There are those who still believe that Jim Thompson will one day walk out of the Cameron Highlands jungle and return to his house in Bangkok

The American visitor had told his hosts that he was making a short trek along the jungle trail that leads from Moonlight Cottage where they were all staying. It was 3pm when he entered the Cameron Highlands jungle. But Jim Thompson, the American who successfully revived a traditional Thai silk industry and turned it into a multi-million business, did not reappear from the jungle he walked into.

Despite an extensive search that generated great interest in the international media, he was never found. It was as though he had simply vanished into thin air. Since then, there have been all kinds of rumours about what really happened to him and there were unverifiable reports of sightings of Jim Thompson in various parts of the world.

Thompson had come down from Bangkok on 23 March 1967 with a companion, Mrs Connie Mangskau, to join Dr T.G. Ling and his wife for a holiday in the highlands. Just two days earlier, he had celebrated his 61st birthday with a few close friends. Dr Ling was a wealthy Singaporean businessman who owned Moonlight Cottage. Cameron Highlands, then as it is now, was a popular holiday resort, offering spots of English atmosphere amidst rolling tropical jungle. On the gentler slopes, there were tea plantations and vegetables plots. It was difficult to imagine that Thompson had simply lost his way. He was an experienced jungle trekker. He had been trained in jungle warfare. The trail was easy to follow and he had been fond of taking long solitary walks. There were those who believe that Thompson could have fallen into some ravine or that he had become ill. Certainly, he was not in robust health. He could have had a stroke. It was also speculated that he was attacked and eaten by a tiger or other wild animals.

Other rumours made the rounds such as the possibility that he was kidnapped by business rivals. Some even suggested that he had been lured away, possible through a spell cast, by an orang asli woman and that he was living with her in the jungle.

What deepens the mystery surrounding Thompson’s disappearance was that his sister, Mrs Woods – a prominent Philadelphia and Wilmington resident – was discovered murdered in August of the same year he disappeared. There is also the equally curious event involving Thompson’s favourite dog in Bangkok. Like its master, it too disappeared without a trace almost exactly one year later.

As more of Jim Thompson’s background became known, his disappearance became even more intriguing. Thompson was more than just a successful businessman. He had been in the US Operation Special Service during the war. The OSS was the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency. Immediately after the war he was head of the OSS station in Bangkok. Was he still involved with the CIA and had his association with the agency had anything to do with his disappearance? And hence, there was speculation that he was seized as he was trekking in the jungle.

Certainly, those at Moonlight Cottage thought that he appeared edgy that Easter Sunday afternoon when he took the fateful walk into the jungle. It was suggested that perhaps it was members of the Malayan Communist Party who had taken him. Cameron Highlands was a hotspot during the Emergency and there were still military operations against MCP armed remnants there.

When the American had not appeared for dinner later that evening the alarm was sounded by his hosts Dr and Mrs T.G Ling. Hundreds of Malaysian field police assisted by orang asli scouts from the Malaysian army arrived and began to scour the jungle along both sides of the trail. Significantly, a former colleague of Thompson in the war years was at that point in time, a US military commander in Thailand. General Edwin Black, on hearing that Thompson was lost in the Malaysian jungle sent American military helicopters from US airbases in Thailand to join in the search. The operation looking for Jim Thompson went on several weeks. But the police field force and the American helicopters could find no trace of him. Even bomohs and mediums had come forward to help. Eventually the search was called off.

There are those who still believe that Jim Thompson will one day walk out the Cameron Highlands jungle and return to his house in Bangkok. He would today be 115 years old.

On Jim Thompson’s Trail

While Sunlight bungalow is visible from the Jim Thompson terrace of Strawberry Park Resort, Moonlight is partly hidden adding to the mystery that occurred there more than 25 years ago. Only the roof and upper-half of the bungalow is visible between the fringes of the tropical jungle that seems to be in the midst of engulfing it. The coffee terrace is named after the American silk King who disappeared mysteriously one fateful day in 1967. On lonely mornings, as one sits in the Jim Thompson Terrace, one is offered an intimate peek into the mystery of Thompson’s disappearance.

Nestled in Malaysia’s central mountain range is the Cameron Highlands, famed for its panoramic view and cool clime. The highlands – originally a hill-station and colonial retreat, is charmingly ideal for the weary city dweller. This is particularly so as the highlands are 1,800 meters above sea-level.

Heading out of Kuala Lumpur, it takes about two-and-a-half hours to reach Tapah, a small rustic town in Perak. From there, you take route 59 into the highlands. The drive along the meandering slopes curves in and out of the mountain range, reminding the traveller of the majestic tropical rainforest. It is time to roll down the windows and take in the fresh air. It is also an interesting border crossing experience because once you drive pass Ringlet, you cross into Pahang, Peninsular Malaysia’s largest state.
Legend and Legacy

Jim Thompson had studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. It was at this time that he became interested in the dying cottage silk industry which had been badly hit by the import of cheaper machine-made textiles from abroad. His attention was drawn to the impoverished Ban Krua district in Bangkok close to where he resided where a community of skilled silk weavers was carrying on the trade. These were mostly Cham Muslims.

Taking some samples of their product with him to New York, he approached Frank Crowninshield, an old acquaintance who was editor of Vanity Fair who then put him in touch with Vogue. The editor of the magazine liked the Thai materials and she arranged for a dress to be made from the new materials. This was splashed in the pages of Vogue. It was this that helped place Thai silk in the Western fashion world and created demand for the fabric.
Thompson founded the Thai Silk Company in 1948 and encouraged the Ban Krua weavers to work independently and to supply him with silk on a consignment system. This arrangement promoted competition among the weavers and maintained quality. Since then, other Thai silk businesses have been set up.

But Thompson continued to be a leader in the industry and earned himself the title “Silk King”.