Malaysia: Shrouded in adventure

By Megan Singleton

Megan Singleton puts her CSI skills to work examining a famous missing person case.

Tea plantations in Malaysia's beautiful Cameron Highlands. Photo / Thinkstock
Tea plantations in Malaysia's beautiful Cameron Highlands. Photo / Thinkstock

I am standing on the spot of conspiracy theories and dastardly deeds in the jungle of Malaysia's Cameron Highlands.

The very spot Jim Thompson, former CIA agent turned silk trader, was last seen before his mysterious disappearance in 1967. A wave to the gardener over yonder one balmy afternoon, then he vanished never to be seen again - or was he?

Any interior designer worth their weight in tulle will know that Thompson virtually single-handedly rejuvenated silk-weaving in Thailand and, since his disappearance from Moonlight Cottage here in the Cameron Highlands, his silk has become hot property in fancy homes and hotels by way of cushions, covers and even wallpaper.

The Jim Thompson story is the biggest tale to be told in this part of Malaysia and I am listening to Captain Mohk, a former Elite Services soldier who was part of the original search party with locals, police, helicopters and dogs.

In 2004, he created the Jim Thompson Trail for curious tourists around the jungle area that was combed for 10 days and yielded no clues.

As we chat, I find myself looking over the broken picket fence in case they missed something.

Thompson clearly didn't intend to be gone long that fateful afternoon, leaving his jacket over the chair and more importantly to those who believed he was kidnapped, the heavy smoker left his ciggies and lighter on the table.

The "why" and "how" of his disappearance is still the subject of conspiracy, but we do know that as a CIA operative he was trained in jungle survival so theories about his being eaten by a tiger or falling into a trap without a trace have been largely dismissed.

Being the CSI fan that I am, this is what I found out: Jim was stationed in Thailand as an officer for the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS), an intelligence agency formed during World War II and the predecessor to the CIA. (Curious side fact: the official list of secret personnel was released only this year revealing chef Julia Child among the registered spies.)

After the war, he moved permanently to Thailand and founded the Thai Silk Company, which saw him popping to and from the Golden Triangle - an area of opium and mafia notoriety and conveniently, silk worms.

In 1967, the then 60-year old was here on holiday with his good friend Dr Ling from Singapore, Dr Ling's wife and MaryAnn, Thompson's girlfriend. The last thing anyone heard was footsteps on the gravel out the front of house early in the afternoon. Presuming it was Jim off for an afternoon stroll, no-one paid attention until he no-showed for high tea at 4.30pm.

Conspiracists cite the huge man-hunt, including US helicopters, for the supposed retired CIA man as proof he was more important than his outward demeanour might have suggested.

No evidence of an animal attack was ever found and dogs lost his scent at the end of the driveway, leading many to believe he, willingly or not, was bundled into a car.

Some believe he came here to meet an agent, maybe his killer or abductor.

There was an apparent sighting of him in Tahiti about a week after his disappearance.

Although the friend who saw him there hadn't heard he'd been reported missing and didn't think anything unusual about seeing him at a French Polynesian resort.

But whatever the full story, one thing's for sure, if he is alive, he'd be 102 and that would be even more remarkable than the mystery itself.

IF YOU GO

Where to stay: The Cameron Highlands Resort, which is set amid tea plantations and rolling hills, is the perfect spot to relive the region's interesting colonial days. It features a spa and golf course and is located about 200km out of Kuala Lumpur.

- Herald on Sunday

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