No shortage of theories about Thailand’s “Silk King.”
Mr. Thompson was an intriguing figure indeed. A wealthy American socialite; an architect; a soldier; a spy and ultimately the most famous foreigner ever to live in Southeast Asia. I tipped my hat to Jim Thompson and called him my hero because of his uncanny ability to reinvent himself seemingly at will. One would think a life so well-lived would be enough to make a person famous, but in the case of Jim Thompson, it was how his story ended that launched him to mythical status.
On Easter Sunday 1967, Jim Thompson was enjoying some time with friends in the Cameron Highlands of Western Malaysia. He announced that he was going to take a walk which surprised no one as it was his custom. No one ever saw Jim Thompson again.
A massive manhunt the likes of which had never been seen in Malaysia commenced. Hundreds of people, aircraft, and tracker dogs, including personnel from the army, police, aboriginal tribesmen, and throngs of volunteers scoured the thick jungle landscape over a period of several months. Not one trace of Jim Thompson was ever found. Thai authorities even employed psychics, local witch doctors, and spirit mediums to conjure up Thompson’s whereabouts.
The fact that tracker dogs couldn’t even pick up the scent of Thompson gave birth to the idea that he had been whisked away in a vehicle, the victim of a kidnapping. There were even reports that just days earlier a taxi carrying Thompson and an associate suddenly developed car trouble and the driver tried coaxing his passengers into another taxi that already had two passengers inside. Thompson declined and many conspiracy theorists call this a botched kidnapping attempt.
More speculation orbits around the fact that Jim Thompson was once an operative and bureau chief for the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA in Southeast Asia. Many point to the fact Thompson had personal relationships with many of Mao Tse Tung’s lieutenants. As the Vietnam conflict began perhaps Mr. Thompson was still in the spy business attempting to assist one side or the other. Again, no evidence to support this theory exists and the CIA vehemently deny that Jim Thompson was working for them.
Perhaps the most convincing foul play theory swirls around Thompson’s accomplishments and lifestyle in Thailand. He had single-handedly resurrected the Thai silk industry and become the toast of the town. His sprawling estate in Bangkok was packed with the greatest collection of Southeast Asian art and artifacts ever assembled. He amassed countless paintings, statues, pottery, scrolls, porcelain, earthenware and carvings. At one point he ran into a bit of a row with Thai authorities when they claimed he was in possession of a priceless group of five stolen Buddha heads.
Mr. Thompson’s opulent collection of Thai art, conspicuous wealth and his lavish lifestyle all rubbed some powerful Thais the wrong way. Many believe that the list of people in Thailand that held contempt for Jim Thompson, including competitors and government officials, was very long indeed. The plot seemed to thicken and give more validity to the notion of foul play when Jim Thompson’s sister was brutally murdered in the US several months later. Still no evidence has been presented. More importantly, no body has ever been recovered.
Most of these dark theories are brushed off by outsiders who say Jim Thompson was simply an old man that got lost in the jungle and probably ended up dinner for a hungry tiger. Those close to Thompson however point out that he was an avid outdoorsman, a former soldier and a CIA trained spy; hardly a “babe-in-the-woods”. Additionally, contact with local aboriginal tribesmen turned up nothing. They in fact say that Jim Thompson was simply “never there”. And there is no evidence that he ever was.
Some postulate that Jim Thompson killed himself, which to his closest associates seems extremely far-fetched. Although he did have some health issues, he was a wealthy man doing what he loved in a country he adored. And again, no body, no clues.
Since his disappearance a wild assortment of useless leads and tips have surfaced relating to the case. A cook from a nearby Lutheran mission claimed he had seen Thompson standing on a plateau for about 3o minutes and then he suddenly just “vanished”. Another witness said Thompson was in a brothel in Tahiti several months after he disappears but no one can corroborate this story.
In 1985 a group of skeletal remains were found in the Cameron Highlands but could never be conclusively proven they were from Thompson and the local tribesman indicated they were found too far away from where he disappeared. And of course, there are those that believe he was abducted by fashion-conscious aliens. All these theories possess the same amount of hard evidence.
William Warren, a close friend of Jim Thompson and his most renowned biographer said, “My own suspicion, attractive only perhaps because it makes for the best story, is that Thompson simply ran away in order to start a new life elsewhere, which he had done in a far less dramatic fashion by abandoning America for Thailand decades before.
As he grew older he grew more interested in the art of other Southeast Asian nations, so he might have made for one of them. I like to imagine the ex-spook lounging around Vientiane or Rangoon, perhaps with some native lady on his arm. In any case, to think of him laughing over the hysterical headlines concerning him is a great deal more romantic than imagining him coming out of the other end of a tiger, or slipping off a cliff.
Mr. Warren’s theory would most certainly be the most in-character explanation regarding the disappearance of his friend as Jim Thompson. But, I think we’ll have to retire the mysterious case of Thailand’s Silk King to the same category with many other aspects of life in Thailand. In a file labeled “Things we’ll never know”.
by Bart Walters