Dead Baby Watching at Bangkok’s Medical Museum

And you thought Bangkok was all black market kidneys and autoerotic asphyxiation.

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Mar 6 2012, 7:15pm

To get to Bangkok’s Siriraj Medical Museum, which doesn’t appear in most guidebooks, ask a local to write “Siriraj Hospital” in Thai script and present it to a taxi driver. He’ll take you to the “wrong side" of the Chao Phraya river and drop you off in front of a sprawling complex. From there, show that same piece of paper to a friendly-looking passerby to be pointed in the direction of the medical museum. The museum opens at nine, closes at four, and costs $1.25 to get in—$4.25 if you want a set of headphones with a British-accented guided tour and a probably-unlicensed U2 fade-in. Incidentally, it also has a “No Photography” rule, which is strictly enforced by armed security. Consequently, the photos in this article were found online.

If the whole holding up bits of handwriting to strangers thing sounds like a lot of effort, believe me when I say the exhibits are worth it.

There’s “Gastroschisis,” a child preserved in formaldehyde whose black intestines burst out of its stomach in utero. There’s also “Cyclopia with proboscis,” which has no eyes. A floppy, distended belly button droops down from the bridge of its nose.

All in all there are nine babies. Each is displayed on an eye-level pedestal that’s lit from below with mesmerizing clarity in a small, sterile room. They look like Hollywood props. You have to remind yourself that they’re real—that they used to be in a tummy—and when you do that successfully, you might feel your stomach turn and the whole enterprise might feel like a horrible joke. But on most mornings something “educational” is underway, which is comforting when you're trying to convince yourself that there is some point to having all of these dead babies in a room.

Such was the case on the morning of my visit, when 30 Thai seventh-graders waltzed into the museum full of the field-trip jitters. Each one had a pink booklet, which the girls immediately began scribbling medical terms inside of. The boys, still tiny and pre-pubescent, did not.

The pack honed in on “Harlequin Type Ichthyosis,” a girl whose skin looked like cracked leather and whose gummy mouth was curled into a permanent oval shriek. Her scream was pointed directly at “Anencephaly,” the baby next to her, who bobbed in a Buddha-like squat, looking normal and relaxed, like she was sleeping peacefully in a crib. Except her little pink brain was exposed through a gap in her skull.

The boys gasped in unison and tiptoed closer to get a better view. The chaperones—women in their 40s—quickly disbanded them, but the adults were curious too; one approached an infant girl who had been sawed in half from top to bottom and pinched her nose against a smell that wasn't there.

Just then another class entered the photo section of the museum, sporting the same prim blue uniforms and pink questionnaires. The first image they saw was an arm with seven self-inflicted knife wounds perpendicular to the wrist. The translated placard read: “Suicide Cut Wounds [Blade Cut].”

If the children’s discomfort wasn’t almost palpable already, it was after they gathered around the next photo, titled “Suicide [Amputate Cut Left Wrist],” featuring a de-handed arm. From the looks of it, the guy had used some sort of meat-grinder type situation to lop off his appendage, because his whole forearm was in bad shape.

The photo section also featured ax victims, ten execution-style gunshot deaths, a woman with a “stab wound of ascending aorta,” and a body featuring “multiple cuts by propeller.” That last one was particularly fascinating for the group, since the kid who took the propeller to the head was close to their age.

The museum’s main attraction, however, is the infamous Si Quey, a Chinese immigrant who murdered and ate the hearts and livers of six Thai children in the late 50s. His shriveled and embalmed body actually stands up on its own in the glass case like a crooked raisin. Two mummified killers sit next to him with placards that read: “Rape Murder with Death Sentence.” The morbid reality of the place tends to sink in for most people right about here, so the museum has kindly provided three benches in front of Si Quey and his friends for quiet contemplation. A baby in a jar sits at one end of the bench, staring down Si 24 hours a day.

From there the museum turns a corner, both literally and figuratively, and abandons all things “medical” to better embrace just being as nightmarish as possible. In this case that means a shit ton of dead snakes frozen in a variety of horrifying poses.

But once you’ve reached the snakes you’ve hit the long home stretch. From there you’ll pass the original clay pot that a boy was crumpled into for an “asphysial death burn.” You’ll also see real murder weapons, piles of bones, posters about ecstasy, and a plethora of pickled limbs and organs with knife wounds and acid burns and bullet holes through them. If Siriraj were a symphony, these would be the final hellish string plucks.

When you’re all done, aim for the museum’s Mug Café. It’s a nice place to drink a cappuccino and prepare yourself for re-entering a society that, for the most part, hasn’t just seen a bunch of murder victims and dead babies.

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