On a wet and windy lunchtime in Bangkok, I decided to take a trip to one of its less well-known tourist destinations, the Museum of Death.
‘Not for the faint hearted’ screamed the TripAdvisor reviews, but as an aspiring crime writer, I couldn’t resist the pull of this attraction which promised an unflinching tableau of the human body in its final stages.
I took the Chao Phraya Express Boat to the museum which is located in the grounds of the Siriraj Hospital, close to the Thornburi Railway pier. Ignoring the touts trying to sell me a trip on a long-tail boat and the smartly uniformed staff pushing me towards the tourist hop-on hop-off boat, I headed for the cheapest option. Look for the stall selling orange tickets where you can purchase a one-way ticket along the river for just 15 baht (about 35p).
My past experience of the express boats is that they are usually crammed beyond capacity and, just when you think they can’t possibly squeeze any more on, they do. However, this morning, perhaps due to the weather, it was reasonably quiet with just a few day trippers and some monks in their orange robes. Note that women should not touch or sit next to a monk on the boats.
Traversing this huge city by river is a pleasant experience in itself and you can enjoy watching the colourful long-tail boats churning up the brown water and views of the various wats (temples) and prestigious hotels that line the banks.
Once ashore, the museum is not too difficult to find. There are signs, in English, but you have to look out for them. You are in a vast hospital complex with plenty of medical students milling about, so there are plenty of people to ask if you get lost.
Siriraj Museum comprises two different museums and you pay 200 baht for one, and 300 baht for a combined ticket (prices in January 2018). For children (under 18) admission is 25 or 50 baht, and admission is free of charge for children under 120cm in height. However, you should consider carefully before bringing children here. To get a taste, check out the website or Facebook page first. You have to store your luggage, and you are not allowed to take photographs in the museum. This is strictly enforced.
Apparently, there are audio guides available in different languages but, despite the museum being extremely quiet, I was told they were all in use. This was disappointing as a lot of the exhibits had explanations in Thai with no English translation.
The museum is divided into five parts. As you walk into the Ellis Pathological Museum, you realise why there were so many warnings on TripAdvisor as you are immediately confronted by an exhibition of preserved foetuses with a variety of abnormalities. It takes a while for your brain to adjust to the fact that these are actually real, and not the plastic models you may have seen elsewhere.
Once you have got over the initial shock, the exhibition is quite fascinating. This is not a ‘house of horrors’ museum, but a thoughtful and insightful explanation of the human condition from birth to death. This section of the museum also contains interesting displays about cancer and heart disease including modern treatment techniques.
On to the Songkran Niyomsane Forensic Medicine Museum – the so-called Museum of Death – and among the exhibits are preserved bodies of rape murderers and the infamous Si-Ouey, a serial killer who ate the heart and livers of his child victims.
The museum also included displays of various skulls and organs which show the impact of gun shot wounds, car accidents and burns.
There is an exhibition about the 2004 tsunami which devastated the Southern islands of Thailand and includes insights into the rescue operation, dealing with casualties and identifying the victims.
If your stomach is already feeling queasy at this point, then the next museum, the Parasitology Museum will certainly deter you from dinner. On display are sample parasites and infected organs, along with information about how to avoid food poisoning and spot the symptoms, all of which is bound to leave you paranoid. The scrotum of the patient with elephantiasis has to be seen to be believed.
A short walk over to the Congdon Anatomical museum takes you up some steps and past the ‘dissecting room’ (not open to the public). It’s like stepping back in time to a 19th century medical lab with its wooden benches and yellowing exhibition cases. Here you will find all the human organs on display, skulls, skeletons and more foetuses. Of particularly significance is the exhibit of the whole body nervous system and the whole body arterial system.
The final museum, the Sood Sangvichien Prehistoric Museum and Laboratory, is tiny and charts the evolution of humans. It includes exhibits of fossils, pottery and skeletons from the stone age.
The Museum of Death is not for everyone, but I left with an overwhelming impression of how complex and vulnerable the human body is. Unlike most tourist attractions in Bangkok, you will have the place practically to yourself and it’s certainly an interesting way to spend a few hours. Just don’t go with a full stomach!
The Siriraj Museum ‘Museum of Death’ is open daily from 10am to 5pm, except Tuesdays and public holidays.
Admission is 200 baht (adult), 50 baht (children); combined tickets available. It is not suitable for younger children.