Visit museums and war memorials abroad for a look at history

Exhibits are seen on display at the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum in Nagasaki in August. This year marks the 75th year of the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. — PHILIP FONG/AFP

Sometimes, a trip to a foreign country is not complete without a visit to a museum or historical site, to learn more about the destination’s past. Here are five interesting museums and memorials in Asia.

Hoa Lo Prison or Hanoi Hilton in Hanoi, Vietnam

The Hoa Lo Prison was built by French colonists in the late 1880s, when Vietnam was part of the French Indochina region. It was first used to imprison Vietnamese freedom fighters, and then later, during the Vietnam War (1955-1975) it was used by North Vietnam to keep American soldiers.

It was during this time that the prison became known among the prisoners-of-war as the “Hanoi Hilton”.

The Hanoi Hilton was demolished in the mid-1990s but part of the building was turned into a museum. There, you can find exhibits that depict the torture inflicted upon the Vietnamese prisoners by the French, including shackles and a guillotine.

Displays that relate to the Vietnam War, however, seemed highly dramatised and untrue. There’s an interrogation room that’s made to look... “comfortable” and clean, as if to say that the prison was a very safe place for the Americans “guests” back then.

Fun fact: The Hilton Hanoi Opera hotel is just a few minutes’ walk away from the former prison.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Formerly the Khmer Rouge regime’s execution and torture centre in the 1970s, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is one of the most vivid war museums in Asia.

The Khmer Rouge killed an estimated two million people back then, and this museum has exhibits and displays of just how some of the killings took place in the prison between 1975 and 1979.

About 17,000 prisoners had gone through Tuol Seng and only a few survived the ordeal. There are displays of photos – and skulls – of the victims, waterboarding beds (used as an instrument of torture) and tiny holding rooms. There are even paintings depicting the tortures that took place, created by a former prisoner.

Incidentally, the chief torturer and prison head of Tuol Sleng, Kaing Guek Eav or Duch, died on Sept 2 at age 77, while serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity. This leaves only one surviving leader of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum in Nagasaki, Japan

Many know the history of the bombing of Nagasaki by the United States. This museum is a memorial to that horrific incident, which took place on Aug 9,1945 at exactly 11.02am.

The museum was completed in April 1996 and features the history of the bombing as a story, focusing on the events that lead to the attack, as well as a general look at World War II itself. There are displays of photographs, documents, letters and other notes that relate to the bombing, including the reconstruction of the city of Nagasaki.

There’s also a feature on global nuclear weapons development.

The “twin” memorial is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima, where the first atomic bombing took place on Aug 6,1946.

JEATH War Museum in Kanchanaburi, Thailand

This museum is a memorial to the prisoners-of-war who helped build the Death Railway in Thailand for the Japanese, from 1942 to 1943. JEATH stands for Japanese, English, Australian, American, Thai and Holland, the main nationalities of the PoWs who worked on the railway.

The war museum was founded in 1977 by the chief abbot of a Buddhist temple, and is located within the Chai Chumphon Chana Songkhram temple. It is divided into two sections: One section shows the construction of the Death Railway and the PoWs’ dreadful living conditions, while the other has displays of paintings, drawings and photos of and by former prisoners, all kept in a rustic bamboo hut. You can also find tools and weapons here.

Seodaemun Prison History Hall in Seoul, South Korea

The Seodaemun Prison was built by the Japanese to keep Korean independence movement activists and freedom fighters. It was first called Gyaemseong Prison when it opened in 1908, but when it became too crowded it was expanded and renamed Seodaemun in 1912.

The museum showcases the living conditions of the prisoners back in the day, and features torture rooms and paraphernalia, wooden boxes and tiny jail cells to keep prisoners in solitary confinement, and more. Some rooms even have dummies of prisoners and prison guards sitting in dark corners, just in case you aren’t creeped out enough during your visit.

In 1992, the prison was turned into the Seodaemun Independence Park in remembrance of the Koreans who were imprisoned for fighting for independence. In 1998, this park underwent yet another transformation into the current Prison History Hall, as a way to educate locals and visitors on Korean history.

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