I have been entranced by the Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders in Chiang Mai since I first set foot in the place four years ago, drawn in by a terse Lonely Planet entry, and a large wire-frame statues of mosquitoes and dragonflies stuck to the top of the brick building it sits in.
It is not so much a museum as it is a collection: encompassing a formidable array of preserved insects, a litany of arcane and useful information on mosquitoes, shells, psychedelic paintings, and various editorial notes from the owners. It is one of the strangest and at the same time most genuinely charming attractions – or collections – I have ever come across. You must at least poke your head in if you are in the area.
The Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders is owned by Manop and Dr Rampa Rattanarithikul, a now-elderly Thai couple who rank among the planet’s foremost experts on disease-carrying mosquitoes. Their careers in medical entomology have ranged across Southeast Asia to the Smithsonian in Washington DC and all the way to Osaka, where Dr. Rampa earned her PHD in the 1990s. Dr Rattanarithikul eventually published one of the seminal texts to which all who battle and study mosquitoes refers to – and she has named over half of the Smithsonian Institution’s mosquito species herself. It is rare to encounter a couple on this earth who are so singularly devoted to another organism, and at that, one of the planet’s least charismatic ones.
The museum has two floors, the first with a display describing both the benefits and the various nasty things mosquitoes do to people, including vivid images of the fell effects of elephantiasis and hemorrhagic dengue fever. A porch has a remarkable assemblage of hornets and bees nest, as well as “art” created by the incessant nibbling of ants onto wood. There are also Manop’s psychedelic, cheerily neon-colored paintings of pretty girls, his wife, and the natural world, interspersed with Christian themes. The entire effect is slightly Lovecraftian – twisting natural forms, crawling things, tentacled things, and the papery nests of flying insects – and yet, entirely affectionate in its intention. The couple love these weird and terrible things, and wish to convey this love to you.
It is to this end that Manops’s cheerily optimistic and slightly maniacal writings have been tacked up all over the place, printed out near whatever object seems to warrant it – rumination on the benefits of mosquitoes to humanity (hard as they are to see), how he and his wife met, a stone his grandmother had given him to get him to sit still for an archaic camera, and various anecdotes and musings and slightly twee poems.
When I was there the first time, Mr. Manop Rattanarithikul was wandering the museum chatting with profound animation about the stuff he and his wife had amassed. I lingered at the stag horn beetles, which I have always loved, and he eventually appeared besides me and began describing their many positive features. “You know, I’ve always wondered where I can catch one,” I said, quite sincerely – giving voice to a long time, vague childhood dream that had been helped along by a library of natural science books and a particularly vivid jigsaw puzzle.
“Oh, it’s easy, especially around here. You must go into the bamboo forest and shake the bamboo,” he said. “When they feel the vibration, they go Eeengh! and stiffen up, and they fall out of the bamboo and onto the ground. You can collect them that way.”
Thus began a good four years of my surreptitiously shaking bamboo plants whenever I see them. This practice did not result in any fruit for a good long while, and I attributed it to a lack of technique, quite realistically. Until I visited the Bamboo Sea in Sichuan in August, a place that is lousy with both bamboo, and as I joyously discovered, stag horn beetles. I spent a long evening collecting them from light sources and letting the immensely heavy, charming things crawl up my arms, to the shrieking bemusement of the Chinese people drinking beer at my hotel restaurant. Anyway, that day I thought of Mr. Manop Rattanarithikul, and his museum. Partially that is why I came back.
During my visit last month, Dr. Manop Rattanarithikul was sitting in the foyer wrapping silk purses in plastic with one of her museum employees. She welcomed me warmly, only appearing a bit disappointed when I admitted I was not actually a entomologist but a journalist. I came down from the museum and we chatted briefly about Chikungunya Fever, which I told her in the spirit of chipper scientific endeavor that I had come down with in Manila last year.
She was quite interested in this, and we discussed how Chikungunya is most prevalant in areas with lots of sugar palms – perhaps the swampy aspect of the Manila suburb of Quezon City, where I was staying, explained my little brush with malignant mosquito disease.
I felt comfortable enough to ask her why she and her husband had decided to devote their retirements to their singular, wonderful museum. “We always liked collecting things, me and my husband, and we opened the museum,” she said when I asked her about their motivations. “We didn’t really expect it would come to this.”
But so it has, and their efforts are a singular, small monument to eccentricity and to the natural world. It is, I think, a little more than just a love letter to weird things that creep and buzz and bite. More than that, being inside the museum is rather like walking into the collective consciousness of two people who have lived long and very intertwined lives: Dr. Rampa’s work and touch combining with Manop’s weird, exuberant, art and writing.
It is, one imagines, the natural result of two dedicated, single-minded old people deciding to render their innermost beings into the real world – and for this very reason, it is fascinating to a degree far beyond the rather erratic sum of its parts. It has flaws, heavens knows: it is rather small, and costs perhaps a bit too much to get inside. It could use a tank of living insects or reptiles or some sort of creature to counteract the dusty deadness of most of the other occupants. But that is not, entirely the point – the specimens themselves are less the point then the representation of two long, curious lives.
The museum, in summary, is a delightful paean to not only insects but also to all-encompassing human weirdness. May the Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders last forever, and may you go pay it a visit if you are ever in Chiang Mai.