East and Southeast Asia are destinations that lure new backpackers to their shores with the fantasy of exotic cultures; even seasoned travelers like myself can’t avoid the enchantment.
Not without reason, many travelers make their first long trip to East and Southeast Asia to experience welcoming cultures like those of Thailand, Laos or Bali, unique landscapes like the highlands in Northern Vietnam, superb people like those in Taiwan (actually, like those in most SEA countries) and of course the unreal flavours achieved in every local meal, making each a culinary delight.
Yet all is not magic in this enchanting area – or better said, has not always been. While most of these countries have had the usual ups and downs during their histories, three of them have endured particular events that have changed their present in more than one way. Unfortunately none of these events have been for the good, and in fact have been so extraordinary that monuments or museums have been created to remember the lost lives and make sure history is not forgotten- or at least doesn’t repeat itself. These are the top three:
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, Japan
On August 6 1945 “Little Boy” exploded 600 meters above Hiroshima. It was the first time that an atomic bomb was used over an inhabited area. What followed was a blast of never-before-seen proportions as well as a dramatic temperature increase and presence of radiation that caused about 145,000 deaths by December of that year, and was the reason behind malformations, diseases and all sorts of biomedical complications that lasted for decades to come.
The Hiroshima Peace War Memorial Museum was created to remember the fallen, and in its halls there are vivid images and personal descriptions of the minutes, hours and days that followed the blast. A visit to this museum is personal, disturbing and unforgettable – which is good because its main purpose is to represent a global request to forbid their use anywhere in the world again.
Choung Ek and SL-21 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
These names might not mean anything to you unless you have been there or have an interest in Southeast Asian or Cambodian history, but I’m sure that as soon as I say Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge things will begin to fall into place – or should, anyhow. Pol Pot (whose real name was Saloth Sar) was the leader of the Khmer Rouge between the 1960’s and his death in 1998.
During his ruling as the Prime Minister of Democratic Kampuchea between 1975 and 1979 he imposed his particular version of communism, emptying cities and forcing all labor to take place in the fields, abolishing currency and eliminating any possible source of uprising. This was achieved by imposing forced labor, torturing people for reasons such as wearing glasses or knowing more than one language (anything that could mean education was seen as a possible source of uprising) and ultimately killing them and many more. It is estimated that between 1.5 and 2 million people were executed or died directly because of his regime.
SL-21 was originally a school transformed into a torture center and jail, and Choeung Ek is the killing field where tens of thousands of people were remorselessly executed in the most brutal of manners during his regime.
The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Operated by the Vietnamese government this museum was opened in 1975 as the “House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government [of South Vietnam]”, and although the name has changed since then the displays have not been altered much. The museum presents facts and information about the war with an evident dose of anti-Americanism, as well as military equipment from both sides.
One of the most important (and probably the most disturbing) halls is a photo exhibit of the consequences of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese population. This herbicide and defoliant was later (after use) discovered to be contaminated with an extremely toxic substance that caused never-before-seen diseases, deformations and malformations in newborns during the next decade.
Impressions from a personal perspective
When visiting any of these three places one cannot expect to walk out with the same jovialism or curiosity as when walking in, and if you do, it means you did not pay enough attention or did not take it as serously as you should have. After visiting SL-21 and Choeung Ek in Phnom Penh I was in no mood to smile or continue visiting the city- the place is really shocking and brings you up close and personal with death without being in danger. It was the most thought-provoking and consequential of the three, and my mood only changed after visiting an orphanage – the children exuded so much love I couldn’t keep myself from smiling back.
The museums evoke a similar response, particularly the photography or personal descriptions of pain and anguish endured by children and peaceful citizens doing their everyday chores. It’s a much more emotional experience than a visit to a science or art museum.
However, I strongly encourage you to visit all three. History is not to be forgotten, and although it’s always nice to enjoy the positive aspects of our past, there are times when humans have become the worst animal on the planet. These three memorials remind us that even in one of the most fascinating parts of the world mistakes have been made – let’s not repeat them.