by Jay Boccia
I heard about Jim Thompson on my first visit to Thailand in 1976. I had just completed my last year of high school at Harrow Country Grammar, and my father allowed me to go on my first unaccompanied holiday as a graduation gift.
I chose Thailand because I had always been completely obsessed with the East. Thailand represented to me the most exotic place on earth … a position it still holds in my heart till today. I arrived in Bangkok in December 1976, and it took me two hours to get from the airport to my backpacker hotel in Khaosarn road. There was no Skytrain back then, and the traffic was insane. My seniors at school had come back from Thailand the previous term with stories of glorious long stretches of sandy beaches, cheap beer, and gorgeous women. I was hooked!
However, I was totally unprepared for what followed. I made the mistake of booking my flight to Phuket for the very next day, thereby allowing myself only one day to explore Bangkok—such was my desire to get quickly horizontal on a sandy beach with a cold Singha in hand. So I stepped out of my dreadful non–air conditioned hole of a room and walked down the lazy street that was Khaosarn back then. Hippies and other world-weary travelers filled the soi, and I was eager to escape the familiar Western faces and find myself somewhere totally Thai.
I asked the first tuk tuk driver I came across if he could recommend somewhere where I could see the “real Bangkok.” We whizzed through masses of steaming traffic until we turned off a huge road and drove down a very sleepy back soi. He stopped, smiled his big toothy grin, and pointed to a property at the water’s edge. Then he sat back and promptly fell asleep, leaning back on his seat as I went to discover this new place.
I entered a compound that was made up of six traditional Thai houses, all joined together in a beautifully thought-out manner. The surrounding garden was lush with tropical plants, and the sounds of strange birds filled the air. I made my way through the grounds and was able to wander around for a full hour alone, before I was approached by a young Thai woman who explained to me in broken English that this was the house of Jim Thompson, and that it was closed. I was entranced. The lush grounds, the klong, the extraordinary teak wood used for construction … it was like I had discovered my own personal paradise that spoke to me is a way that made me suffocate with excitement.
I returned to Thailand every two years or so and visited the house each time I came through Bangkok, watching as the house was transformed into the museum it is today, now offering tours in many languages.
I think that as I get older, I can truly understand what drew me to that house in the first place and why it made such a strong impression on me.
I honestly saw so many similarities in the life of Jim Thompson to my own life and, as the years rolled on and my own experiences enriched my life, so my attachment to the Jim Thompson House and his legend grew.
We were both from military family backgrounds. Thompson went to West Point; I spent several years in the army. I began designing clothing for my girlfriends, wrapping them in linens eerily similar to the silk that Thompson had created. I entertained continuously, throwing wonderful dinner parties and regaled my guests with long funny stories, food, and wine late into the night, much like Thompson apparently had done every night.
In 1979 I moved into my first apartment in Oxford, where I unconsciously transformed my single studio room into a colonial-style living space designed around a large daybed and many cushions and plants.
Each visit back to Thailand thereafter always started with a pilgrimage to the Jim Thompson House and a reconnection with a place that fired my early architectural yearnings. Today my old stone farmhouse in Capri has a pool house made with the panels from an old Thai house purchased back in the early 1980s and brought there to form my dream home, Thompson style, albeit a thousand miles from Bangkok.
Today I live in modern Bangkok, and barely a month goes by that I don’t go visit the house.
I love being there around 5 p.m., when the flow of visitors diminishes and the sun drops below the rooflines of the small houses at the other side of the klong. Today, there is even a café on the premises where one can stop and have a cup of tea whilst taking in the beauty that is this scared memory of my youth, and the motivation of my current status as designer, bon vivant, and explorer of mystic Thailand.
Thank you, Jim Thompson, for creating a space that helped define the way I like to live. I will try to repay you for your contribution to my life when I direct my painfully researched—and, I hope, pure to the core—film about the legend you are. I toast to you Jim Thomson, the silk king who created my favorite place in Bangkok.