Exploring Immortality in Bangkok

NSFW, W standing for "weak stomach-ed."

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It is a Sunday afternoon at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok. In a few hours, the Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej will be released, after a nearly seven-month stay here. He will travel with the queen to their palace in Hua Hin, a seaside city in the south of Thailand.

His release is cause for fanfare and celebration. People line the streets of the hospital complex, waving flags and cheering. There is happiness. There are tears of joy.

And here I am, sequestered away on the third floor of one of that same hospital’s many buildings, looking at a drowned baby.

The baby is (was) a boy. Staples hold together his chest cavity. A small placard above the encasement reads, “Victim of drowning.” He has been preserved and left to float in a plastic rectangular prism full of dingy preservative liquid. What the baby thinks of the irony of his state is unknown. For that, you would need to understand the sense of humor of this particular drowned baby.

The Siriraj hospital has been established as the first “western” medical center in Thailand according to the royal legislation and King Rama the V of the Chakri Dynasty. The baby is an exhibit that is part of the hospital’s Siriraj Medical Museum. It’s made up of five specialty museums; the Ellis Pathological Museum, the Songkran Niyomsane Forensic Medicine Museum, the Parasitology Museum, Congdon Anatomical Museum and the Sood Sangvichien Prehistoric Museum & Laboratory. I skipped the prehistoric museum, because, who wants to see pottery shards when you can see bone shards?

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Photo via Iconosquare/dnlcrdv

According to my brochure, the forensic museum “illustrates the development of forensic medicine by exhibiting evidence from important post-verdict cases.” Basically, it displays dead people and the things that killed them. In glass-topped cabinets lay murder weapons—blades and bullets and ropes and chains. There is a handheld car waxer. There is a dildo. There is an array of venomous—and dead, of course—snakes, including a king cobra.

In the same room are several cabinets, also of glass, each just the size of a human being. Which is perfect, because there are mummified human beings inside of them. One houses Si Ouey, a Chinese immigrant-turned-serial child killer and rapist who (allegedly) ate the livers and hearts of his victims. He was hanged for his crimes in the 1950s, and later put on display here. His skin is oily and the color of mulch. He resembles a man made of beef jerky.

“I can’t look at this,” my girlfriend Tessa says, wincing at a full-color photograph depicting a blast force injury from a Molotov cocktail. The person in the photograph is a child. “It’s too much.”

She turns away.

But there is nowhere to turn. Behind Tessa is the preserved head of an unidentified man who was beheaded in an automobile accident. To her left is a sundress, so blood-stained it appears rusted, that a woman had been wearing at the time of her murder.

For what it’s worth, Tessa is wrong. This is not too much; in fact, it’s the opposite—this is quite literally all there is. We are, and then we are not. And after that, some of us end up in the Siriraj Medical Museum.

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Photo via Iconosquare/mishajoh

The Ellis Pathological Museum, located in the same building, houses fetuses that look every way but normal—conjoined, cyclopedic, hydrocephalic, anencephalic and harlequin, with chitinous skin and insectoid eyes. They quietly await observation.

Specimens of various cancerous organs have been encased and bisected. An interactive display where one can feel for a malignant lump inside a pair of rubber breasts invites visitors to test their skill. There are diseased hearts the sickly greyish color of pâté.

What is perhaps most frightening is the way that other affected specimens appear at first glance healthy. Until you look closer, and see a murky blemish, or a rheumy clot—infinitesimal, seemingly innocuous, barely identifiable, but more than enough to render the most hardy among us a stiffening, fast-cooling corpse.

Just around the corner is the Parasitology Museum. In its atrium is the enormous testicular sack of a man with elephantiasis, suspended in a cube of amber fluid. As large as a deployed air bag, the scrotum is surprisingly tasteful, sculptural. You wouldn’t be averse to having something like it on your mantle, if you didn’t know what it was.

Surrounding the scrotum are jars containing the winding curls of tapeworms, and microscopic protozoans and amoebas and liver flukes. A display of shrub-sized models of dust mites hides inside a bed. “Their everyday life is to eat-defecate-breed—that’s all,” reads the placard. Dust mites, it seems, have more in common with your average American than one might think.

With its lack of (noticeable) air conditioning, the Congdon Anatomical Museum—located in an adjacent building—does not seem climatically suited to house the viscera and the other haphazard remains of post-human-hood that it does. Skeletons of giants, dwarves, men, women and children stand guard over displays of nervous, arterial and muscular systems, splayed out like road, topographical and elevation maps. Tattoos, the skin stretched like macabre canvas to reveal the fading and blurred ink work, are at once hideous and delicate. The room brings to mind the famed “Bodies” exhibition, but on a serious budget.

In the three years I’ve lived abroad, I have visited the Siriraj Medical Museum three times. It has become a yearly pilgrimage. A Siri-hajj, if you will. I could say that the museum serves as a vestibule in which I am able to quietly contemplate my own mortality, thanking whatever higher power I might believe in for my life and what remains of it. Live far away from home for long enough and you do start to examine the fleeting meaninglessness of existence, how your family and friends and yourself are slowly yet unceasingly nearing the brink. And how some of you will reach that edge first, tumble off it into the eternal maelstrom abyss of whatever does or does not come next. But mostly I just think this stuff is cool.

Surprising still, even on this third visit, is the lack of English language descriptions of the oddities on display. Instead most exhibits are presented—perhaps this should have been obvious, but brash American entitlement has the tendency to obscure common sense—in Thai script, except for the odd scientific words, which we don’t even understand in English, like “medulloblastoma” and “thoracopagus.” Unless you opt for the guided audio tour, much of what you are observing is unknown, other than the obvious.

What better way to confront death? Knowing just enough, but nowhere near the whole ball of wax. Death is ineluctable; it surrounds us. Like the Thai language, it is a foreign thing, incomprehensible on a good day.

If the Siriraj Museum teaches us anything, it is that death is here, always lurking; like a cancer, a liver fluke or the glittering blade of a knife. It twines through our legs like a pet cat. It flits through the air on leathery wings. Death waits, or it does not. It is a fickle assassin, acting on the whims of fate, God, bad luck, whatever you may call it. But this does not matter—ascribing a motive to the Grim Reaper is an impotent exercise in anxiety- and fear-driven futility. Once you are dead, all else is moot. The only question is when He will arrive to collect what has all along been His.

Tomorrow? Ten years? Fifty? Right now?

As the Thai king heads home, and the related festivities dwindle, I exit the museum, stepping into the thick sludge of afternoon heat. I draw a breath, and I go about my day, and I wait.

Adam Kohut is an American living in Bangkok, where he works as a journalist.