Chiang Mai is a beautiful city. It’s one of the loveliest places I’ve been, a walled city filled with hundreds of graceful temples, tranquil gardens, and charming Thai smiles. It’s also home to one of my favourite museums – The Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders.
I found it quite by accident. Having risen early, I was enjoying getting lost and weaving my way through narrow streets and temple gardens, becoming acquainted with the city. Finding myself back on the main street (where the famous Walking Street night market had filled the street the night before), I stopped for a coffee, and found myself seated opposite a sign proclaiming The Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders. With a sign like that, how could I not go in? (Plus the entry fee was only 100B, about $3).
Spanning three stories and with a cosy, cottage-like layout, the museum is wonderfully crowded, practically bursting at the seems with preserved insects, fossils, petrified wood, sea shells, stones, and other natural curiosities. Brilliantly bright butterflies and beetles look almost ready to take flight from their neat rows, pinned to boards in meticulous order showing subtle variations between species. Enormous stick insects and bizarre winged lizards perch side by side. Shiny black scorpions and tarantulas invite a wide berth even beneath their glass home. And that’s just what’s hanging on the walls – old-fashioned wooden cabinets abound, filled with polished minerals in turquoise, aqua and violet, huge beetles in a variety of fighting and mating positions, elegant starfish and elaborately spiked and curved shells, once home to who known what kind of sea creatures, even just beautiful pieces of wood. Narrow wooden staircases take you up to next level where even more curios await.
The whole place somehow feels like stepping back in time a hundred years, before museums were commercial or educational enterprises and were simply collections on display for anyone to view and understand on their own terms. The museum is the private collection of a married couple, both entomologists who have spent their lifetimes studying insects and the natural world. The collection began in 1957 and has been steadily growing ever since.
Perhaps the most striking element of the museum is the display of all of Thailand’s 463 species of mosquito, laid out in neat, delicate rows. Commonly hated as pests and carriers of disease, the signage is quick to point out that only 10 species of mosquito carry pathogens. The rest may be annoying, but are ultimately harmless. The curators themselves are responsible for the discovery of a large number of these species, and are known as the world experts on Thai mosquitoes. Detailed signage, including information on how to capture and breed mosquitoes without harming them, betrays an obsession with the tiny winged creatures. There is even a rather adorable “Statement from the President of the Mosquitoes of Thailand” apologising for the “kisses” of the local mosquitoes – it’s just because they love us so much!
Signage for the rest of the exhibits is limited. Many specimens aren’t labelled, and very little other information is provided. The information given is more holistic. Signs urge visitors to remember that all of nature is important, that everything has a place “from the tiniest mosquito to the largest mountain peak,” and that we have a duty to conserve and protect the natural world. One sign ponders the spirit of rocks and stones, urging people to “smile with the rock” and consider it their friend. Another instructs visitors to treat both the natural world and each other with kindness, generosity and respect. It’s really quite beautiful.
As I finished looking around, one of the owners of the museum, Mr Manop Rattanarithikul came over to have a chat to me. He thanked me for visiting, and gave me a lovely signed postcard as a souvenir. The message on the back really embodies the feel of the whole museum, and I think the world would be a better place if more people thought about the world in this way:
“We should bestow love, generosity and compassion upon nature and help conserve its sustainability in order for it to remain beautiful forever.”
If you’re in Chiang Mai, put this high on your list of things to do and see. It’s really, really lovely.
Most of the photographs for this post were taken from the museum’s website, www.thailandinsect.com.