Penang’s open air war museum is a must for anyone with an interest in World War Two
I’m not a huge fan of museums. Though I love history, and have a keen interest in world war one & two, these often bland, sterile buildings bore me. An exception, and it’s not really a museum, was my visit to Auswitch & Birkenau, which was harrowing.
Both share a trait of large areas outside rather than cramming everything into dusty old buildings, or recreated areas.
They are historic sites where things actually happened, rather than buildings built to hold objects: I think this creates lot more emotional impact.
I read about the open-air element of Penang’s war museum and was intrigued. It turned out, for me, to be a heart wrenching place of significant value.
More over, I was utterly disappointed in many people’s feelings about the place.
Location, entrance cost and opening times of Penang’s open air war museum
Opening times: 9am -7pm
Entrance fee: 30 ringget for foreigners. 10 ringgit for Malaysians and 5 ringgit for children.
Location: Mukim 12, Batu Maung, telephone: +60 4 626-5142 (southeastern Penang island)
How to get there: Rapid Bus Penang No. 302 or 305
History of Penangs open air war museum
Built in the 1930’s by the British to protect Penang and defend the Malacca Straits from southern naval approaches to this region. It’s an impressive engineering feat; for that time.
Led by the British Royal Engineers and overseas convicts from India, laborers dynamited and excavated into the 20-acre rocky hill to build the initial fort.
Under which was a labyrinth of reinforced military tunnels. Included in this were a munitions depot, intelligence /logistic centers, offices, an infirmary as well as sleeping quarters.
Already an impressive sight underground. Above ground is strewn with ventilation shafts leading into the hill, artillery firing bays, and yet more munition bunkers.
Manned by British, Malay and Sikh soldiers; attack by sea was near impossible. And yet, Penang still fell in a tale of historic military maneuvering.
Following the British surrender of the island in 1941 to the Japanese, the site became a prison camp for Allied soldiers and a scene of terror for all.
In a little known fact, the sea surrounding the fort became a German U-Boat harbor under the command of Kptlt. Fritz Schneewind.
He then led the first U-boat campaign into the Indian Ocean which also helped the Germans penetrate into the Pacific alongside the Japanese.
Visiting Penang’s open air war museum: a bad first impression
Looking at the 30 ringgit price for foreigners vs 10 for locals I already felt cheated. I’d arrived by bus, and walked a distance to the now privately owned war museum building up a heavy sweat along the way.
Surrounding me were several locals arriving in nice comfortable private cars. I won’t turn this into tourist vs local price debate. But, this just feels wrong, for this type of facility at least.
Pushing back my initial feelings and marching ahead to avoid the local families I diverted from the giant guiding arrows on the ground. And, went straight to the underground bunkers.
Creepy but impressive bunkers
Wider than expected the arched tunnels were well-lit. A musty smell in the air was mixed hints of old leather and dust. The reason became apparent as the tunnel unfolded into a large war office at the end.
Decorated with old photographs, dusty munitions, uniforms, desks and maps of the region it was reminiscent of a scene from a world war two movie.
Still, it lacked a little something called personality. There was not much to tell me who was stationed here in terms of physical photographs, nor personal details. However, the brief history that was there, was enjoyable and I found several more rooms like this underground.
Perhaps the most impressive sight of all in these rooms were the huge low ceilings. Plated with armor to protect everyone from bombardment via the sea or air.
Plunging further into darkness
Linking many of these main tunnels are several much smaller, unlit, escape tunnels. For use if the fort fell to enemy occupation, or a collapse of one of the main rooms under strain from offensive artillery above ground.
Very glad to have a torch on my phone, I needed it to see through the unlit low and very narrow concrete tunnels. Dank with the smell of bat guano my shoulders scraped along.
Then, halfway through I turned the torch off. Pitch black.
One could not even see a hand in-front of your face. Imagine this during a bombardment, or the final escape …
It’s a strange claustrophobic sensation that sets in a mild panic. Deeper breaths are needed for crouch walking into the unknown. The air now seems thicker, heavier and staler.
Above ground artillery defenses and … paint-ball
I left the tunnels just in time. Some local families were just arriving, wild and crazy children included. Echo’s of bizarre shouts down tunnels left behind I climbed up onto the heavy artillery stations above.
Concrete bunkers littered the area. Some looking more like bare concrete houses, others had rusty old military railings allowing you to climb up and around.
Most of the canon bays are no more than circular concrete areas. The main base area of the heavy shelling guns was there. A recreated full length barrel would have made it all the more impressive. Instead it was a case of recreating the events of yesteryear and looking around the old munitions area.
Up further and I stumbled across the strange paint-ball area in Penangs open air museum. Considering I have not written about the real terror that occurred here after the British left, this, to me, had the air of tastelessness about it.
It jarred slightly, fake killing in a place once used for real killing. I digress.
Moving on past this area I was prepared now to leave the open air museum. Only I caught a glimpse of a small sign pointing down the forested hill to the “prison cells“.
I was fairly taken back with what I saw in the prison chambers in Penang’s open air museum. I’ve seen worse, but not displayed like this. Unfortunately, they are badly maintained, unkempt and deteriorating.
Yet, this is also where I would find the most horrific part of this museum not to mention the most interesting part of my visit from a regional / cultural perspective. More in part 2 of this article
30 ringgit for a foreigner vs 10 for a national? It rubs me the wrong way
I think the owner of the open air war museum in Penang (Johari Shafie, Malaysian) has done reasonably well here.
He did after all discover the place, and along with his wife restored it with their own money. This is great. And, an interesting story in itself.
But, the signage is lacking, badly kept, as is much of the historical data on display. These are simple, inexpensive things that which if improved can make the experience a lot better.
The owner seems for have spent a lot of money researching other facilities like this around the world as examples. Yet, has fallen short of actually preserving and displaying this history in his own backyard.
Moreover, can you lose the two tier pricing system?
It jars terribly in such a place, with such a history.
I know they need to make money to keep the open air museum running, but charge everyone equally.
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Even more jarring: The torture crimes of the Japanese in Penang: lost in todays East Asian culture
(if you take offense easily, don’t read this next part)