The Penang War Museum is found at the British-built military fortress, Batu Maung Fort, which is located in the south-eastern corner of Penang Island. Set high on a jungle-covered hill, this museum is a 25 minute drive away from central George Town, and boasts an eclectic mix of historical WW2 military infrastructure and relics — as well as a haunted reputation.
A bit of basic history of Batu Maung Fort: the British built this military base in the 1930s, while Malaysia was under colonial rule. The complex was manned by British, Punjabi Indian, and Malay soldiers. Standing at the gun stations today, it is easy to see that the strategic position of this fortress allowed military protection of vital shipping routes as well as defence from foreign invasion. This proved unsuccessful in the face of the Japanese invasion of Malaysia in 1941, during which the fort fell into the hands of the Japanese. In this period, the Japanese committed horrific atrocities in Malaysia, and this fort was (according to the Penang War Museum, but this information is discredited by others) where prisoners of war were tortured and executed.
After the Japanese’s surrender to the Allies in 1945 and consequent withdrawal from Malaysia, the fortress was left to the jungle until 2002 when it was recovered and opened to the public: the buildings and evacuation structures are therefore preserved as they were in 1945. The complex is expansive and interesting: there are observation towers you can climb and underground evacuation tunnels you can shuffle through, as well as canon firing bays, sleeping quarters, trenches, and more. Covering 20 acres of land, there is a lot to see: you can easily spend half a day here.
Within this setting, there is an eclectic collection of objects from the time period too. Particularly interesting are the photographs of George Town streets after having been bombed by the Japanese. Seeing Chulia Street in such a destructive state is a shockingly concrete reminder of the destruction that the Japanese left in the wake of their occupation — hard to imagine when you’re walking within the centre of George Town today. On my return to George Town I saw the city from a different perspective.
I wouldn’t recommend this museum in terms of the amount of, and accuracy of, information provided — but as long as you have a basic grasp of Malaysian military history, then this place is still worth a visit in order to witness the concrete remains of Penang’s history of imperialist and military conflict.
Known commonly as ‘Bukit Hantu’, which translates as ‘haunted hill’, the museum really encourages this reputation, clearly aiming to be a top location within the ‘Dark Tourism’ phenomenon. If this is indeed the site of Japanese atrocities, then this museum doesn’t handle such history with much sensitivity; large comic-like paintings of executions and plastic skeletons instead appeal to the sensationalist and kitsch, in an attempt to propel the museum’s ‘spooky’ atmosphere. Newspaper clippings are proudly pinned on walls that describe the museum as ‘hair raising,’ and ‘one of the top haunted sites of Asia’. As for my visit, there were no ghosts to be found. But I’m not sure I’d be eager to go on one of the museum’s night tours.
If you’re looking for a museum with well-cited and plentiful information, then this is probably not the place for you. If you’re looking for an adventurous afternoon exploring an old military fortress surrounded by jungle, complete with a ghostly (if morally questionable) reputation, then this place is worth a visit.
A tip: pack some mosquito repellent and wear covered shoes. Take cash, as the ticket office does not accept card payments.
Where? — Jalan Batu Maung, 11960 Batu Maung, Pulau Pinang – it’s best to take a Grab taxi, which will be around RM20-25.
When? — Daily, 9AM – 6PM (last admission: 5PM)
Who? — Mostly suitable for the whole family, but be warned, there are some macabre objects and photographs that might not be suitable for younger visitors.
How much? — RM36, RM22 for locals (cash only)