Pretty Fly For A White Guy


This blog entry about the events of Sunday, January 23, 2005 was originally posted on January 28, 2005.

DAY 463:  One of Noelle’s first impressions and observations of Bangkok — specifically in the Khaosan and Patpong districts — was that, “There are a lot of white people here.  I hardly see any Thai people.”  True, Khaosan and Patpong are the tourist areas were real Thais wouldn’t have a need to go to — in fact, the Sawasdee House where I was staying still had its sign up saying, “NO Thai people permitted in the hotels rooms.”

White people have been coming to Bangkok for centuries (not that there’s anything wrong with it) way before the song “One Night In Bangkok” became a one hit wonder.  One noteworthy white guy who came to Bangkok is one Jim Thompson, the American who came to Thailand and became famous revolutionizing the international hand-woven silk trade.

SILK HAS BEEN A SOUGHT OUT TEXTILE for centuries ever since the Western world “discovered” it in the east.  Since then, the quest for silk spawned many trans-global seafaring expeditions and The Great Silk Road overland.  People risked life and limb, all for smooth, shiny fabric.  In the 20th century, silk came into fashion again when Jim Thompson started the famous Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company.  The story of Jim Thompson and his silk company were explained to Noelle and me when we went to the Let’s Go-recommended Jim Thompson House near Siam Square in Bangkok.

Jim Thompson, an all-American architecture grad of Princeton University, worked in New York City before serving in World War II as an intelligence officer in the OSS, the agency that evolved into the CIA.  His post was in Bangkok, a place that he eventually fell in love with, so much that he decided to stay after the war.  Thompson became infatuated with Thai people, culture, and architecture, and had the utmost respect for it, despite his inability to become fluent in the language. 

“I love Thai people, culture, and architecture,” he probably said in American English.  “And I have the utmost respect for it.  I think I’ll stay.”

With his architecture background, he refurbished a traditional Thai house in the center of town and it became the center of his operations as he wooed the world with the local textile. 

Weaving silk by hand had become a dying tradition in Thailand, one taken over by the industrialization of machines.  However, Jim Thompson found value and beauty in hand-woven silk and showed it off to a bunch of designers at Vogue in New York City, who went absolutely gaga for it. 

“That silk is absolutely to die for,” they probably said.  “I’ll take ten.” 

Soon, silk from the Jim Thompson Thai Silk Co. was the hottest item in New York’s garment district, supplying not only commercial fashion designers, but also costume designers for Broadway theater.  Word got around to the west coast and Hollywood started buying up the fabric — Jim Thompson’s silk was used to design the wardrobe for the production of The King And I.

All these transactions with the States were conducted on business trips; Jim Thompson was an American ex-pat after all, living abroad in his house in Bangkok (picture above).  With Thompson’s business savvy was also a sense of interior design.  In his traditional Thai wooden house, he fused aesthetics from the east and the west, repurposing eastern things for western use.  For example, two mahjongg tables were put together to make a dining table.  Drums from Burma were refashioned to become lamp fixtures.  Some open-air windows were fitted with wood and fabric to hold Buddhist sculptures.  Italian ceramic tiles graced the floor in between the walls of southeast Asian teak.

Our guide Nong, a well-informed Thai woman, led us from the gardens of foliage and lucky goldfish in big urns around the house to the different rooms inside.  She showed us the rooms (but forbade photography) and it was all very Pier One, more than Ikea.  There were only two bedrooms in the house, one for Jim Thompson and one for a guest.  Although Thompson married a fashion model in New York, she remained there, leaving the Thai house for her husband to stay solo.

THE STORY OF JIM THOMPSON ends in a mystery.  On Easter Sunday 1967, Thompson went out for a walk in the Cameron highlands, never to return again.  Many conspiracy theories of his disappearance exist today, from suicide, to killing by aboriginals, to demise resulting from his time as a secret government agent.  Perhaps he simply said, “Maybe today I’ll go out for a walk in the Cameron highlands, never to return again,” and made it so.  “Many conspiracy theories of my disappearance will exist.” 

When all hope was lost, the Thompson estate was put into the hands of his nephew, who converted the house into a memorial and museum for Thailand’s endeared, adopted white son.  Jim Thompson silk is still sold today, more so in the gift shop.

“WE REALLY NEED TO FIND SOME AIR-CONDITIONING,” I told Noelle as we sat in the sweltering 90 degree weather.  Sunny and hot, it was no wonder Jim Thompson kept residence in Bangkok to avoid the snowy and cold New York winters. 

“We can see a movie,” she suggested.  We found refuge down the block in the MBK Center, the multi-level shopping complex with plenty of air-conditioning.  We checked out the timetables there and at nearby Grand EGV Cinemas.

“What time does this one end?” Noelle asked the guy at the box office.

“Seven fifteen.”

“That won’t work then,” she said.  We already had dinner plans for seven.

THE SUN WENT DOWN and the clock struck seven.  Meeting us in front of the Sawasdee House were Noelle’s friend-of-a-friend Kevin and his wife Ellen, two more white people (from Oklahoma) to journey to Bangkok.  Noelle, who had never met them before, had gotten word in an e-mail that they were in town and we decided to meet them for dinner.  We left the white folk scene of Khaosan Road and took the No. 511 across town to Sukhumvit Road, where we didn’t go out for Thai, but for Indian at Moghul’s, the highly recommended restaurant for tasty dosais, chicken tandooris, and plenty of naan.  It was nice to chat with new faces and swap tales — they too were on a round-the-world trip and had finally landed in Bangkok as most people do.  They had spent the past week going to two movies a day at the 2005 Bangkok International Film Festival and were ready to venture onto new things.

No new things panned out that night though and inevitably we just went back to the tourist district of Khaosan Road via taxi with the rest of the white people.  No one resembling Jim Thompson was anywhere to be seen.  If I may add a conspiracy theory to Thompson’s disappearance, perhaps he simply got a sex change operation and became a woman — Thailand is arguably the sex-change capital of the world after all.  Hand-woven silk dresses are definitely more sexier on a woman after all.


Next entry: Supergirls

Previous entry: Same Same But Different

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Comments for “Pretty Fly For A White Guy”

  • if his wife stayed in nyc, he def got a sex change…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/27  at  01:18 PM

  • 90 degrees eh? .. thanks buddy .. I’ll take that any day right now ...

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/27  at  01:28 PM

  • Charging exorbitant prices for Thai wares while living between NYC and BKK… nice work if you can get it.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/27  at  04:43 PM

  • try throwing one of these ...

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/27  at  05:36 PM

  • Pier One? IKEA? My favourite stores! I miss them!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/28  at  12:44 AM

  • My friend Harold Stephens has published a book about Jim Thompson’s disappearance.  It’s a good read.

    The Grand EGV cinemas are an experience not to be missed; for the price of a North American movie ticket, you get a leather recliner, seat-side service, and an excellent, small screening room.  We took our 9 month old son there in 2002 to see Vanilla Sky for a late show; he fell asleep on my lap.

    Posted by Peter Rukavina  on  01/28  at  08:26 PM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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