When composing this list of my favourite museums in Southeast Asia I have thought about a combination of things. Most important is of course how much I valued my visit, as that ultimately determines whether I recommend it to others. Value of course comes from what I thought about the things I saw there as well as what I learnt from the experience. But another big criteria is also whether the museum offers something that others don’t. I didn’t want to write a list of all the museums I’ve been too after all, but the ones that really stood out.
In terms of the topics the museums in this list cover, I feel there is a great diversity. The region of Southeast Asia has a long, varied and often complex history. There are many different peoples living here, each with their own cultures and traditions. The spread of religion to Southeast Asia has had a huge impact, and its fascinating to learn how this came about. Wars and trade have had big roles too, as well as Chinese influence and then European Colonialism. There really is loads to delve into into and so many different aspects to consider.
The Asian Civilisations Museum
I really love this museum, it’s one of my favourites in the entire world. I learned so much there and it was all really well presented. The aim of the museum is explore the cultural and artistic heritage of Southeast Asia. It focuses especially on that of Singaporean’s ancestors. The diversity of the items on display is really impressive. There is a great information about each display, and the sections all work really well together.
The first section you encounter here explains well how trade worked in the area. It gives you a good insight how it shaped the countries here. A centrepiece of the trade section is the Tang shipwreck gallery. This contains some amazingly well preserved Chinese ceramics that were on their way to be traded when the ship sunk. The ship suck around 1100 years ago, and was found in 1998 off the coast of Indonesia. This section also contains other pieces from across Asia, showcasing the range of items produced for trade.
There is a large ‘Faith and Belief’ section here dedicated to religion. It really explains well the origins of the religions present in Southeast Asia. You can see how they spread across the region, and how the locals adapted them. There is a huge range of artefacts and artwork here from the various religions of the region.
You can plan your visit though the Asian Civilisation Museum’s website here.
War Remnants Museum
Location: Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon), Vietnam
Often in the west there is a very narrow view of the ‘Vietnam War’ as it is described. Certainly growing up in the UK my main exposure to information on it was from American TV or films. Some of them critical, some of them not, but many dehumanising the Vietnamese people. This museum does a fantastic job of showing the ‘American War’ (as they call it) from the Vietnamese side. It shows you some of the horrors committed by American forces in the country. There were of course horrors committed by both sides, so for me this isn’t about choosing one, its about seeing the full picture. I would add that after visiting Vietnam I no longer call it the ‘Vietnam War’ but instead the ‘American-Vietnam War’.
Heading into the museum you can see several pieces of military equipment from the war. Its all displayed outside and includes captured US Tanks and Aircraft. On the ground floor there is an interesting collection of poster from the war. There are many international ones here, such as from Vietnam’s allies and anti-war movements.
Heading upstairs you learn about the horrors of the war. There are exhibits about war crimes committed by US troops, their use of napalm and the effects of Agent Orange. I felt really emotional whilst I was here, learning all about these horrendous actions is quite shocking. I think the museum documents them all very well and really shows how the Vietnamese population was effected.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (aka S-21)
Location: Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge carried out the Cambodian Genocide. They forced millions into the countryside in their sickening attempt to create a Khmer Nationalist Agrarian Autarky. Between 1.5 and 3 million people died, many of them murdered by Khmer Rouge forces. They butchered whole families, sparing no one. Others died from starvation and dehydration. Eventually the genocide was stopped as the Vietnamese invaded, although conflict carried on until the early 90’s.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was used as Security Prison 21 during those years. It was one of many (possibly up to 196) torture and execution centres centres set up the Khmer Rouge. Today it a museum documenting their crimes and remembering their victims.
This museum is best combined with a trip to see the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. Tuk tuk drivers are widely available to take you to both, you can usually hire them for the day through your accommodation.
I won’t go into too much information here, suffice to say its a very harrowing experience visiting these sites. There is graphic detail and human remains on display. I think it’s important to visit if you are visiting Cambodia, so you can learn about the horrors the country has endured. Its something we as humanity must ensure never happens again.
Islamic Art Museum
Location: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
This museum contains a great collection of artwork from across the Islamic world. Islam spread to Malaysia through traders, particularly from India and Arabia. Malaysia was an important part of ancient trade routes, most famous of which is the Spice Route. The Malacca Strait was a particularly important part of the trading route between China and countries to the west. By the 15th century it became the majority religion amongst the Malay population. And it remains so today, with over 60% of the country population following it.
There are over 7000 artefacts here, from a wide range of counties and styles. For example you can look through a wide range calligraphy, paintings, ceramics, textiles and jewels. Amongst other things. Its all really well displayed and I spent hours wandering around admiring everything. I found the intricate details on much of the artwork to be beautiful and the museum does a great job of giving information about each piece too. It provides good context and is great place to learn about how Islam became established in Southeast Asia. Of all the museums in Southeast Asia this is certainly one of the best presented. As well as having the largest collection of Islamic Art.
The Islamic Art Museum also has a great restaurant, serving Middle Eastern cuisine. Its good value and its definitely worth grabbing lunch here when you visit the museum.
National Museum of Singapore
The National Museum of Singapore does a fantastic job of telling the country’s history. It has a great variety of exhibitions and objects on display. Singapore of course is a relatively young country, that came about from a British Colony. Though as the museum shows there has been some form of settlement here for centuries before the British arrived. Even though by the time they did it’s estimated to have only had a population of around 1000. This museum charts its history from these beginnings right up to modern day.
I found the diversity of the exhibitions here to be very impressive. As well displaying objects and artwork in traditional formats, it makes great use of digital technology. In particular the Story Of the Forest display is a fun animated section that feels very atmospheric. I think the World War 2 history is worth highlighting too, as of course Singapore was under Japanese occupation. There is a good collection of Japanese propaganda, as well as information on their victims.
What I really like about this museum is that as well as national history it does a great job of showing what life was like here for the general populace. It shows you how it changed through the ages and how it came to be what it is today. The way it explains about gaining independence, followed by the merger with and then separation from Malaysia, is very informative. There is much more I could mention too, this museum really does cover a wide range of subjects.
Indian Heritage Museum
Location: Little India, Singapore
Another entry to this list from Singapore, this a great museum to stop by when exploring Little India. It seems to go under the radar a bit but it’s definitely worth popping in for an hour or two. This museum looks at the history of the Indian population in Singapore and the Southeast Asia region. This includes how they migrated there and how they have maintained their culture.
There is a nice variety of objects and information on display in this museum. It covers well the communities in Singapore and also some in Malaysia. In particular it looks at the Tamil community, who make up a large amount of Singapore’s Indian population. You can see documents, jewellery, clothes and other things relating to how these people have lived their lives in Singapore.
There are some great religious objects on display, particularly from the Hindu faith but also some Buddhist. And there is information on the colonial period and how it shaped the Indian community in the region. I think a visit here works well in tandem with the other museum in Singapore I’ve listed here. It gives further detail to really help understand the role of the Indian community in Singaporean society.
You can check out there website here: https://www.indianheritage.org.sg/en
Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum
Location: Melaka, Malaysia
This museum tells the story of the Baba-Nyonya people, also known as the Peranakan. These are the descendants of Chinese immigrants the British Straits Settlements of Penang, Melaka and Singapore. In particular it focuses on Southern Chinese merchants who came to Melaka and married local women. They took on local traditions as well as maintaining their Chinese roots. This lead to the formation of their own culture before further waves of Chinese immigration later on. They are effectively a sub-ethnic group, meaning they form part of the overall Chinese grouping in the country.
At this museum you will be given a tour of a house that has been owned by Baba-Nyonya family for 4 generations. Due to colonial Dutch tax laws based on the width of the house, you will find it is actually long and narrow. An inventive way to avoid paying more! The tour takes you around 3 houses that are attached to each. 2 of these were for the Baba-Nyonya family who owned it, the last for their servants. Your guide explains to you the culture and history of the Baba-Nyonya, as well as talking about their customs such as marriage, funerals and birthdays.
Personally I think it’s worth including on this list of my museums in Southeast Asia as it’s really well presented. It shows you great detail about the Baba-Nyona people and gives you a great insight into their history and way of life. You can find out more about the museum and book onto a tour on their website: http://babanyonyamuseum.com/
COPE Visitor Centre
Location: Vientiane, Laos
The country of Laos has a sad and horrific fact about it, that it is the most heavily bombed country in the world. The United States dropped over 270 million bombs on Laos between 1964 and 1973. This happened during the ‘secret war’, also known as the Laotian civil war, which was intertwined with the Vietnam war. As a result of this a huge amount of unexploded ordnance, also known as UXO, remains in the country. Sadly it still kills and hurts people, who have to live with it’s presence.
The COPE (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise) organisation helps people who are inured by this UXO. They provide things like artificial limbs and wheelchairs. Their visitor centre tells you about their work, as well as giving some background on the conflict. Personally I had no idea Laos had suffered so much bombing and visiting the centre was really informative. It gives you a really good look at how the bombing has directly effected peoples lives here and shows how horrible the effects have been.
This is certainly one of the most ‘different’ museums In Southeast Asia. It features touring exhibitions created by other museums, which blend together art and science. It also throws culture and history into the mix, making for an interesting and diverse experience. I really enjoyed visiting and I think this museum offers a nice contrast to the others on this list. The use of technology to create visual representations is fascinating. It’s a lot of fun too, with many of the exhibitions allowing you to interact with them.
If your interested to see whats on before you go then you can check out the exhibitions online. You can find their website here: https://www.marinabaysands.com/museum.html
Thanks for reading this post about my favourite museums in Southeast Asia!
I will hopefully continue to update this post in future when I have opportunities to visit this wonderful region again. There are of course many more museums in Southeast Asia I have yet to visit. I’m sure I will find more inclusions for this list. In the meantime you can find me on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook!
Its worth noting that I haven’t included historical parks or zones on this list. As tempting as it is include amazing places like Ayutthaya and Bagan I wanted to keep it to just museums in Southeast Asia, and save talking about those for other posts. I also haven’t included any Art Galleries on this list. Again, I wanted to separate them from museums and include them on different posts.
The featured image for this post was taken at the Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur. If you have any favourite museums in Southeast Asia then please leave a comment below!
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