The Siriraj Bimuksthan Museum brings to life the history of medical innovation in Thailand
At the south end of the Bangkok Noi estuary, on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River, is where you’ll find the Siriraj Bimuksthan Museum. It’s located right next door to Siriraj Hospital, which has its own unique medical museum (sometimes referred to as the ‘Museum of Death’), but the Siriraj Bimuksthan Museum is quite different from its more macabre neighbour.
The museum’s main, L-shaped building preserves the heritage of its former tenant—the Bangkok Noi Railway station, which ceased operation in 2003—especially in the entry area and at the ticketing booths, where the look of the old-style train station is most evident. There’s also an authentic Mikado steam locomotive on the grounds outside to remind visitors of the property’s former incarnation.
However, the storied history of this plot of land goes back even further, dating back to the late 1700s, when it was a fortress during the time of Taksin the Great, King of Thonburi (portions of the old fortress walls have been unearthed and are on display at the museum). Several decades later, in 1782, King Rama I granted the land to Prince Wang Lang, and several of the displays on the ground floor are dedicated to this period, including the Boranraja Sastra room which exhibits antique swords and other weapons, and the Sthanbimuk Mongkolkhet room, which has an enormous, intricately illustrated mural depicting the life of Prince Wang Lang.
But even before entering these rooms, visitors watch a short video presentation (in Thai with English subtitles) on the history of the railway station and the surrounding area. It’s just one of the many hi-tech visual displays that enhance the overall experience.
Up on the second level the history of modern medicine in Thailand begins to emerge. In 1888 King Rama V was instrumental in establishing Siriraj Hospital—the first public hospital in Thailand—named after his infant son Siriraj who had succumbed to dysentery one year earlier. Then, in 1990, the King granted permission for The Royal Medical College to be established, in order to train the staff who would work at the hospital. Of course, it was no easy task convincing Thai people of that era that modern medicine was superior to their time-honoured folk traditions, so for many years the hospitals administered both kinds of medicine—ancient and modern alike.
The second storey rooms are a mix of hi-tech displays, vintage photos, and reconstructions of old-fashioned laboratories and operating theatres. There’s even a plasticized corpse visitors can touch. As visitors weave their way through the various displays they will also see life-size dioramas depicting traditional pharmacies and other folklore medical traditions, as well as some interactive electronic displays that tell about the mysteries of the human body.
The last section—Building 3 on the museum map—is home to an enormous, 25 meter long, ancient wooden river barge which was unearthed during the construction of the museum. Finally, in an adjacent display hall there is a life-size, walk-through, diorama display depicting the marketplace life in Bangkok Noi as it would have been lived in times gone by.
NOTE: The Siriraj Bimuksthan Museum is wheelchair accessible, and also includes special features for hearing and visually impaired persons.
Siriraj Bimuksthan Museum
2 Wanglang Rd. (Thonburi Railway Pier)
Open: Wed-Mon, 10am-5pm (closed on official holidays)
Price: B300; B50 (under 18)
The man who has been fulfilling the role of chief consultant at the Siriraj Bimuksthan Museum since it opened is Napan Sevikul, although this marks his final year with the institution, as he will be retiring soon.
“I am almost 70, let me have some rest,” he says, with a jolly laugh.
But retirement doesn’t mean this dedicated historian, archivist, and photographer will be slowing down entirely. In fact, he still has quite a task before him in setting up a searchable, electronic photo library at the museum—designed primarily for students doing research work. The bulk of his contribution to this photo archive will be his collection of photographs, documents, and written accounts detailing his time spent at the Royal Projects as part of the group that accompanied His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej on his treks through the countryside of Northern Thailand.
“I have over 1,000 photos, and lots and lots of documents,” Napan explains as he brings up a series of images on his laptop. “But I was not official photographer of the King. I never worked with him. I had my own company—Bell Co. Ltd.—and that company worked with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) for over 30 years.”
It was through that connection with the TAT that Napan was allowed the opportunity to work as part of a special committee, set by the then Prime Minister. “I had a chance to follow the King for 7 years—from 1978 to 1985—while he was going out and working up country.”
During this time Napan documented much of what was going on at the Royal Projects, and although he never took that many photos of the King himself—“When he was working I did not want to interrupt his work, so we stayed a bit far from him,” he explains—a few of his royal portraits have become almost iconic, including the photo that graced the cover of our Bangkok 101 November memorial issue.
In recent years Napan has revisied the places he photographed almost three decades ago in order to compare the images. Carrying his old photos and mapping documents, he was able to locate many of the original sites and re-photograph the exact spots as they are today. His amazing before-and-after documentation shows clearly how substantial a difference the King’s work has made to these once agriculturally depleted areas.