Just as we were having a hard time making a decision about where we should go after Petchaburi, my sister and her family made a last-minute decision to fly out from Scotland to see us. So, instead of making plans for Laos we headed back to Bangkok to meet them and take them on a whistle-stop tour of Thailand.
We had a day to potter around Bangkok while waiting for them so I decided to force my family to go around some museums. As a former museum curator I can happily say that museums are my thing, however, my family remain to be convinced. I have scientifically measured their tolerance for old stuff over a number of years and it comes out at about thirty minutes. In hot countries I can get a 15 minute bonus from the aircon, so I know that I have to be quick and strategic. For this reason I thought it would be a good idea to visit the Siriraj Medical Museum, which is a collection of five different small museums based in the Siriraj Hospital. I thought my reasoning was sound. Firstly my husband is a physio so looking at bones and muscles appeals to him; secondly, kids are very curious about bodies, so I thought a few anatomical specimens would help them learn a few sciencey facts. Thirdly, moving about different buildings disorientates them and confuses them into spending more time in a place than they normally would, genius eh?
Not for the first time, I made a fairly basic error of judgement. I assumed that the whole thing would be more or less OK for the kids, and that I could easily avoid them seeing anything too disturbing. A basic, and frankly stupid error, because I know that around the world, cultures have vastly differing attitudes to what is considered appropriate treatment of human remains. But you live and learn. Siriraj Medical Museum definitely has an ‘anything goes’ attitude towards the grisly and gory. However, my damage control was fairly good and no one appears to have been permanently scarred from the experience.
There were just a couple of things that I wished I had been better prepared for, for example –
- The huge number of preserved foetuses and babies across the different buildings. Foetuses with congenital malformations, conjoined twins, multiple births and, most heart-breaking, a little two-year old that drowned and is now displayed in a big jar. I had a chat with the kids about why the babies might have died and why they were kept like that, but it did become a bit overwhelming and on one or two occasions I had to steer them away from a few specimens that I just didn’t want them to see.
- In the Forensic Medicine Museum, the first thing we saw when we walked in was a row of photographs of people displaying a range of serious mortal injuries. Pictures of people who had been killed in car accidents, murdered with knives or had half their heads shot away. Luckily, at that stage I was on point, so I was able to direct the kids away. I did go back to have a look myself and then wished that I hadn’t.
- The condition of some of the human remains was not good. In particular the mummified corpses in the Forensic Museum. The bodies are those of convicted criminals, including Thailand’s first recognised serial killer. I would love to know a bit more about how they are preserved in such a hot and humid climate, but the blackened bodies looked a bit like they were slowly melting. One had toppled forward in his case and had left a big greasy smear where his nose had slid down the inside of the glass. All a little bit nightmarish.
However, if you can get past the disturbing images and the sense that you are nothing but a voyeur of the pain and demise of others, the museum has much to recommend it. There is a good display about the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami covering what the typical injuries were like and how they identified the dead. The anatomy museum also has some incredibly intricate specimens beautifully displayed in original old wooden cases.
For the kids though, the most engaging part was the Museum of Parasitology. There is a fair bit of English interpretation in here, and there is a lot to learn as well as a lot to be confused by. We spent a long time in front of a film showing what appeared to be some kind of Thai Benny Hill tribute with an old woman comically chasing other people around a village, while we speculated about what it had to do with parasites (we never did work it out). There was also detailed family discussion around the reconstruction of a man with filariasis, sitting with his giant distended scrotum hanging down between his legs. There were lots of pictures and models of all sorts of hideous parasites that you never want to get, the kind of thing that really appeals to small children and makes adults suddenly develop itches that they didn’t have before, and go off street food for a bit.
I reckon I got about an hour and a half out of them before they started to complain, so 400 baht well spent. My kids talked about the things they had seen for a long time afterwards, and they didn’t have any nightmares about shambling black corpses or giant eye-eating worms afterwards.
My really travel tips for visiting the Siriraj Medical Museum
- Photographs are not permitted, hence no images on this post as I am a chronic museum rule obeyer
- There is a 200 baht entrance fee. Kids are free as long as they are under a certain height (which I can’t recall but I didn’t pay for either of mine, it’s usually about 120cm).
- How we got there. We took the ferry from Chang pier (you can walk there from Khaosan along the river if you want), paid 3 baht each for the trip across to Wang Lang pier. Bear right as you leave the ferry terminal and you will exit into in a kind of taxi turning area/ dead-end in front of the market stalls. You will see a big entrance gate for the hospital grounds on the right, go through it and walk straight ahead. There are signs directing you to the museum buildings on the walls to your left if you look hard enough.
- You must pay your entrance fee at the desk in the main Medical Museum before you can go into the any of the other buildings/museums. You will probably come across the Anatomy/Prehistoric Museums first if you come from the ferry, don’t go in. Instead you need to stroll on past and the signs will lead you to the main building.
- In all seriousness, don’t go if you think the sight of preserved foetuses and infants will upset you, you cannot avoid them.