The Old Bangkok is slowly disappearing. Apart from a fairly small area in the historical center of Bangkok known as Rattanakosin Island, which includes the Grand Palace, Wat Pho, Sanam Luang, and Yaowarat among other major Thai tourist attractions, the Thai capital is under siege by property developers. New luxury residential high-risers and shopping malls are being built at incredible speed on land cleared of the more traditional shop houses that once gave Krung Thep a different charm.
Luckily, there are still public and private institutions out there that strive to preserve and record the history of the Thai capital. One such institution is Siriraj Hospital which is already mentioned in travel guides for its unique Medical Museum, also knows as the “Museum of Death”. Recently, a new museum has been added to the list of museums set up by the hospital: Siriraj Bimuksthan Museum.
The history of this new museum can be traced back to 2003 when, on October 3rd, one last train left Bangkok Noi Railway Station, after which the State Railway of Thailand discontinued the serviced and closed down the station. By now, the 33-rai area which served the train station and the station building itself would have been overrun by vegetation, graffiti painted, and vandalized by the urban youth had it not been donated to the adjacent Siriraj Hospital.
On the new plot of land, the hospital administration decided to build a state-of-the-art facility under the umbrella project “Sayamindradhiraj Medical Institute.” As a result, today, patients with complex health disorders can receive treatment at Siriraj Piyamaharajkarun Hospital, a private medical center built on the donated land and administered by the Faculty of Medicine Siriraj Hospital.
The new hospital did not turn into rubble the Bangkok Noi Railway Station building but, on the contrary, made sure that its legacy remained alive. Also known as the Old Thonburi Railways Station, the building has a rich history dating all the way back to 1903 when it was opened as the terminus point of Thailand’s Southern Line railway network. The station was built by Karl Siegfried Döhring, a German architect and archeologist, who worked for the Siamese government in the early 20th century.
Occupied by the Japanese during the Second World War and repeatedly bombed by the Allied forces towards the end of the war, the station building was in ruins until it was rebuilt in 1950 under royal guardianship. When train lines were rerouted to end at Hua Lumpong Train Station, the Bangkok Noi Railway Station lost its importance as a transportation hub and, after some redevelopment, it was transferred to Siriraj Hospital.
The old station building now houses Siriraj Bimuksthan, a very modern museum which focuses on the history of the Thonburi area and the evolution of modern medicine in Thailand. Opened in 2013, the museum is made up of several buildings and areas which include a giant warehouse and an open-air archeological site.
Visitors to the museum are first shown to Sirisarn Praphas, a room lined from floor to ceiling by old bookshelves containing medical books. Here you can watch a short presentation on the history of the railway station and the surrounding area while sitting on wooden benches once used by medical students in their lecture halls. The presentation in in Thai but with English subtitles and it interacts well with the displays around the room, which light up for effect.
The next room, Siriraj Khattiya Phimarn, is an exhibition of royal portraits associated with the development of Siriraj Hospital. From here you walk into Sthanbimuk Mongkolhet room which, once again, presents the history of Thonburi area. Of great interest is a huge Thai traditional painting and a folding screen with Chinese decorations.
Boranraja Sastra room exhibits antique weapons safely displayed in glass cases. The weapons have been preserved in very good condition and the museum staff is very strict in upholding the “no photo and no video” restriction. Luckily, you are allowed to take photos and videos in all the other rooms and buildings as long as you refrain from using flash.
You can enjoy a 4-D experience in the Khamanakhom Banhan mini-theatre room where a brief history of the railway station is literally put in motion using 3-D glasses, moving bleachers, and a huge screen. If you’re visiting with children, this will be by far the most memorable and exciting experience of their trip.
Siriraj Buranpavatti and Syamrath Vaidyasasta contain displays and exhibits related to the first medical school in Thailand as well as general health and wellbeing information. Obviously, the museum’s objective is both that of preserving the history of the Thonburi area as well as that of being a learning center and educating the public on health issues.
Right behind the former railway station building there’s a huge warehouse called Nivas Sirinaves or simply Museum Building 3. The atmosphere inside this old rail yard warehouse is contrastingly different from that of the brightly lit rooms of the museum. For conservation purposes, the light in the warehouse is dim and most of the space is taken by a huge ancient boat unearthed in the surrounding area. Considered a “significant relic” of “valuable cultural heritage,” the wooden boat stands on a steel frame while a huge mirror in the ceiling allows visitors a good view of the inside hull.
The rest of the displays in Building 3 are related to the traditional lifestyle of Thai people along the Chao Phraya River with a very interesting showcase of the kinds of boats Thai people use to navigate the river and the branching canals.
Seen from the other side of the river, the old railway station is positioned between the modern building of the new hospital and an extremely ornate Thai pavilion built inside an artificial pond made entirely of marble. The view is mesmerizing and the atmosphere of the old train station still prevails in the air, especially next to a real Mikado Steam Locomotive “left behind” by the State Railway of Thailand.
To really explore the entire museum you will need a few good hours. The museum is open every day except on Tuesday and public holidays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Unfortunately, they have a two-price system, with foreigners paying 300 baht entry fee (both adults and children) while Thai people only half of that for adults and 50 baht for children. There is no charge for children under 120 cm height regardless of nationality.
The easiest way to reach the museum is by boat. Get off at Wang Lang Pier (aka Siriraj Pier). You will see the red brick museum building and surrounding grounds on your right. To find out updates and events happening at all seven Siriraj Museums, follow their Facebook page or visit the official website of Siriraj Bimuksthan Museum.
Initially published in Mango Metro (February 2016)