BANGKOK — The Kingdom’s most notorious serial killer used to cook and eat the organs of his victims, mostly children. I was on my way to have a look at him.
He was in the Museum of Forensic Science which isn’t on the usual tourist routes in Bangkok—it’s at the Siriraj Hospital on Phrannok Road, but any taxi or tuk-tuk can take you there. In the lobby, the helpful young woman at the information desk told me to turn left at the end of the hall.
It wasn’t to prove that easy. The museum had recently moved to larger quarters in the sprawling hospital complex, and no one knew exactly where, but eventually I was at the foot of the stairs leading up to it on the second floor.
As I mounted and came eye-level to the floor, I could see out of the corner of my eye the museum’s star attraction: the glass cabinet containing the mummified remains of Songrant Neyomsem. But the higher I climbed, the more cases of mummies I saw. When I stood at the top of the stairs, I counted five. This was going to be more daunting than I’d originally assumed, and rather than face a whole gang right at the start, I deemed it prudent to save them for the end.
Stepping up to the first cabinet, I viewed the preserved remains of fetuses and newborns, their expressions so lifelike it was as if they had acquired over time in this corporeal-only existence a definite character and personality—individuality as it were—and that all they needed to get up and go was some kind of a zap.
The object that captured my attention was the preserved head of a man with a very annoyed expression on his face, and it wasn’t until I passed him that I saw he had another side to him—his inside. His head was split right down the middle. I saw the contents of his head, everything in such understated elegance of diluted colors that it put the wizards on the bleeding edge of Hollywood special effects in a distant second place. I looked first at one side, then the other, until it was clear why his good side looked so darned angry and bore out my first impression. Who wouldn’t be annoyed, eh?
I moved onto the other cases containing things that once were living lumps: cross-sections of lungs, livers, hearts and brains, and one forearm with a remarkably fresh tattoo of a countryman out for a walk with his stick, his pipe in his mouth. The pieces had a fascinating organic beauty to them. This wasn’t turning out as badly as I’d feared when I’d decided to take an offbeat trip and confront something unusual. I decided to have a quick look at some kind of display on the back wall, and then go on to the gang of killers.
The museum itself has a restrained and respectful attitude to these remains. In the soft pale light, it seemed right and appropriate that these sections of humans be displayed inside glass blocks of preservative behind the glass of the exhibition cases, as if the layers could give to a squeamish viewer a degree of clinical detachment. But suddenly my museum tour took a bizarre twist. I saw that the display on the back wall was not one of those delicate pink and lavender Thai motifs but the colour in the shadows of faded photographs, over a hundred of them, of the mortal remains of murder victims and assassins, the victims of drug overdoses and dreadful burns and wounds, victims of hand grenades and high explosives, all of them exhibiting the carnal reality of a nasty and brutish death few would have the stomach to see on the front page of a morning paper even after a double cafe latte, never mind in this gut-wrenching abundance.
Here was no sense of detachment, quite the opposite in fact. It was not the sort of photographic subject matter I usually choose to look at. I thought that perhaps I’d just skip this part, walk smartly past those five killers and be home free, but suddenly came a clatter on the stairs behind me and, startled, I turned to see emerge from the stairwell, looks of eager anticipation on their angelic young faces, two schoolgirls in crisp white and navy uniforms. They headed immediately toward the killers.
I couldn’t think what kind of curiosity had brought them there. I didn’t want to walk past the killers while the girls were there just in case, for some reason, I wasn’t able to maintain my dignity, so there was nothing to do but to face the gallery of grisly photos of what once were real people or parts of them. I walked past the wounded, the burnt, the hacked, the chopped, the garroted, the poisoned, the shot, the burnt-with-high-voltage, the drug-overdosed, the suicide on whose thin young wrist I counted twelve cuts—and those were just the few photos with English labels. All of a sudden skipping lunch seemed like a good idea, with what spicy Thai food was doing to my waistline and what these exhibits were doing to my head and stomach.
After an eternity I finally passed the last photo. Ahead I saw skeletons and skulls, and I got a grip on myself again. Skeletons don’t bother me in the least. Skeletons actually are kind of fun, don’t take up much room. You can even play tunes on the ribcage with your chopsticks if you want to. Skeletons are cool. It’s the flesh, you see; that’s what made viewing the exhibits so painful: all that flesh.
And I knew exactly what the museum was doing to my mind—softening me up before the coupe de grace, before the final encounter. I felt helpless in the hands of a mastermind manipulator. Past mounds of skulls and bones I walked toward The Gang of Five (as I’d begun thinking of them). The two schoolgirls were still there. How would I get past this next part?
Then two middle-aged Thai women came up the stairs and, although they were obviously unrelated to the schoolgirls, joined them at the exhibit. These women, too, seemed unaffected by the remains of the killers. Again I could not imagine what had compelled them to visit this place. The students, okay, maybe it was a school assignment or something. Kids, after all, are curious. But these matrons? Bangkok is crowded with attractions. Why this place? Why now? I struggled to keep a grip on myself but I felt like a moth drawn to a flame. In desperation, I decided to take a picture first, a couple of pictures, maybe a whole roll, anything to slow me down, but my feet seemed to have minds of their own, the minds of lemmings. It was at this precise moment that out from a corridor stepped the mastermind, who apparently recognized in me all the signs of someone in need of timely intervention.
“Welcome,” the man said. He was tall with a bright sparkle in his eyes. His demeanor was of kind and calm dignity. He gave a slight bow, and suddenly I was able to stand still. I was in the good hands of Somchai Pholeamek, MD, LLB, Clinical Professor of Forensic Science, and for thirty years the curator of this museum.
Apparently the five of us there at the same time, not the usual number the place attracted on a daily basis (considering how difficult it was to find and the morbid nature of the contents), constituted a crowd and had brought him out from his office. Behind him I could see a cleaning squad of two, equipped to handle any kind of mess. Immediately I felt better in the company of living, breathing people, the school girls giving me shy looks, the matrons acknowledging me with a smile and polite nod, the cleaners brushing ostrich-feather dusters over imagined dust particles on immaculate but still-empty glass cabinets while keeping a wary eye on me.
“All right if I take a few pictures?” I asked. Dr. Pholeamek smiled and nodded.
As I fumbled my camera out of my bag, Dr. Pholeamek told me about the inhabitants of the five cases. The first was believed to be the remains of a Buddhist monk, another was a killer, the third was the notorious killer I’d come to see, the fourth was unidentified, and the fifth cabinet displayed only the clothes last worn by a nurse who had become the mistress of her employer, a doctor, who ultimately murdered her.
“Tell me about him,” I asked, pointing to Songrant Neyomsem.
He was a man from China whom the Japanese had trained to terrorize the population during World War II, Dr. Pholeamek said. They had brainwashed him to believe that he could become powerful by killing and then eating the hearts of his victims, usually children. The man finally killed some Japanese soldiers and escaped to Thailand to remove himself from the life he was leading, the doctor said. But he could not escape his conditioning, and he began to commit the same cannibalistic murders in Thailand. When the police apprehended him, red-handed, they found in pots on his stove the heart and other parts of his last victim.
“How did he die?” I asked.
Dr. Pholeamek pointed to a hole in the mummy’s chest. “Gunshot.”
“Firing squad?” I asked.
He nodded. “But Thailand no longer uses firing squad,” he added. “We’re more humane now. Lethal injection.”
It was time to go eyeball to eyeball with this assassin who ate the hearts of his young victims, and I did. Black. All black. Deep and forever all the way back to nowhere. There was nothing in his eyes but black. Had there ever been a light in them? I didn’t blink and neither did he. And then I saw something unexpected that surprised me.
“Look!” I said. “He has whiskers.”
Dr. Pholeamek smiled and nodded. It’s a “well-known phenomenon” that hair continues to grow on a corpse—actually, what happens is that the skin dries out and shrinks, revealing more of the hair shaft that was formerly below the surface.
“And half of each whisker is red, like it was dyed with henna,” I said.
Dr. Pholeamek stepped forward and took a closer look. “You’re right,” he said.
I looked again across the void into the eyes of the killer. The whiskers with their red-tinged tips were a fierce denial of death and thus, in a twisted way, an equally fierce desire for life. What was going on here? First the head, then the photos, now this. I felt that I was losing it again.
Pathologist though he might be, Dr. Pholeamek has a bedside manner to rival that of a Harley Street physician. He diffused my unease by drawing my attention to some items in an almost-empty display case. These quarters provided plenty of room to exhibit evidence: homemade knives, bright yellow nylon clotheslines, stuff used in murders and other crimes. One cabinet held four blackened bamboo opium pipes, three hypodermic needles still clouded with some whitish drug, and a tray of deciduous leaves that produced hallucinations, he said.
Open Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., the museum is not that easy a place to find and not for everyone, but the price is right: a green box at the top of the stairs accepts donations. As for me, I’d had my money’s worth and it was time to go. I bid farewell to the curator.
There were the steps down to my exit. I was free now. What could he possibly have up his sleeve? Then a stray beam of reflected sunlight flashed in my glasses, and I thought I saw the eye of The Head look at me and … wink, and believe you me, I was outta there.
About the Author:
George Diaz Evashuk was thirteen when he fell in love with travel after reading The Royal Road to Romance by Sir Richard Burton. Since then he has circled the globe and lived in seven countries. In a varied work career, he has been a street sweeper, vegetable packer, factory worker, chauffeur, gourmet food store manager as well as an English teacher, writer and photographer. He has lived full-time in Thailand since 2009 where he has full-filled a life-long ambition to be a philanthropist, albeit at the molecular level. He is Canadian.