Some people are drawn to the macabre. Others make a life of it. Such fascinations cross cultures but they’re rarely the same in any given destination. There’s a long history of various religions and spiritual beliefs across Asia, along with many cultures believing in ghosts and spirits, which can lend themselves to some spooky sites that tourists sometimes seek out. On this episode, we’re going to share some of the region’s scary and out-there spots you can visit. Turn on the lights as this one, Gory and Gruesome Tourist Attractions in Asia, is bound to give you the heebie-jeebies.

Scott & Trevor: how we came up with this episode: someone mentioned going to the forensics museum in Thailand. From there, the conversation went on to various macabre tourist attractions, some of which I’d been to and others I’d never heard of.

We’ve been to some sites, others we’ve heard and read about others. We’re going to run through a few macabre sites in Asia. We’ve been to some and others we’ve heard about, but all are worth knowing about and potentially having on your radar if that’s your kind of thing!

Forensic Science Museum Bangkok (Wikipedia Commons)

Thailand: The Siriraj Medical Museum, nicknamed the Museum of Death, is a medical museum in Bangkok, Thailand. Siriraj Medical Museum is open to the public and is a valuable resource for medical professionals and students. Wikipedia

They famously used to have the preserved body of Si Quey’s, who had been kept in a glass case at Bangkok’s Siriraj Medical Museum – since he was executed by firing squad in 1959, aged 32. The Siriraj Hospital, where the museum is, used his preserved corpse to teach medical students. It’s not clear if he actually did it, but Scott’s seen the body and it stood in a pan that caught the fluid drippings.

There were also lots of fetuses in jars in various forms of development. It’s odd and easily reachable by boat and you get off at Siriraj Pier (N 10).


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Shrine of Mae Nak Phra Khanong (Wikipedia Commons)

The shrine of Mae Nak Phra Khanong – I lived near here, so I’ve been, but really I knew of it from all the movies about it. First I’ll tell the tale and then we’ll discuss the films:

A beautiful young woman named Nak, who lived on the banks of the Phra Khanong canal, had an undying love for her husband, Mak. While Nak was pregnant, Mak was conscripted into the Thai Army and sent to war where he was seriously wounded. While he was being nursed back to health, Nak and their child both died during childbirth. But when Mak returned home, he found his loving wife and child waiting for him. Neighbors warned him that he was living with a ghost but he rebuffed them.

One day, as Nak was preparing nam phrik, she dropped a lime off the porch. In her haste to retrieve it, she stretched her arm to an impossible length to pick it up from the ground below. Upon seeing this, Mak realized his wife was a ghost. That night, Mak sneaked out of the house and fled with Nak in pursuit. According to Thai folklore, ghosts are afraid of sticky Blumea leaves so Mak hid behind a bush. He then ran into Wat Mahabut temple, which as holy ground, a ghost cannot enter.

In her grief, Nak terrorized the people of Phra Khanong, furious at them for causing Mak to leave her. However, a powerful exorcist captured Nak’s ghost; and after confining her in an earthen jar, threw it into the Phra Khanong canal.

There are regional variations to the rest of the story. In one, an old couple new to Phra Khanong find the jar while fishing; in another two fishermen dredge up the jar. In both cases, Nak is freed when the jar is opened. There have been countless movies and books written about Mae Nak.

It’s easy enough to go visit the shrine at the temple. The movies: there’s the Ghost of Mae Nak (2005), Mae Nak 3D (2012) – IMDb, a cartoon movie called Nak, and a friend of ours, Tom Waller, made a version of the film, but I couldn’t find that one. It’s about as popular a ghost story as there is in Thailand.

“Hanoi Hilton” Vietnam (Courtesy of Smiling Albino)

Speaking of Thai ghosts… Bangkok Haunt Ghost Tours (link to Bangkok Podcast) – is a great gruesome tourist attraction.

This 9-hour tour was conceived by longtime hospitality specialist Justin Dunne. He’s long had a fascination with spirit houses, Thai ghost stories and everything in between. His tour runs 9 hours and visits a host of Bangkok sites that have dark histories and stories. From amulet markets and learning about the powers they hold within and dark forces they protect you from to famous spirits who can help or harm you such as Mae Nak Phra Khanong, which deserves special note.

Cambodia: The biggest attractions are Choeng Ek Genocide Museum and S21 Prison. The latter is one of many “killing fields” where the Khmer Rouge executed people during the Cambodian Civil War of the 1970s and 80s. There are literally killing fields all over Cambodia, but this is the one most visitors travel to see. 

Choeung Ek is the site of a former orchard and mass grave of victims of the Khmer Rouge – killed between 1975 and 1979 about 17 kilometers (11 mi) south of the Phnom Penh city center. Mass graves containing 8,895 bodies were discovered at Choeung Ek after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. Today, Choeung Ek is a memorial, marked by a Buddhist stupa. The stupa has acrylic glass sides and is filled with more than 5,000 human skulls. More disturbing are the human remains, shards of bones, and such that litter the land across which one walks. Horrific as it is, the site is a museum dedicated to the memory of those killed and a reminder of the horrors of war. To me, the most disturbing is where young children were murdered…

Another such site is Phnom Sampeau killing caves in Battambang. As with Choeng Ek, the caves were a convenient place to kill prisoners without having to waste bullets. As at Choeng Ek, the bones of the victims are now on display in a glass memorial. Today, the mountain is home to thousands of free-roaming bats. In fact, most people travel here to see the bats, completely unaware of the gruesome history of the caves in which the bats reside.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum or simply Tuol Sleng, which is now a museum chronicling the Cambodian genocide. Located in Phnom Penh, the site is a former secondary school that was used as Security Prison 21 by the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 until its fall in 1979. 

Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh (courtesy of Smiling Albino)

Japan: Aokigahara Forest

This forest is typically known all over the world as the Suicide Forest. It’s one of the world’s most popular places to commit suicide or die there. The rise in suicides carried out in the forest has been said to taint the trees with paranormal energy that permeates throughout the entire forest.

Due to the vastness of the forest, visitors may not be able to encounter anyone but volunteers who clean the woods find dozens of corpses laying there. It is estimated that as many as 100 people take their own life in Suicide Forest every year. What makes this a creepy place besides the fact that it’s the second most popular place to die is the backstory of it. At first, the yurei, or the Japanese ghosts, claimed that this Aokigahara was presumed to be the vengeful spirit of the old who had been abandoned to starvation and the mercy of the elements.

IndonesiaTrunyan Village, Bali – The Trunyanese are a community of the oldest inhabitants on the Indonesian island of Bali. Known as the ‘Bali Aga’ or ‘Old Bali’ who predate the Hindu inhabitants who have occupied the majority of the island for more than a thousand years, the Trunyanese live in isolated villages where they continue to practice their traditional culture. Most interestingly, the Trunyanes don’t cremate their dead. They practice leaving the deceased in the open after a grand ceremony. After a purifying custom, the dead body is put in a bamboo coffin under the Taru Menyan tree. Known as the “nice smelling tree”, the tree masks the smell of the decomposing body. While this in itself is an odd reason to visit the Bali Aga, the remote location on the far banks of Lake Batur inside the caldera of Mt. Batur volcano.

Cemetery in Trunyan, Lake Batur, Bali (Wikipedia Commons)

Vietnam: Hanoi Minh’s Mausoleum – In the tradition of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum is a monumental marble edifice. Contrary to Ho Chi Minh’s desire for a simple cremation, the mausoleum was constructed from materials gathered from all over Vietnam between 1973 and 1975. Set deep in the bowels of the building in a glass sarcophagus is the frail, pale body of Ho Chi Minh. The mausoleum is usually closed from 4 September to 4 November while his embalmed body goes to Russia for maintenance.

Dress modestly: wearing shorts, sleeveless T-shirts or hats is not permitted. You may be requested to store day packs, cameras and phones before you enter. Talking, putting your hands in your pockets and photography are strictly prohibited in the mausoleum. The queue usually snakes for several hundred meters to the mausoleum entrance and inside, filing past Ho’s body at a slow but steady pace.

If you’re lucky you’ll catch the changing of the guard outside the mausoleum – the pomp and ceremony displayed here rivals the British equivalent at Buckingham Palace in London.

War Remnants Museum – HCMC

Not so much haunted, but there are some photos and tales of atrocities carried out by the Americans (safe to assume the N. Vietnamese did this stuff too) that I still can’t shake. Booby traps of bamboo laced with excrement to cause infection and particularly a photo of some US troops smiling while holding the head of a Vietnamese soldier that they’ve cut off by the hair. The smiles on their faces and realizing what war and reduce people too is really frightening. I still have chills and memories.

Trevor: All I can remember of this museum is that it’s gruesome and it makes a point to highlight the atrocities of the Vietnam war with America, particularly the result of Agent Orange defoliant and other innocent victims of the American war effort. It’s humbling and disturbing at the same time. 

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Vietnam (Wikipedia Commons)

China: Mao Mausoleum – Line up and see the man. It’s spooky to see someone preserved and on view. I understand he gets sent to Russia every year or so for restoration as well. Can you imagine doing this work? If there was ever a time someone’s soul was going to possess and area or body, this would be it I think. Not overly frightening, but looking at someone’s body on display is a bit out there.

Malaysian Borneo, Headhunter’s village: The Monsopiad Cultural Village, located just outside Kota Kinabalu in the province of Sabah on Borneo, is pretty creepy. First opened to visitors in 1996, the cultural village was created to commemorate the great Kadazan warrior Monsopiad. The traditional houses here were built on the historical site where Monsopiad, the famous warrior used to live two centuries ago.

The direct descendents of Monsopiad built the village to honor their forefathers and showcase the Kadazandusun culture and ethnicity, including the pratice of collecting the skulls of fallen enemies as trophies. Within the House of Skulls there are 42 ‘trophies’ of Monsopiad’s hanging from the ceiling. Other intersting things (less gruesome) are trying out a blowpipe and drinking local rice wine. While shocking, it wasn’t as disturbing to me as the Bishop Museum in Hawaii which shows the trophies of Hawaiian warriors. Head-hunter is probably a bit extreme and inaccurate, but there are trophy skulls on display here, and the village is pretty cool, as are most things in Borneo. 

House of Skulls, Monsopiad Cultural Village, Malaysia (Wikipedia Commons)

India: Rat Temple – The Karni Mata Temple in Rajasthan is a holy shrine dedicated to the Goddess Karni, featuring more than 20,000 black rats that are worshiped here. A legend tells that, in the early 14th century, after the youngest son of the Goddess Karni drowned, Karni asked the God of Death to bring her son back to life. The wish was granted –with a hitch – their descendants would be reincarnated as rats. Sounds like a creepier version of the Jumping Cat temple in Myanmar. 


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