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War Museum

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Originally known as Penang Fort, Penang’s War Museum is not just for war history buffs—anyone who appreciates atmospheric historical sites may find themselves spending more time here than planned.

Atop Bukit Batu Maung at the southern tip of Pulau Penang, the privately run museum is far from a dry brick and mortar display of artefacts in glass cases, but a former British bastion built in the 1930s and later occupied by the Japanese and utilised as a POW camp during WWII. For decades the sprawling eight hectare complex was largely forgotten, reclaimed by jungle and local tales of ghosts kept folks away until it was cleared to reveal a network of tunnels, bunkers and barracks that visitors can now explore.

Plenty of exhibits. Photo taken in or around War Museum, Penang, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Plenty of exhibits. Photo: Sally Arnold

After twisting your way up the serpentine road to the top of the hill and paying your entrance fee, you are left to investigate the area following a series of arrowed paths. A map with numbered relics (although the numbers are in a nonsensical order for exploration) and signage with short explanations in English offers some insight into what you are seeing and the quiet shady grounds provides a respectful ambience to a gloomy history.

You are able to enter underground bunkers and crawl through the tunnels (“7 metres crawl, 9 metres climb” one sign warned) although we deemed them too narrow after indulging on Penang’s gastronomic delights. On the headland, gun firing bays and ammunition stores are interesting to investigate, and further along the path an observation tower offers views of the strait.

Creepy in places. Photo taken in or around War Museum, Penang, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Creepy in places. Photo: Sally Arnold

We found the barracks that had previously housed British, Indian and Malay ranks and later commandeered as torture chambers by the Japanese the most moving. Be warned some of the displays are very graphic with shades of S21 in Cambodia showing violent photographs and torture equipment and another informs of the plight of “comfort woman”—local sex slaves.

Sleeping quarters, latrines, cook houses, offices and medical facilities are much as they would have been at the time and this, combined with the intense tropical jungle humidity and buzzing mosquitos lets your imagination offer some insight into the conditions of the soldiers and prisoners of the past.

Still life. Photo taken in or around War Museum, Penang, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Still life. Photo: Sally Arnold

Somewhat distracting and disrespectful, tacky plastic skulls and ghouls decorate certain areas for “spooky night tours” and part of the site is annexed as a paintball battlefield, we guess they have to make money somehow for the upkeep of the place, as we were the only visitors the whole time we were there.

The museum is more interesting than we had anticipated and we spent two hours looking around although you could zip about in 30 minutes if you were pushed for time. Don’t expect slick displays or a guided tour, although the site could really benefit from both. The terrain is hilly and some of the paths give way to jungle tracks, so wear comfortable shoes and take water and mozzie repellant.

Also in Batu Maung, it’s a 1.2 kilometre walk downhill to the small but pretty seaside Sam Poh Footprint Temple and a ten kilometre taxi ride to the Snake Temple in Bayan Lepas. These three sites are close to the airport and may be convenient to visit if you have time to kill before a flight.

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How to get there
Rapid Penang buses 302 and 307 (4 ringgit) leave from the Jetty and Komtar to Batu Maung and takes around 1.5 hours, but it’s a steep 20 minute uphill trek to the War Museum. A Grab car from Georgetown to the museum is 20—30 ringgit and takes around 30 minutes.

War Museum
Lot 1350, Mukim 12, Daerah Barat Daya, Batu Maung
Mo–Su: 09:00–18:00
T: (0164) 213 606, (0462) 65 142
Admission: Adults: 37.10 ringgit; Kids (5-12): 18.02 ringgit; Family (2 adults, 2 kids): 95.40. Malaysian residents pay about 40 percent less.

Location map for War Museum

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