8 of the Best Museums in Southeast Asia
Thailand 01.12.2016 Gary
Amidst all the ancient and grand delights of Southeast Asia, museums are often not given a second thought by visitors. You’d be pleasantly surprised at the wealth of antiquities and astonishing tales that lie within the walls of these galleries, and they’re also a perfect antidote to the midday sun. Having worked in the museum sector for several years, the following enlightening places are my suggestions for your next trip.
Peranakan Museum, Singapore
A beautiful three-storey former school built in 1912 in the Colonial District, a short distance from the famous Raffles Hotel. The museum delves into the fascinating and vibrant history, traditions, arts and culture of the Peranakan community, loosely translated as ‘locally born’, a person of local and foreign heritage. Highlights include an ornate tablecloth made of over a million glass beads and a wonderful series of rooms decorated for different Peranakan periods and occasions.
Thailand-Burma Railway Museum, Thailand
The three-hour drive from Bangkok through luscious greenery and local villages is well worth the trip to arrive at Kanchanaburi. Recognised as the location of the Bridge on the River Kwai (focus of the classic David Lean film), constructed, destroyed during WWII and then rebuilt once again. The museum is an exceptional venue detailing the turmoil and travails of the Allied prisoners of war who built the Siam-Burma Railway, otherwise known as the ‘Death Railway’. If the thought of a six-hour round trip doesn’t sound ideal, stay overnight on a floating house by the banks of the River Kwai as an alternative.
Cheah Clan House, Malaysia
Standing in a peaceful corner of lively Armenian Street, as part of UNESCO listed Georgetown. One of the oldest surviving clan houses or Kongsi’s in Penang, and recently renovated to its original glory. An irreplaceable piece of heritage, from the moment you walk under the street front archway to the manicured lawn and your first view of the dramatic two floored building. The main temple building has been restored to showcase altars, dragon decorations and the monk’s bedrooms. The adjacent buildings have been converted into a charismatic museum space displaying historical documents, mahjong tiles and Kongsi furniture.
National Landmarks & Botanical Garden, Myanmar
An impressive construction built in almost 60 acres of landscaped gardens, showcasing a wide variety of miniature monuments from the different states of Myanmar. Located next to the Botanical Gardens of Pyin Oo Lwin, a charming colonial town situated a 2-hour drive from the historic city of Mandalay. Either meander along the mapped route or take a motorised buggy to explore the models of the landmarks of Myanmar, including the Golden Rock of Kyaiktiyo and the extinct volcano at Mount Popa.
Fine Arts Museum, Vietnam
Close to the sprawling Ben Thanh Market, in a delightfully painted and tiled building, the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum is full of bright courtyards and enthralling galleries. Housing a diverse collection of historical pieces, as well as those from a modern era, including early Cham art, contemporary Asian sculpture and a wide variety of war-themed paintings, which further informs of the Vietnam War, to coincide with a visit to the nearby Cu Chi Tunnels.
Islamic Arts Museum, Malaysia
A majestically decorative building situated in the 91-hectare Lake Park in the middle of Kuala Lumpur, alongside the Bird Park and National Planetarium. A vast collection of over 7,000 artefacts from around the world dedicated to the major religion. Along with the adorned domed ceilings and attractive terraces, are two floors of permanent exhibits from wide-ranging themes as jewellery, architecture and traditional interiors. Highlights include the literary history of the Quran, a portion of the Kiswah (cloth which covers the Kaaba in Mecca) and scaled models of major Islamic monuments of the world such as the Great Mosque of Mecca and the Taj Mahal.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Cambodia
The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek tend to be the foremost purpose for a stay in Phnom Penh. A short drive from the Cambodian capital, in an unsurprisingly sombre setting, marks the tragic atrocities under the reign of Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot. Continue to the eerie Tuol Sleng, a former high school, which became S-21, an interrogation prison. The building remains similar to how it was in the late 1970s, and now displays exhibits documenting the lives of the victims. Whilst it can be a dispiriting visit, it’s important to comprehend exactly what the Khmer people were put through.
Ambarawa Train Museum, Indonesia
The Railway Museum of Ambarawa in central Java is a nostalgic journey to the creativity and power of Dutch colonialism in Indonesia. The museum is a converted railway station built in 1873, one of the first of its kind in the country. A preservation reverie with the impressive collection of over two dozen steam locomotives and wooden carriages, as well as a gallery full of equipment such as Morse telegraph machines, uniforms and antique furniture. It’s a splendid place to stop and stretch your legs when driving between Semarang and Surakarta, a journey mostly taken after arriving from the island of Borneo.