Bangkok's hospital museums are educational with a touch of gore, finds Pamela Wade.
For all those people whose mothers hissed at them, "Don't stare!" when as children they saw someone odd, Bangkok's Siriraj Hospital is a liberating place. Tucked away within a confusing maze of buildings beside the Chao Phraya River are two museums that contain exhibits put there precisely to be stared at, studied and remembered.
This is a teaching hospital, so naturally anatomy is the focus of one of the museums, which are also open to the curious public.
Up a flight of creaky stairs, in a dimly-lit room where rusty fans stir the humid air, is a collection of wood-framed glass cases containing a remarkable and grimly fascinating collection of human deformities.
The most startling, and affecting, are the many conjoined twin babies, floating in formaldehyde and partially dissected to show their shared, and separate, organs, sparely labelled in Thai and medical English. There are human touches, however: some of the babies have been left gifts of lollies or toys. Beside one case is a boxed helicopter, on its lid the slogan 'Keep Your Dream Flying'.
It's sad, of course, to see such things; it's also a lesson in luck. Here, in neat rows, is empirical proof of all the things that can go wrong in our pre-natal development. It's impossible to look at these poor people and not feel fortunate that, in your own case, all those cell divisions went as they should.
The painstakingly extracted nervous and arterial systems, hanging from their brains like river systems, are another reason to marvel at the astonishing complexity of the human body.
In other cases are normal bodies, men and women, muscles and organs partially exposed; there are skeletons, some grotesquely deformed, one over 2m high; and cross-sectioned slices, preserved brown and yellow, which otherwise wouldn't be out of place in a butcher's window.
So far, so horrifying; around the corner is another kind of nightmare. The Siriraj Medical Museum at first seems a more modern affair, its entrance deceptively brightly lit, but inside there are rows of the same glass cases. One room is devoted to forensic medicine, well-stocked with photographs and physical examples of victims of shootings, knife attacks, hammer blows, collisions with spinning propellers. It's coldly specific: this is what a throat cut with a broken beer bottle looks like, here is one cut with a knife. This is a gunshot wound; here is a shotgun wound.
In a separate case, standing slouched against the inside of a glass case that looks disconcertingly like a phone box, is something entirely different: the mummified body of Si Quey, a serial killer and real-life Hannibal Lecter who ate the hearts and livers of more than 30 children in the 1950s. He's there as a punishment and a warning; and so is his companion in the next case, shrivelled and shiny, a convicted rapist. Their stories are written only in Thai, but the implicit message is unmistakable.
More conventionally presented is the story, in video, photographs and a tableau, of the hospital's role in treating and identifying victims of the 2004 tsunami.
The images are graphic, but there is real pride deservedly taken in obstacles overcome by hospital staff to save people from the horrific injuries they sustained during the disaster. Equally important is their dedication to diligent forensic investigation that enabled the dead to complete "their long journey home". Of the 3777 bodies found in the area where the hospital's staff were sent to assist, only 998 were left unidentified.
In the neighbouring room, the Parasitology section begins with a mock-up of sushi that could be straight out of any food hall, but beyond it are displays of the life-cycles of liver flukes, tapeworm, hookworms and more.
Worryingly, their only common feature is that infestation is asymptomatic - suddenly, all that delicious street food outside seems much less appealing.
Malaria mosquitoes, dust mites, scorpions, tarantulas, snakes: they're all represented here. So too is a life-size model of a man with elephantiasis, sitting with his beachball-sized scrotum resting on the mat between his feet. Opposite, the real thing is preserved in a case, all 35kg of it.
These museums are no place for the squeamish; nor are they an attraction for freak-show fans. The intention is to educate, and even curious tourists will come away with a new appreciation for the intricacies of the human body, and real gratitude that their own has, so far, escaped the shocks that flesh is heir to.
Getting there: Thai Airways flies daily from Auckland to Bangkok.
Further information: Siriraj Hospital is near the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew) on the west of the river. It is most easily accessed by taking the SkyTrain (Silom line) to the river, and then a ferry to pier N10. The museums are in buildings 27 and 28, which can be located on maps within the complex. Closed on Tuesdays and public holidays.