THE 20th CENTURY was a time of brutal savagery in Asia. Warfare technology brought us Agent Orange, napalm, and the atomic bomb. And along with that, loss of human life on an enormous scale.
From the imperial Japanese conquest to the genocidal madness of the Khmer Rouge, the brutality was fierce and many were subject to its realities. The people of these countries haven’t forgotten their past ordeals and many sites have been erected to remind us of the horrors of war.
Here are seven humbling experiences in Asia:
1. The Cu Chi tunnels
This rabbit warren of tunnels, located an hour outside Ho Chi Minh City, was a hotbed of guerrilla activity during the Vietnam War. Ex-Vietcong soldiers guide you around the site and through the underground passages.
Seeing the claustrophobic confines the Vietnamese endured for over 10 years gives you respect for their toughness and determination to win.
Tip: the tunnels are tight and dirty — dress appropriately. And don’t skip the anti-American propaganda film at the beginning.
2. Korean War POW camp
During the Korean War, tens of thousands of North Korean and Chinese POWs were confined in this camp on Geoje Island, off the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. The entire area has been reconstructed, with life-sized dioramas depicting the soldiers working, rioting, and even doing their business in the latrines.
3. Tuol Sleng prison and killing fields
Tuol Sleng Prison — code named S-21 — is where the Khmer Rouge interrogated and tortured nearly 17,000 victims during their murderous four-year reign. The prison was a high school, converted shortly after the Khmer Rouge took power. Heartrending photos of the thousands of victims can be viewed here.
The Killing Fields are located just outside Phnom Penh; this is the place where the “enemies of the people” were executed. They were most often clubbed over the head in order to save bullets. Bullets are available to visitors, however, which they can shoot out of AK-47 rifles. Appropriate or not, You decide.
4. The Massacre Museum
This museum/memorial in Nanjing, China, is dedicated to the victims of the rape of Nanjing. In 1937, Japanese troops occupied the city and went on a six-week spree of rape and murder, culminating in the death of some 300,000 unarmed Chinese.
They were so savage in their attacks that a Nazi official living in the city tried to intervene. He even wrote to Hitler to plead for German pressure. You know you’ve crossed the line when the Nazis are telling you to chill out.
5. The War Remnants Museum
Formerly known as “The Museum of American War Crimes”, this one’s located in Ho Chi Minh City. It is dedicated to showing the world the depths to which the Americans and their allies went to keep the Vietnamese people down.
While sometimes overwrought with histrionic propaganda, the museum hits visitors in the gut with graphic images of the effects of Agent Orange and napalm, along with three jarred human fetuses deformed by exposure to dioxin. Not for the faint of heart.
6. Panmunjeom and the DMZ
The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) bisects the whole of the Korean peninsula, acting as a buffer between the two countries. It’s four kilometers wide and, apart from being the most heavily armed border in the world, is very surreal. You know you’re visiting a place that could erupt in violence at any moment.
The Panmunjeom “truce village,” also known as the “Joint Security Area,” lies right in the middle of the DMZ. It’s home to a handful of buildings, where the two sides face off in this last Cold War outpost. You can walk into one of the meeting rooms which span the actual border.
The line of demarcation is drawn on the floor and even along the negotiation table. Stern-faced North Korean soldiers watch your every move, while sunglass-sporting Southern troops face down their Northern adversaries in rigid Tae Kwon Do stances.
Tip: pay attention to the dress code and don’t point — it’s strictly prohibited.
7. Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park
It’s impossible to walk away from here without a sense of humility and sadness. The surroundings are so peaceful and beautiful it’s hard to imagine Hiroshima was the site of the world’s first atomic attack on August 6th, 1945.
Most haunting is the A-bomb Dome, which is the skeletal remains of the Industrial Promotion Hall, the building closest to the bomb’s hypocenter that remained standing. It’s a concrete reminder of the victims of the bombing.
This article was originally posted on April 24th, 2009.
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