Half way through the book I almost couldn’t bear to turn them.  Sonali’s grief is palpable in every sentence and the weight of her anguish made it impossible for me to read more than a chapter of her story at at time. 

We learn right from the beginning of the book that Sonali, a professor at Columbia University in New York,  lost her parents, husband and two young sons in 2004 when the tsunami swept through the Sri Lankan resort where they were holidaying.  She survives by clinging to a branch after being swept for miles in a torrent of water. Later she can’t fathom why she ever grabbed onto that branch. With so many people she loved dead, she wishes she was too. Her friends and family are on suicide watch for many months.

Photo I took of a Thai family on the beach after the tsunami

Photo I took of a Thai family on the beach in Phuket after the tsunami

The section of the book that resonated with me were the passages of ‘what if’s.’  Sonali thinks of all the alternate decisions she and her family could have made leading up to the tsunami that would have kept them safe. My family and I were in Phuket when the tsunami struck and I too spent months grappling with the ‘what if’s.’  There were so many decisions big and small that we had made which kept us safe. Any one of those many choices, which seemed unimportant at the time, could have placed us right in the path of the wave like Sonali’s family. 

Sonali’s story goes forward year by year after the tsunami and with each passing one she is able to resurrect more memories. But the story also goes back because as she remembers we are given a window into what her life was like before the tsunami and we come to know her husband, parents and children with all their gifts and foibles in an intimate way. This makes their death seem all the more tragic and Sonali’s grief becomes even more real to us. 

Workers cleaning up in Phuket after tsunami 2004

Workers cleaning up in Phuket after tsunami 2004

For many years after 2004 our family members were frequently identified as tsunami survivors. Even now a decade later people will ask us about it. I suspect being a 2004 tsunami survivor is something that marks you for life. It certainly has marked Sonali with a heavy burden. It is a burden that weighs down anyone who reads her book because Sonali’s evocative and spare writing style leaves you no choice.  Hopefully sharing her story with others has lightened Sonali’s burden at least a little bit. 

Other posts about books……..

Four Reasons To Read The Light Between Oceans

The Long Song

Flight Behavior- I’m Back in the Barbara Kingsolver Fan Club

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Filed under Books, Thailand