Jim Thompson disappearance in Cameron Highlands: The intriguing story of a high-profile tycoon that vanished in Malaysia

What happened to Jim Thompson? There are as many possibilities as gossipers in the Cameron Highlands, and over the decades many here have gossiped. He was whisked away by helicopter. It was the Vietnam War era – he was an American spy. He fell into a jungle ravine. No, he was eaten by a tiger.

As I scramble along a jungle track, the last scenarios seem plausible. We've only just strayed off the road and we're surrounded by walls of green, loud with humming insects. Soon we're boulder-hopping up a stream tangled in orchids and lianas. I'm disoriented. Sun glimmers faintly through elephant ferns.

"You see visitors here, they don't want to get out of their cars except to go into souvenir shops," says my guide Madi. "But this is the real Cameron Highlands. Look, our native rhododendrons. And begonias – isn't it wonderful?"

Yes, though I'm hoping to stumble not across tree roots but Jim Thompson's skull, which would definitively settle the 50-year-old mystery that has intrigued me since I first came here three decades ago. It fascinates Highlands-born Madi, too. The naturalist from Cameron Highlands Resort leads complimentary Jim Thompson walks and proffers theories to make my head spin. He doesn't think Jim Thompson was American at all, he was an undercover British MI6 operative.

"He liked birdwatching and walking. Americans don't like doing those things! Look, there is the boulder where he used to bird watch. And he drank tea. He had fish-head curry for lunch on that last day. Americans don't like curry!"

Hmm. Jim Thompson was a high-profile American businessman and antiques collector who revived Thailand's moribund silk industry. His company is known today for quality silk textiles and his teak house in Bangkok is a museum. But, intriguingly, during World War II Thompson joined the OSS (forerunner of the CIA), and organised its Bangkok office.

In 1967 the 61-year-old was holidaying in the Cameron Highlands. On Easter Sunday, he attended church and had lunch at his hosts' cottage. They saw him depart for an afternoon stroll. At 4pm he was spotted from the Lutheran mission bungalow, right where Madi and I stand now, surrounded by bamboo and strangler figs. But Jim Thompson was never seen again.

The search stretched across 11 days and involved police, British servicemen and indigenous trackers. Sniffer dogs found no scent, so the police concluded Thompson had left in a vehicle. Yet not one piece of conclusive evidence pointed to whether Jim Thompson had been kidnapped, murdered or had engineered his own disappearance.

It's a shame that Somerset Maugham – who worked for British intelligence during World War I and wrote stories set in Malaysia – had died just 15 months previously. He could have made great use of this mysterious event. Not that Madi isn't doing a fine job. He peppers his tale with colourful anecdotes, such as the half-finished cigar and still-steaming cup of tea Thompson supposedly left by his armchair.

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Madi knows an old banana-cutter who saw Thompson getting into a car. And a shopkeeper who thought he climbed aboard a helicopter. Another witness claimed Thompson had an intense conversation with two British soldiers outside church. But OK, maybe he was eaten by a tiger.

"The hotel driver saw a tiger not long ago," says Madi as we hike back to Cameron Highlands Resort. "And I once saw a black panther while hiking."

I conclude my day, if not the mystery, in the hotel's Jim Thompson Lounge, which has scarcely changed since the British came here for cool-climate retreats. Thompson could have played snooker here. If he was a secret Brit, he might have ordered afternoon tea and scones. I do the same, satisfied that this story remains as intriguing as ever.

TRIP NOTES

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traveller.com.au/malaysia

pahangtourism.org.my

FLY

Malaysia Airlines flies from Melbourne and Sydney to Kuala Lumpur. See malaysiaairlines.com

STAY

Cameron Highlands Resort has good restaurants and a spa. Rooms from $170 a night. Hotel tours take you on temple, jungle and tea-plantation trails. The two-hour Jim Thompson Mystery Trail is complimentary. See cameronhighlandsresort.com

Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of YTL Hotels.

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