On the 45th anniversary of Jim Thompson’s disappearance in Cameron Highlands, Star2 takes readers back to that fateful day when the whole town was abuzz with news of a missing mat salleh.
WE were on the hunt for Jim Thompson. No, not Jim Thompson the Thai Silk King, whose disappearance 45 years ago in the Cameron Highlands jungle remains one of the most enduring mysteries in the region.
The man we were looking for was taxi driver Ng Kiew Chay, whom the locals of Cameron Highlands refer to as “Jim Thompson”.
Jim Thompson, the Thai Silk King, who
disappeared in Cameron Highlands 45
years ago today.
You see, each time we mentioned we wanted to talk about the day Thompson (the actual one, not the taxi driver) disappeared, everyone kept telling us the same thing – “Look for that taxi guy Thompson!”
Apparently, Ng is a legend of sorts around town. Legend has it that he was the driver of the last taxi Thompson ever took the night before he disappeared. But that’s not how he got the nickname “Thompson”.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The reason we were driving around Cameron Highlands looking for this local “Jim Thompson” is because today is the 45th anniversary of Thompson’s disappearance.
Born in 1906 in Greenville, Delaware in the heartland of America, James Harrison Wilson Thompson was an American architect and former US Army officer in the Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency), forerunner of the CIA. He is best known as the Thai Silk King for his role in reviving the ailing Thai silk and textile industry in the 1950s and 1960s after establishing the Thai Silk Company.
Today, the trendy silk fashion retail stores that bear his name still draw large crowds, and his former residence in Bangkok, the Jim Thompson Thai House (Museum) on Rama Road 1, Bangkok, has become a well-visited tourist destination.
On March 26, 1967, Thompson was on holiday in Cameron Highlands, visiting his Singaporean friends Dr T.G. Ling and Helen Ling at the couple’s secluded hilltop retreat, the Moonlight Bungalow. At around 3pm that day, Thompson went off on his own to take an afternoon stroll in the nearby jungle. He was never seen or heard from again.
Since then, there has been a seemingly never-ending stream of rumours, myths and tall tales throughout the years. The fact that his body was never found has raised endless speculation about his disappearance as well as numerous theories about what really happened to him.
For the purpose of this article, however, we decided not to go down the well-trod path of wondering what happened to him. Instead, we wanted to know how the locals reacted during the first fateful days that the Thai Silk King went missing.
Legendary: Located high above the town of Brinchang atop a hilltop overlooking vast spans of jungle, the Moonlight Bungalow is only accessible via a small, steep road that is only wide enough to accommodate
one vehicle at a time.
Our guides in Cameron Highlands for the day were local entrepreneur Gerard Richard, who runs local tour company Cameron Secrets Travel and Tours Sdn Bhd; and See Kok Shan, the proprietor and curator of the wonderfully nostalgic Time Tunnel Local Museum. We couldn’t have asked for better guides for the day, as between the two of them, they seemed to know almost every single person in Cameron Highlands,
But first things first. A story on Jim Thompson would not be complete without a visit to the legendary Moonlight Bungalow, the last place Thompson was seen alive.
Located high above the town of Brinchang atop a hilltop overlooking vast spans of jungle, the Moonlight Bungalow is only accessible via a small, steep road that is only wide enough to accommodate one vehicle at a time.
An ominous sign saying ‘Moonlight Bunglow: No Entry’ greets us at the end of the road towards the bungalow where Jim Thompson was last seen alive.
An ominous sign saying “Moonlight Bunglow (sic): No Entry” greets us at the end of the road, where we park and approach the cottage complex on foot. The bungalow compound is eerily quiet, and the breeze that blows through it sends a slightly disconcerting chill up our spines.
The cottage itself is an impressively handsome structure – a two-storey English Tudor-style cottage surrounded by majestically ancient pine trees and old, gnarly hibiscus bushes, accompanied by a separate building that contains the staff quarters and garage.
As we stood on the cottage’s veranda (allegedly the last place where Thompson was seen alive), Richard pointed out several little paths leading from the cottage into the jungle. “All the bungalows around Cameron Highlands have little shortcuts like these leading through the jungle to the town; so any one of these could have been the path that Thompson used that day,” he said.
The search for Thompson involved hundreds of personnel, including local orang asli trackers, the police’s “Jungle Squad”, army ghurkas, and Malaysian field police. He was even deemed important enough for the US military to deploy helicopters from their base in Thailand to help with the search.
For S.S. Raja, the helicopters were what he remembers most about that day. Back then, the folk of Tanah Rata were already privy to the occasional helicopter ferrying VIPs or members of the royal family over their little town, but on that fateful day, he noticed more of those infernal whirlybirds hovering over their little town than usual.
“We were all used to helicopters landing in the field, especially when VIPs visited Cameron, but this time it was different. The army and police had set up tents there, and there seemed to be more helicopters landing and taking off than usual,” he said during an interview in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.
Raja, who was about 20 years old then, remembers the police and military setting up camp on the Tanah Rata field opposite the government quarters where his family lived, and mobilising a massive search in the jungle.
“There had been searches for missing people in the jungle before, but never one as large-scale as this,” he said.
According to retired teacher Alias Abdul Rahsid, the whole town was abuzz back then. The case was the main topic in kopitiams for weeks, and almost everyone had a story or rumour to share.
According to Alias, the hype on Thompson’s disappearance only reached its peak on the fourth day. “During the first three days, we didn’t think much about it. People got lost in the jungles all the time, and we expected the orang asli or the Jungle Squad to find him without any problem,” he said.
Then on the fourth day of the search, Thompson fervour went up another notch when word got out that a reward of about RM200,000 was being offered for anyone who found Thompson. Naturally, the locals began organising their own search parties as well.
“Back then, there was very little to do in Cameron Highlands. We usually spend our time after work playing football or rounders in the padang,” recalled Alias, who was about 23 at the time. “But when word got out that there was a reward being offered for this missing white guy, everyone was leaving work early so they could go into the jungle to look for him!”
teacher Alias Abdul Rahsid recalls that the search for Thompson drew quite a number of
mediums, bomohs and psychics from all over the world, each claiming that they could
find the missing tycoon.
One aspect of the search stood out: Alias recalls that the search drew quite a number of mediums, bomohs and psychics from all over the world, each claiming that they could find the missing tycoon. An article published in The Star (Clue Lies In The Bones, March 30, 2010) corroborates with Alias’ story, with the former OCPD of Cameron Highlands Deputy Supt (Retired) Ismail Hashim stating that he had logged 118 such individuals (not counting others that came much later), and that “For days, the hills were alive with the sound of incantations, gongs and firecrackers to ward off evil spirits”.
“I remember one particular monk who went into a trance while in the jungle, and accidentally stepped on a hornet’s nest!” Alias chuckled, adding that although the official search eventually lasted more than a month, by the second week, everyone had pretty much resumed their normal daily lives, though the kopitiam gossip still went on.
But back to Thompson the taxi driver and how he got that nickname. What intrigued us the most about Ng’s story is how everyone in Tanah Rata seemed to know of his involvement, and some of these stories were almost as varied and far-fetched as the ones told about the actual Jim Thompson.
After paying a visit to a couple of spots he usually frequents, we eventually caught up with Ng, taking a nap inside his taxi on the main street of Tanah Rata. However, when we approached him to ask about Jim Thompson, Ng refused point blank to comment on the subject. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” he said, waving his hands dismissively. “So many people come and disturb me about that Jim Thompson… and I don’t even know where he went!”
After a bit of prodding, however, he reluctantly let slip a few comments about his experience that day, though it took a bit of digging (in Alias’ library, to be exact) to find out more. We eventually found an article in a local Bahasa Malaysia magazine dating back seven years, where Ng had recounted how he was sitting at the Tanah Rata taxi stand minding his own business when a convoy of military and police vehicles trundled through the town. Some of the vehicles had Thai licence plates, others were carrying groups of Caucasian military officers. After asking around, he found that the mat salleh he often ferries around in his taxi had gone missing in the jungle, and that there was a reward for anyone who could find him.
Later that afternoon, Ng decided to try for the reward and entered the jungle with a group of friends to look for Thompson. Unfortunately, Ng was separated from his friends, got hopelessly lost, and ended up wandering around the forest for two days before being found by search parties. Since that incident, he’s been saddled with the name “Thompson”, something he seemed quite perplexed about even to this day.
“I wasn’t the only one who went in looking for him that day, but I don’t know why I was the only one who got called Thompson!” he grunted.
He’s not the only part of Cameron Highlands that bears the name of the Thai Silk King though. The Cameron Highlands Resort has a Jim Thompson Mystery Trail, which may not be the exact trail Thompson took, but is nevertheless a wonderful way to see the natural beauty of Cameron Highlands. The Strawberry Park Resort has a Jim Thompson Terrace and serves a decent “Jim Thompson Burger”. One thing is for sure, though – even if the truth about his disappearance is finally revealed in the future, the legend of Jim Thompson will remain as it has been these past 45 years – as an intricate part of Cameron Highlands’ history.
What happened to Jim Thompson?