"De Souza's theory was that Thompson had planned his own disappearance as 'an honourable manner' to get out of Thailand."

The Star, March 31, 2010.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Down memory lane

To date, volumes have been written about Jim Thompson, by far, the best known legend of Southeast Asia. Of the many who wrote about him, none have come close to solving his disappearance from the Cameron Highlands. Why is that so? There are two reasons for this: one, it could be the authors were not aware that Jim actually left the Ling’s estate at 1.30pm; or two, they chose not to know about it. Of the two, the latter seems to be more the case. As such, his eclipse has not only gone on to become an unsolved mystery; it has also led many to go on a tangent.

I first came to have an interest in Jim’s exit as a result of reading about it in the newspapers. My initial impression was that he got lost as a consequence of falling into a pit of quicksand. Years later, I came to realize I was wrong.

In 1994, while on a trip to the retreat, it came as a surprise to me that in spite of the fact he vanished more than 25 years ago, the memory of his departure was still fresh in the minds of many. What also caught my attention was this: some of the residents I spoke to were sure he had a hidden motive for coming over to their neighborhood. But, due to a lack of evidence, they had to put away their views.

While I was at the hill station, I came to have an interest in his absconding all over again. To satisfy my curiosity, I took the route which he took just after he left "Moonlight" villa. While walking down Jalan Kamunting (Kamunting Road), several questions crossed my mind: One, why did he have to choose this route when there were so many other avenues opened to him? Two, was he really on the lookout for a hornet’s nest? Three, what were his intentions for heading for the Lutheran Mission bungalow? Four, was he aware a mission home existed at the end of the road? Five, while he was at the complex, what made him want to leave the place? Six, on his return, did he scale the steep slope to his left? Lastly, did he have an appointment to be picked up by someone with whom he had earlier made arrangements with?

After giving it serious thought, it dawned on me there was more to it than his being on the hunt for a hornet’s nest. When I got back from the outpost, I went through a stack of files to see if I could pinpoint the exact time he left the cottage. To the best of my knowledge, I remembered being told he departed the scene at about 1.30pm. What later proved to be a disappointment was this: most reports, if not all, claimed he walked out of "Moonlight" at 3.30pm. Much later, while going through the past issues of the Eastern Sun, I came across an article which not only stated he left the premises at 1.30pm; equally interesting, it also affirmed that Jim waved goodbye to Helen and Constance prior to his leaving the compound. Armed with this detail, I went ahead to write a book entitled SOLVED! The "Mysterious" Disappearance of Jim Thompson, the Legendary Thai Silk King. It was printed and published in the United Kingdom in 1996. Eight years later, my work was also published in the United States. Of the many who read my work, none came around to say they were “short changed.”

The green quietude of the Cameron Highlands

I have to admit it was not easy solving Jim’s exit from the Cameron Highlands. Over the years, a lot has been written about him. But what has been written about him did not bring his departure to a satisfying close. At best, it was an unsolved mystery; at worse, it was a rehash of what others had had to say. For starters, most writers did not visit the Highlands. Not surprisingly, many did not come up with a sketched map of the resort. For the few who did so, the Lutheran Mission home was somehow left out. Could it be an oversight? Not so. An attempt to mislead comes closer. If the unit had been included, the reader would have sensed something was amiss. To prevent that from happening, the authors did away with the location of the house.

Writing about Jim was no easy task. It involved reading up on him, talking to the right people, trekking the jungle and last but not least, staying at "Moonlight". When compared to the others, I have to admit I was in a better position. I am a Singaporean. I communicate well in English, Malay and a Chinese dialect. I am at home when I am in Malaysia. I love their food. I am aware of their customs and traditions. I have worked in Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. Yes, I was educated in Singapore but what matters most is I know when to talk and when to keep quiet.

For this edition, I visited the haven again in October 2009. While I was at the enclave, I took the opportunity to visit Gunung (Mount) Brinchang. It took me and a Malaysian friend about an hour to reach the mountain top. While we were at the summit, we spent some time examining the picnic site where a snapshot of Jim was taken in the past. Surprising as it may seem, the photograph was not as one would expect. The site’s slope gradient was a lot different when compared to that of the photograph. Further, the angle that the shot was taken was indicative that the shot was taken somewhere else.

The driveway leading to the Lutheran Mission bungalow

Apart from visiting Gunung Brinchang, I also spent a day at the Jalan Kamunting precinct. I enjoyed my stroll from Moonlight to the Lutheran abode: it not only gave me a nice “feel” of the route which Jim took; it also made me more aware as to why he opted for this path. Except for the presence of a government-owned building (Kumpulan Wang Simpanan Perkerja), nothing much has changed in the area since the time Jim went astray. Throughout my walk, I hardly came into contact with anyone. It was much the same when I traveled this road some years back.

If you are planning a trip to the hamlet, this is the one place you should not miss. Only after you have visited this precinct would you be in a better position to understand why Jim was on this street for more than two hours and on it again for a questionable period of time.

Excerpts from Postscript, pages 109-112, SOLVED! The "Mysterious" Disappearance of Jim Thompson, the Legendary Thai Silk King (2nd edition), a publication of Word Association Publishers, ISBN: 978-1-59571-505-0. Copyright © 2010 Edward Roy De Souza.