Friday, May 11, 2012

Weird Bangkok

A trip to a notoriously graphic forensic science museum wouldn't top the to-do list of many normal travelers in cosmopolitan Bangkok. However, fed up with glitzy shopping malls and the tranquility of temples, I find myself yearning for something off the beaten track. Instead, I found a celebration of severed limbs in what could only be described as the lair of a mad scientist.

To call it stomach churning would prove to be a grand understatement. However, even after watching the sallow faces shuffle in and out, curiosity won the battle and I ventured inside Thailand's oldest hospital to check out Siriraj Medical Museum.

For the bargain price of only 40 baht, those who aren't squeamish can gain access to six separate sections - each with their own interesting exhibits. As for the winner of 'most grotesque,' it's a tie between Forensic Pathology and the creepy crawlies found within the Parasitology section.

I start out with tapeworms and flesh eating bacteria, opting to face the worst first (or so I thought). The first stop is a delightful public service announcement, which although dubbed in Thai is reminiscent of infomercials around the world. My fear laid to rest, I take note of foods known to contain harmful toxins and pat myself (prematurely) on the back for having such a strong stomach.

From across the room I spot what appears to be spaghetti. Having had fettuccine alfredo for lunch, a possible link between pasta and parasites worries me. Inching my way up to the exhibit, I rejoice in discovering that it's nothing close to linguine, but recoil upon discovering the truth - tapeworms. A painstaking recreation of a man's rectum, overflowing with enough infectious parasites to start a game called tug of war.

After that truly disgusting display, I make my way to the Forensic Pathology section and breeze through the initiation displays of alcohol's damage to the liver and the lungs of a pack-a-day smoker. Scary stuff no doubt, but no worse than the graphic images on any cigarette pack in Australia.

I manage to make it past the dismembered body parts floating in jars, but the winding corridor of dead fetuses is enough to make me shudder. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot a large group of students ogling a glass display in the corner. Resting his forehead on the stained glass, is the naked body of a dirty and decaying man. Unable to translate the small plaque, I ask one of the students for more information.

"Si Quey is a famous man, but not for good reason," says Ann, a first year law student at Bangkok University. "Over fifty years ago, he was executed for rape, murder and cannibalism." During his reign of terror on suburban Bangkok, he killed six children and ate their hearts and livers.

It's a strange feeling when you meet a dead celebrity. Si Quey is a name known outside of the law profession too, probably because his name is still used to frighten young children into behaving themselves. In what looks like a see-through broom closet, I notice the door knob has broken clean off and been replaced with a patchwork of cellophane. Although his mummified body is preserved in petroleum jelly and long dead, a cold shiver runs down my spine - it's time to go.

On my way out, I pass by a kiosk stall serving snacks and beverages. Not surprised at the lack of customers, I wonder if my appetite will ever return. Looking to stimulate the senses, I leave the hospital grounds and head for the throbbing heartbeat of this modern day metropolis - Silom Road. This is both the financial centre of the capital by day and a raucous party district after dark.

Street food stalls line the busy side streets, with more than just Pad Thai on offer. Thailand is a haven for foodies and the capital city is no exception. Almost all cuisines are represented and depending where you are, the distance between authentic Italian and a Syrian kebab may only be a few steps. As the intoxicating aroma of Tom Yam wafts over me, I'm shocked to find my appetite stirring into life once again.

After dark this part of town becomes a veritable maze of food, with vendors setting up shop on the busy pavement in every direction. Giant woks splutter with oil and do little to conceal the dancing flames below. I hear the bell of an approaching food cart, but what I see shocks me. No, it's no ice-cream. Instead, it's a bountiful buffet of bugs, deep fried to perfection! Stir fried water beetles, locust kebabs and many more 'delightful delicacies' that are sure to make your skin crawl.

Clinging vehemently to vegetarianism as an excuse, I choose not to chow down on a cockroach kebab, but instead ask around for an infamous restaurant in the area by the name of Cabbages and Condoms. The tropical heat and staggering humidity makes negotiating the crowded streets difficult, but i'm determined to see if there really is a restaurant in town that's decorated with nothing but prophylaxes.

After wandering aimlessly under a fool moon with my cheap t-shirt clinging to my back in sweat, I take a chance on a side street and finally find one of Asia's more bizarrely themed restaurants. Unlike other themed restaurants in Asia, such as Modern Toilet in Taiwan or The Lockup in Tokyo - this isn't just another money making scheme.

Before I'm ushered to my table, I walk around the courtyard and take note of all the billboard size posters on display. Funded by the Population and Community Development Association (PDA), I learn that a large percentage of profit goes towards helping the poor in rural areas across the nation. The condom theme is explained instantly by all the safe sex themed t-shirts, latex insignia and novelty keychains for sale in the gift shop.

Although more expensive than street food, the restaurant is nothing if not a classy affair. The open courtyard plays host to traditional Thai musicians each evening after 7pm, while Christmas lights drape the trees and wax candles occupy a space on each table. While some of the condom creations such as table flowers are rudimentary and basic, others are elaborate and meticulous like the light features (pictured right).

While it's more than most backpackers would spend on an average meal, it's good knowing that a large portion of the bill is going towards helping people in need. The menu reflects the Isaan region of Thailand, which as the poorest region - is where most of the funds are directed.

Those who like it spicy are in for a treat, as Isaan is home to the almost mythical Papaya Salad (not for the faint of heart) where chilies aren't so much used as a spice, but as a main ingredient. I choose to keep my eyebrows in place and order a light and refreshing bowl of mushroom soup. As I smell the aroma of fresh coriander mingling with crushed lemongrass from a few tables over, my appetite returns with gusto. Dining without a date, I take full advantage of my anonymity and slurp down the fragrant broth in a flurry.

First-timers can be spotted laughing at condom chandeliers, but many more come back time after time for authentic regional cuisine. Like all good restaurants the food quickly takes centre stage, although the restaurant's choice of after dinner mint substitution almost always results in a giggle.


  1. Hello Fry
    Glad to see you writing again!

  2. I was lucky enough to have this one published in The West Australian =)