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Legends of Thailand: Jim Thompson & John Fowler






     One of the features of this wooden bungalow that I appreciate the most is the bedroom window. It faces west towards Bokor Mountain and is fronted by a small mangrove from which sprouts ferns and palms and other green foliage indigenous to Southeast Asia. A couple of papaya trees also make up part of the ensemble. I enjoy gazing through this portal at dusk, at dawn and, especially, in between around three in the morning. The play of light that shrouds the scene in various hues reminds me of Monet's haystacks. This evening it reminded me of the Jim Thompson House in Bangkok.

I've visited that house half a dozen times during my tenure in this part of the world and it is at the top of my list for tourists to visit while in Bangkok. Jim Thompson was an American who first arrived in Thailand as an OSS officer just as the Japanese surrendered. He quickly became enamored of the Thai culture and people, cashed out his chips in Maryland and took up permanent residence in Bangkok. At that time Thai silk was merely a scattered cottage industry. Thompson organized it, set his unique creative flair on its designs and soon became known as the 'Thai Silk King'. Within 15 years Thompson silk products had attained a world-wide renown. In 1959 he disassembled several old northern Thai teak wood houses, floated them down the Chao Phraya River and reassembled them into one glorious home. By the early '60 his dinner parties were one of the most esteemed soirees in the city.

Then, while visiting friends in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia on Easter Sunday 1968, he went for a late afternoon stroll. It was a stroll from which he never returned. His disappearance remains one of the intriguing mysteries of Southeast Asia.

Rumors and speculations have continued to percolate for half a century. Communists and CIA agents factor into the mix. I had the privilege of knowing a Welshman named John Fowler who made his business with Thai cotton as Thompson had done with Thai silk. Fowler and Thompson had known each other. One evening over Mekong sodas on the verandah of John's riverside house, I asked him what he thought had happened to Thompson.

"It was business, pure and simple," he said. "That was it. Disregard all the conspiracy theories. That shit is meant to sell books and cover up the truth. Thompson had a monopoly…a very profitable monopoly. Some Thais wanted in…he refused. So, they took him out. Look what has happened since. No more monopoly now is there? The Chinese-Thais have become big players. Where we come from they would have sued Thompson for unfair business practices. From what I know of his business practices a good lawyer would probably have won the case. Thais think differently. They figure a bullet is cheaper than a lawyer. And, there's no appealing the verdict of a bullet."

So, back to the window…

Last year I took my wife to see the Jim Thompson House. It was converted into a museum several years following Thompson's disappearance and showcases his valued assortment of Southeast Asian antiques…porcelain ware, Buddha statues, wood carvings and so forth. I didn't pay mush attention to all that this past visit. I looked out the windows upon the courtyard of sandstones and the banana trees and all the green palms. I like to imagine what the place was like 50 years ago when it was on the outskirts of the city. Now it is dwarfed by tall buildings and besotted by traffic noise and air pollution. Still, it remains a worthy vestige of a bygone era. I hope it remains so for many years to come.

Our tour guide was a pretty young Thai woman…both affable and informative. What I particularly appreciated was that she did not refer to the common anecdote about Thompson occasionally entertaining some mysterious woman in his boudoir late at night. He may well have entertained mysterious guests in his boudoir on occasion but none of them were women. I couldn't care less about his sexual inclinations but why perpetuate a falsehood about them? He was well known to be gay as is the Georgia boy who wrote the most widely read book on Thompson. John Fowler was also gay but, unlike the other two, he never resorted to duplicitous means in order to deceive people. John was always honest. In fact, he became one of the most flamboyant 'gay queens' of Thailand in the 70's and 80's. Sadly, he died of AIDS not long after I last spent time with him in 1989.

He was one of the most colorful, intelligent and thoughtful men I ever met on this side of the planet. He was witty and marvelous fun to be with. Twenty years after his death I still remember him with great fondness. Someday, somebody ought to research his life and write a book about him. Somebody honest who's not ashamed about who he is or who John was because John thoroughly enjoyed himself and the world around him. He was a proud man with much to be proud about.

If a book worthy of John Fowler ever gets written it will place him right beside Jim Thompson in the pantheon of ex-pats who have made a glorious contribution to Thailand…the country they chose to make their home and a country that is better off because they did so.

I'll be looking out my window in the wee small hours tomorrow morning. Maybe I'll get lucky and see a flickering image of John's wry smile and sparkling blue eyes amidst the moonlit palms.




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McFinn is from Chicago and currently resides in Cambodia. He has a degree in Philosophy from Georgetown University. Much of his work should be considered humorous and fictionalized memoirs. There are also satirical essays. Location settings include Thailand, Cambodia, India, Burma, Morocco and Greece. Excerpts, reviews & purchase information are available via his website: www.morganmcfinn.com


Posted on 2013-07-13, By: *

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