Bangkok Nights 2
I have just recently come back from another trip to LOS and spent most of my time in Bangkok. Something about the City of Angels excites me and constantly arouses my curiosity. It is where even humdrum events can play out into something interesting. I hope I never wear that feeling out, but I admit that part of it may come from not knowing enough about Thailand or the Thais. Good or bad experiences in LOS all seem to have great importance to one’s own life.
In my last essay for Stickman I wrote about going out to see the landmarks by day and night spots at night. I had been down at Siam Square investigating the ECC School and after the interview I realized that I had plenty of time left in the day and was near many important places in Bkk. I pulled a tourist map I still had gotten from who-knows-where out of my back pocket and began examining it. I was near Phyathai Road not far from the Jim Thompson House which was the preserved house of the American entrepreneur who brought back the silk industry in Thailand after the War. In 1967 he mysteriously disappeared while taking a walk in the highlands of Malaysia. I had always been curious about this “house” which is actually six Thai-style teakwood buildings with a large collection of antiques and artworks. It was supposed to be in one of the old neighbourhoods of Bangkok in which one could get a feeling of what old Bkk was like.
I went to one of the big hotels that was nearby and had the doorman hail a taxi for me. The doorman distinctly told the driver the Jim Thompson House and then I told him the same. However, upon reaching the boulevard the driver began complaining in very stilted English that he was short on gas and needed to fill up. I said “Take me where I’m going first and then get the gas”. He paused and then said, “I take you gem store first. You no have to buy anything. I only charge you 30 baht for ride.” Now 30 baht is less than a dollar and the fare would normally be about 60 baht. And then he added, “I get five free liters of gas if I take someone there.” Now I was wrestling with my emotions on what to say to him because it was outrageous that he was going in the opposite direction and I was feeling what any passenger in any city would feel if the cab driver does that. I was about to tell him I was taking his cab driver number and add a few choice words, but something made me pause. He was in other ways a nice young man and I would be getting the ride at half price. I had been hustled by cab drivers before about the gem stores and had always fended off this popular scam. Of course, if you buy anything the driver gets a pay off. But he had told me that you can just walk through and I thought this would solve some curiosity about the gem stores.
Five minutes later we pulled into a big spacious parking lot which had about two dozen cabs waiting. Besides the big single-storey government building (yes, this gem store was run by the government), there were gas pumps, a car-wash, and what looked like a 7-11 store. I was shown where the glass cases were. They circled the enclosed workman’s area in the middle. Inside there were all kinds of gems on display. Some were set in rings, bracelets, and other jewelry. Others sat alone or in bunches and could be bought that way. Thailand mines a lot of rubies and sapphires and that’s what they had most of. One time I asked the price of a ring and was told $250 which I thought was high although I wouldn’t know. For that matter I couldn’t swear that some of the gems were glass or not, but being a government-run enterprise I would think it’s honest. <Yes, the government is involved in the management and operation of gem stores in all countries around the world…..NOT! – Stick>
At the workman’s benches you could see the artisans using lathes and buffing machines on the gems and then setting them into place on jewelry. This sustained my interest for a few minutes and then I finished the circle and exited. When I went out the cab was just leaving the pumps. We proceeded to the Jim Thompson House and I paid exactly 30 baht.
At the Jim Thompson House which sits at the end of on old soi there was a line of cabs just waiting to pick up. The various buildings and houses of the soi were behind walls. In the yards of all of the houses were large, leafy trees which added to the exotic impact of the place. When you enter you walk along a dirt path and led to the ticket stall and waiting area. To the right is the exit from the gift shop building. As you can imagine here is a lot of Jim Thompson silkware available from the store. However, there is even more of it at the main store on nearby Suriwong Road. Right behind the store was a restaurant with a large outdoor veranda featuring Thai dishes. To the left was a two-story building which was featuring a display of Renaissance costumes. As you follow a white-pebble path to the ticket window you are amazed that the place is advertised as the Jim Thompson House (singular). It’s actually six Thai-style teakwood buildings with a large collection of antiques and artworks. After getting your ticket you wait for a tour guide to show your group around. In the meantime the grass lawn that is intermittently in shade and sunshine with the sun shining between the large fronds makes an excellent place to take pictures.
The tour takes you through all six buildings and lasts a little over half an hour. You get a whole background of Jim Thompson’s life and in that setting you can still imagine him in his dealings with people back in those days. As we were going through the last building on the end we heard a terrible racket and I looked out the second-storey window to see a rather large motorized canal boat with rows of seats and a lot of passengers going down a canal I had not known was there before. Yes, the Thompson house is next to one of the old canals or klongs of Bangkok and it’s still a going concern. The tree limbs and bushes around the buildings had hidden the canal from view. I never did find out where you get the boat for the ride, but I have heard from authoritative sources that if you know where they are and have business in that section of the city you can get around faster by canal. You just have to know where to enter and exit. As for me, I also saw that there was a cement walkway with a railing right by the canal. When the tour had finished and I had seen everything I wanted to see I went out the gate and through the entrance to the walkway. It was a pleasant half-mile walk to the National Stadium stop on the Skytrain. The walkway had trees limbs hanging over it most of the way so that I was in shade and while the old Bangkok housing got poorer as I went it was also more picturesque. Next time in Bkk I’m going to take the canal boats and learn where all the stops are.
Jim Thompson's House is very much worth visiting, and the free guided tours are great.