Things to do in Bangkok: Find Design Inspiration at Two Historic Thai House Museums

Introduction to the Nai Lert Park Heritage Home

Most Bangkok visitors are familiar with the legend of Jim Thompson and make it a point to visit the Jim Thompson House and Museum — it should not be missed, and I will share my impressions on the house later in this post.  There is, however, a new arrival on the house museum scene that is also worthy of your time if you can work it into your schedule.  That new entrant is the Nai Lert Park Heritage Home.  Opened to the public in late 2015, the home was originally constructed in 1915 and occupied by three generations of the Lert family.  The home is open for public tours, however calling ahead for hours and to reserve a tour is necessary.  In addition, the house can be booked for weddings and special events.  In fact, if you look on Instagram for photos tagged with the home’s location you will find many beautiful wedding and event photos.

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A bit of #shelfie inspiration from Ma Maison

One other thing should be mentioned before we talk specifically about the Lert family home.  The home sits on a good sized lot which includes a public park, a museum store, and two restaurants.  We decided to hang around after our tour to await the opening of the Ma Maison restaurant for dinner.  The restaurant is intimate with an abundance of orchids on display and wonderfully crammed full display shelves for your #shelfie inspiration.  The prices are reasonable, and the restaurant appears to cater to locals who are “in the know”.  The food was good, as was the service, however, we did have some communication challenges due to language.  I would still recommend dinner there if it fits with your plans.

 

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Exterior view of the Nai Lert Park Heritage House

Now back to the house.  The home’s architecture is traditional Thai, which for starters in very practical terms means that the home is elevated, consisting of two separate buildings joined by a common walkway.  Incidentally, one of the two buildings was destroyed by a bomb in World War II and rebuilt.  The crater from the bomb is now a beautiful lotus pond.  The main living area is reached by an exterior staircase and surrounded by a veranda that is protected from the elements by a wide overhang.

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To fully appreciate and understand this home and it’s contents, we must first ask “who was Nai Lert?”  The answer to that question is vital.  Lert was named Phraya Bhakdinorasresth, meaning “beloved millionaire” by King Rama VI in 1925.  You can think of Lert as a prominent, early industrialist in Thailand. Well known for his many innovations and contributions to Thai society, for example, Lert was the first to import cars from Europe, as well as starting the first public bus service in Bangkok.  The Lert influence extended to other family members as the first female Thai cabinet member was Thanphuying Lursakdi, Lert’s daughter and sole heir who served as Thailand’s Minister of transportation.

 

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Section from a large wall hanging in the Nai Lert Park Heritage House

The Lert family lovingly restored the 100-year-old home and opened it to the public just over a year ago, keeping many of the family heirlooms and furnishings intact and on display for your enjoyment.  The collections include furniture, porcelains, a collection of antique walking sticks, and even a stand-in for Thanphuying Lursakdi’s beloved dog

 

The Jim Thompson Legacy

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Depending on the length of your stay in Bangkok and which days of the week you are there, you may not be able to visit the Nai Lert Park Heritage House, however, the Jim Thompson House and Museum, as shown in the image above is very accessible as it is open daily.  Do call, however, to verify hours.  Opened to the public as a museum after Thompson was legally declared dead back in the seventies, the Thompson House is a “must see” venue for art and design lovers.  Although both of these locations feature traditional Thai architecture, there are a number of important differences.  In addition, the Thompson House has one of the best collections of South East Asian art in the world.  Thompson describes the objective for his collecting activity as follows:

I have tried to build up as fine a collection as I can to leave to this country. I know that the museum does not have funds to buy many of the fine pieces that turn up, and rather than see them leave the country, I have tried to buy the really exceptional ones to keep them here. I have paid very high prices for many of them, but I know that if I did not, they might have gone for good. I hope that you will believe that I am deeply interested in the archaeology and preservation of the beautiful things of this country, and I am not making a collection for financial advantages or selfish purposes.

Before we explore a few of the architectural differences between the two homes, it is important to understand a bit of the Thompson legend and how the home came to be.  The story of Jim Thompson, his life as an ex-pat in Thailand, and his mysterious disappearance in Malaysia is actually a great read.  In fact, Thompson disappeared on Easter Sunday 50 years ago.   As I write this post what happened to him remains a great mystery.  To read more specifically about Thompson’s life and disappearance beyond the brief synopsis I’ll provide, the book titled Jim Thompson:  The Unsolved Mystery by William Warren is a great resource.  I was able to get a copy from my local library, but it is still available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats.

51uZnN6AdULSince photography is not allowed in the Thompson house you may also want to consider the book Jim Thompson:  The House on the Klong.  Note that there are two versions — a 2007 version and a 2015 version with a slightly reworded title.  You can find both on Amazon (or at the museum if you’re willing to carry it home), and either would make a lovely reference or coffee table book.  In addition to images from the home’s interior like the one on the book’s cover, the book also has reference information on Thai art and on the antique Chinese porcelain in the house.  The porcelain information is also relevant to the collection at the Nai Lert Heritage House.

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Jim Thompson in his home office, image from Jim Thompson: The Unsolved Mystery

Jim Thompson was born in 1906 in Greenville, Delaware.  After graduating from Princeton, he spent nine years working as an architect in New York City where based upon his interest in the ballet he became a director of the Monte Carlo Ballet company which was a forerunner of the NYC ballet.  During his time with the ballet company, he developed an appreciation of costume and set design which would help distinguish him in his future career endeavors.  In yet another career switch, as America entered WW II Thompson quit his job and enlisted in the Delaware National Guard.  He would later join a new military organization that specialized in clandestine missions known at the time as the Office of Strategic Services — that organization is now known as the Central Intelligence Agency (you know, the one on Homeland) or CIA.  It was while on assignment with the OSS that he was deployed to Thailand, and he ultimately made Thailand his home.

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A recent fashion ad campaign for Gucci featuring Tom Hiddleston.  Source:  Jim Thompson Fabrics Instagram

Thompson really was a master of reinvention and embarked upon his fourth adult career.  Upon permanently settling in Thailand after a divorce, Thompson became interested in the Thai silk industry.  This was an industry that really wasn’t doing well based on the introduction of cheaper machine-made textiles.  Many of the families that had historically woven fabric in their homes were moving into other endeavors to make a living.  These lustrous silk fabrics reminded him of those found in the ballet costumes, and he ultimately packed a bag of samples which he brought to New York where he met with the editors of Vogue and Vanity Fair.  Indeed, while Thompson’s silks are well known to the interior design trade, they initially were picked up by fashion designers.  By the way, another Thompson connection was with Thailand’s Queen Sirikit.  Thompson and Thailand’s silk industry received greater visibility as these fabrics were used in a wardrobe designed for the Queen by Pierre Balmain.  To read more about these beautiful fashions and how you can see them, click here.

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A gorgeous contemporary interior designed by Christopher Kennedy Inc. featuring Jim Thompson Fabrics via Instagram

Jim Thompson brought a number of key skills to bear which fueled the revival of the Thai silk industry and the establishment of the business which lives on today.  He was an enthusiastic proponent of Thai silk and his enthusiasm for the product really translated into sales results and penetration of the US and European export markets.  Thompson also introduced chemical dyes to the industry and played a significant role in developing color ways or color combinations.

As the business became more successful, Thompson became an avid collector of Thai antiquities.  At the time, there wasn’t much of a preservation effort in Thailand, so the fact that Thompson collected so much for his home and left it all in his will to found a museum means that there is a substantial collection that has been preserved for our enjoyment.

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Perfect for entertaining, the dining room features antique furnishings and beautiful teak surfaces

In the early sixties when Jim Thompson designed and constructed his Bangkok home he purchased six individual buildings which were disassembled and moved by canal or klong to his home site.  These buildings were historic in that some dated back to the 19th century.  It is important to note that traditional Thai architecture utilizes what I would characterize as “prefab” movable architecture.  This means that a family could build a home, and later disassemble the home so that it could be moved to a new site.  This was also desirable since as the family’s needs expanded, additional buildings could be constructed and connected to the original home.  Another reason that had cultural importance is it’s not common for Thai people to buy homes on the resale market that were owned by other families due to their Buddhist beliefs.  Having spirits (especially negative ones) from other families around is not at all desirable, and great care is taken to provide a spirit house to keep the ancestral spirits happy.  The Lert home provides another example of these multiple buildings which were joined together by common walkways.

Architecturally speaking, raised thresholds are a common Thai design feature and serve as a way to literally trip up evil spirits.  Note that at the time Thompson designed and built his home, prosperous Thai families were more interested in modern Western architectural styles, especially in urban areas like Bangkok.  This house did have some Western elements as well as design elements which were specific to Thompson’s requirements.  For example, Thompson preferred an interior staircase, and you can see that specific difference in the photos above.  Also, the walkways which connect the six buildings are all on the interior like you would see in a Western home.  Modern conveniences like air conditioning (in the office area only) and Western style bathrooms are also included.  You’ll also notice in the image above the red exterior paint which I understand was popularized by Thompson.

The on-site landscaping (examples below) is every bit as important as the architecture.  The grounds are filled with an abundance of tropical plant life and outdoor art.  Thompson entertained regularly, and it wasn’t uncommon for American and European celebrities or dignitaries to be entertained by Thompson.  All who visited were wowed by both the house and its landscaping.  There was plenty of entertainment in the house over the years initiated by a housewarming party that featured a performance by a Thai dance company.

I hope that you’ve found this post both entertaining and useful.  If you have already visited or are visiting Bangkok in the near future, I’d love to hear what you think of these museums.  If you know someone who will be going, please share this post.

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