The Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, 140 miles north of Kuala Lumpur at an elevation of 5,000 ft., is one of Southeast Asia's most fetching health resorts. Its climate is mild by day and cool by night, and its lush vegetation includes thick jungles, clouds of brilliant flowers and mile after mile of tea plantations. There last week on vacation went one of Southeast Asia's best-known businessmen, American James Thompson, 61. Tired from a round of business, which included the opening in Bangkok three weeks ago of a new, two-story headquarters for his $1.5 million-a-year silk business, Thompson came to the Highlands as the guest of Dr. and Mrs. T. G. Ling of Singapore.
A resident of Thailand since 1946, Thompson had almost singlehanded made Thai silk and its shimmering colors world-renowned, and thus created a major export asset for the grateful Thais. But Thompson was more than a businessman; he was also a collector of Oriental objets d'art who filled his opulent Bangkok home with priceless porcelains and religious figures. He loved to roam through the jungle, searching for old ruins and occasionally kicking up a Buddha's head. One afternoon last week, when his hosts had retired to rest, he left their house without a word and went for a walk into the jungle. This time, Jim Thompson did not return.
Massive Manhunt. Alarmed when he did not show up by dark, the Lings called the police, who launched the most massive manhunt ever seen in the Malayan mountains. Some 300 soldiers and police using tracker dogs fanned out through the jungle. Helicopters swooped over the treetops. The searchers were soon joined by 30 aboriginal tribesmen of the area, through which both tigers and bandits are known to roam. Back in Bangkok, a Portuguese Jesuit brother with a reputation for clairvoyance picked out a likely spot on a map, and the commander of U.S. Army Support in Thailand, Brigadier General Edwin F. Black, flew off to Malaysia with it in the distant hope the it might help. Even a local witch doctor tried, and failed, to divine Thompson's whereabouts.
Thompson's friends and Malaysian officials at first suspectedeven hoped, as the least of several evilsthat he had been captured by local bandits, who sometimes seize Chinese merchants for ransom. But offers of substantial rewards, printed in local newspapers, failed to produce any response. Thompson was accustomed to the jungle, but the forest around Cameron Highlands is so thick and its trails so numerous and meandering that local authorities estimated that it would take a full regiment of men working for about a month to comb the area. The only clue came from a cook in a Lutheran-mission bungalow, who said that she had seen Thompson standing on a nearby plateau for about 30 minutes. Then, she reported, "suddenly he disappeared." By week's end, no trace of him had been found.