Books, Bookstores, and a Mystery
About halfway between Soi 11, Sukhumvit and the Asoke intersection stands a little, green painted house. Almost opposite what used to be Chuwit Park, now apparently a temporary market as I learned in Stick’s last week column.
Dwarfed between the luxury hotels that have sprouted up in recent years and the giant Terminal 21 building, it’s a sort of remnant or leftover from an another time. To me it holds many fond memories. For old times’ sake I walked inside to take a nostalgic journey. A sad one. There were no customers, only 3 employees standing near the check-out till handling their smartphones. I went up to the first floor only to find many of the shelves empty.
It’s of course the old Asia Books store. According to my local landlord here it’s the original store and the owners will hang on to it supposedly for sentimental reasons. It certainly is not a money earner any longer but now surely has a multitude in worth for the value of the land alone at this prime location.
I had discovered the store on one of my first strolls down Sukhumvit 30 years ago and in years to come became a regular client. I must have purchased dozens of paperbacks, even a few hardback or new edition books. Sadly many of them got lost or mislaid during the many relocations in those early years. One of them was “Jim Thompson, The Unsolved Mystery” by William Warren.
Jim Thompson revitalized the Thai silk industry in the 1950’s & 60’s and was founder of the Thai Silk Company that became known worldwide in years to come and still is to this day. Thompson was a fairly inconspicuous individual as a person but became well-known in Bangkok’s high society circles and often referred to as the Silk King. He disappeared under mysterious circumstances on the extended Easter weekend of 1967 in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia.
10 days or two weeks later on a Sunday afternoon on another stroll along Sukhumvit I found myself in some other, more recent bookstores. The dynamic Kinokuniya in Siam Paragon and another much more contemporary branch of Asia Books in Central World. Both were well attended.
Unlike old-fashioned book stores that tried to get rid of Ladenhüters (non-sellers) at discount prices, here many first edition hardback books are now offered at a 20% discount. An excellent marketing strategy.
I selected two books. The check-out counters, manned by competent young ladies or gents who were all busy. I still had to wait several minutes for my turn to be served. This appears to contradict the theory of the numerous advocates of the “Bookstores in this day and age of easy internet streaming, inexpensive downloads on Kindle or other devices, are on their way out and dying”.
I discovered a paperback copy of Warren’s Jim Thompson book. I usually open the front page to check the printing history but couldn’t as the book was wrapped in cellophane and had a pasted on sticker on top that said “Updated version”. I did not hesitate and bought it with some anticipation. Was the mysterious disappearance now finally solved?
Back home I unwrapped the packing only to discover that it was simply a 1998 reprint of Warren’s original 1970 book. The so-called updates concerned only a few personal details of Thompson’s private live and some other information on now deceased persons.
The mystery remains.
It was the Easter weekend 1967 and after spending a day in Penang, Thompson and his companion Miss Connie Mangskau took a taxi to Cameron Highlands intending to spend a few days before going on to Singapore for a business meeting.
When he did not return after his intended short afternoon walk and was still missing long after nightfall an intense search by police and hundreds of volunteers was conducted throughout the night and over the following days and weeks. But it was fruitless. Eventually police and army personnel declared Thompson lost.
That led to innumerable theories supposedly analyzed and researched at the time of his disappearance ranging from various conspiracies leading to abductions by communist insurgence still present in the highland jungle at the time. Another to a former Thai prime minister in exile by the name of Pridi to whom Thompson was apparently friendly. Even a lovesick aborigine’s maiden became a short-lived suspect.
Mystics, fortune tellers, mind readers, clairvoyants with extra-sensory perception or supernatural powers forwarded numerous theories none of which proved any results. Singularly though only a few paragraphs appeared in Warren’s otherwise well researched book to the accident theory. That’s understandable as obviously writings on real life mysteries are a better seller than accounts of accidents however strange they may appear. Furthermore and most importantly no body was ever found or located. But in my mind the accident theory is by far the most likely.
The mystery has always intrigued me. In the mid 90’s on a visa trip stayover in Penang I took an overnight visit to Cameron Highlands. A fairly laborious bus journey. At that time my excursion was not necessarily because of Thompson’s disappearance but to enjoy the more pleasant temperatures at that time of the year and to see for myself the beauty of the often praised region.
It was during the hot season and in effect pleasantly cool in the Highlands at that time. Definitely a rewarding journey despite the arduous drive on an old-fashioned bus taking several stops on the way probably to cool down the overheating engine.
Beautiful scenery, extensive strawberry fields I stayed in a kind of old-fashioned English Barn style hotel and was informed on arrival there to be sure not to miss the always popular 5 o’clock tea served with homemade scones.
Naturally I also went to see Thompson’s former local living quarters named Moonlight Bungalow were he had stayed together with a Chinese couple from Singapore. After my return to Thailand and the next journey to Bangkok I paid a visit to his beautiful house by the klong open to public in those days (and maybe still is). When I reread Warren’s book only weeks ago and with more care to details this time than in 1990 I developed my own theory.
For what it’s worse here it is:
Anywhere in the world when a crime is committed investigators always look first for means, motive and opportunity. In this case of course a supposed crime or more likely an abduction or kidnapping. As a body was never found and no credible motive for abduction ever developed, means and motive can also be fairly discarded. A possible opportunity for an abduction would have been particularly poorly chosen as Thompson had announced to the party before leaving that he would only be absent for a short while and be back for afternoon tea.
A few communist insurgent groups were still present in 1967 but they would hardly have shown much interest in a successful industrialist or businessman on a holiday and can also be safely excluded as perpetrators. Especially as no ransom money had been asked for at any time.
Native inhabitants however were still present in the region in much larger numbers than today. They were considered inoffensive and did not normally interfere with the holiday tourists or the hot season visitors at the time mostly from Kuala Lumpur or Singapore.
The aborigines cultivated their ancestors live style and hunting was a large part to their sustainability. Although prohibited by the government at the time, the aborigines nevertheless built or dug out animal traps containing sometimes poisoned spikes to capture wild boar or other animals.
Let’s assume perhaps lost in thoughts and somewhat absent-mindedly strolling along in the still vastly unknown jungle territory Thompson fell into such a well camouflaged trap. Possibly seriously injured and unable to free or rescue himself. When the aborigines realized that they had not captured a wild boar but found a human body they panicked, especially when informed who it was and soon to be followed by the hype of the media.
Later the body was extracted by the natives and secretly buried in a location only known to them. Next the aborigines filled in and simply condemned and abandoned that particular animal trap. Over the years they somehow kept the location secret and isolated and no-one ever knew.
Jim Thompson has since been declared dead in absentia by a Thai court.
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