Sunday, July 5, 2015

Discovering Thailand in the Museums of Bangkok

by Laurent Kuenzle, CEO, Asian Trails

Isn’t it true that for many of us the sights that are closest to our homes are the ones we know the least? How many of us have really visited the tourist attractions in our own city despite recommending them to our friends and clients.

I, for one, have not been to many of the unique museums in Bangkok. It is in the spirit of discovering what’s in our backyards and on the initiative of our new partners, Rock Around Asia, we filled one of our minibuses with Asian Trails Thailand managers and set off for a full day of museum visits in Bangkok.

Labour Museum: Chinese Coolies
I must admit that I have not heard of the Thai Labour Museum. You won’t find it in any “to do lists”, “must see sights”, or listings of major guide books on Bangkok. A hidden little gem behind Makkasan Station, it claims to be the first and only labour museum in Asia. Don’t expect to see any multiple-storey grand building. Instead the museum is inside a discreet house, which used to be the railway police station. Make sure you wear light clothing, as parts of the museum are not air-conditioned.

Thailand’s contemporary history. You learn how the Thai people changed from a partially enslaved population to be a free people living in this modern industrial age, what motivated the Chinese to migrate to the Kingdom, and how work ethics changed after Thailand became a constitutional monarchy. The museum also pays tribute to the Thai kings who implemented reforms that were far ahead of their times.

All inscriptions in the museum are in Thai and English. After an hour’s tour of its east and west wing you will be well versed with Thai’s contemporary history and the evolution of labour.

From history to medicine as we drove down to the Chao Phraya River, and crossed by boat to the Siriraj Medical Museum. For the Thai people this is one of the most well known museums in the country, and a compulsory field trip for most high school students in Bangkok.

Labour Museum: WWI to Cold War
Here you will relive the valiant efforts of these selfless medical personnel in saving lives with vivid and, at times, disturbing descriptions of injuries, and how the doctors and nurses coped with the sheer volume of the injured. It is also sad to watch the pictorial accounts of the forensic teams toiling through the piles of bodies to identify the victims, and the techniques they used to do this.

There is screening of a comprehensive and touching documentary on the hospital’s activities after the tsunami. I don’t think anyone left the room without a tear in the eye.

The Forensic and Pathological part of the museum is not for the faint hearted. Unlike its western counterparts where explicit photographs and displays of the dead and wounded are not usually displayed, the Siriraj Medical Museum shows all these and mostly in colour. Expect to see graphic photographs of victims of train and traffic accidents.

Our next stop is BACC or the Bangkok Art & Cultural Center, which probably has the biggest impact on the art world in Thailand since its opening. It is located opposite the MBK shopping complex, a few steps away from the National Stadium skytrain station, and is one of the easiest museums to access in the city.

A number of halls are allocated to permanent exhibitions, but many are hosting temporary art shows that are quite interesting. Art is always a matter of taste, and the latter is pure individualism. What I like about the center is the mix of foreign and local art, local artists influenced by foreign elements, and foreign artists experimenting with Asian culture. I don’t know if the foodie term of ‘fusion’ applies to paintings and sculptures, but if it does then the temporary exhibitions at BACC certainly fit this term. Check BACC’s website for the schedule of exhibitions.

We have teamed up with Rock Around Asia to bring more meaning to museum visits and a wider context to the exhibits, as the company offers highly intellectual foreign and local experts for these visits. Their guides not only explain the museum’s displays, but will also bring perspective and academic content into the tour. They are also experts on a large number of museums and sights in Asia. Working together, Asian Trails can tailor make unique experiences for special interest groups, academics, universities, and travellers with distinct interests.

Medical museum (mikeestravels)
Visitors may find some parts of this museum a bit too gruesome to visit, so plan which sections you wish to go to. A word of caution - the museum is a definite no go for families with young children.

Housed in several parts of Siriraj Hospital, the most interesting area for foreigners is probably the Tsunami Museum that is part of the Forensic Medicine section. Here are accounts of the activities of the hospital’s doctors and nurses who travelled to the Phuket area on December 26, 2004 to help local hospitals cope with the injured and the dead from the devastating tsunami.

The museum gives a unique insight into the development of the modern Thai society, relating the story of the lower classes, as well as giving an equal account of

Happy trails.

Contact Asian Trails Thailand for further information.

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