Last winter I traded in Vancouver’s rain and snow for the sun and humidity of Southeast Asia, taking a three month jaunt to explore parts of the Banana Pancake Trail.
Before departing, I wondered: what kind of museums will I visit? Will I be blown away by some sort of new technology I haven’t seen before? How will cultural destinations compare to what I’ve visited in North America and Europe? A year later, it’s been an interesting exercise to think back to the places I remember most and why.
Landing in Bangkok, the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles was a pleasant surprise to stumble across while escaping from a burst of rain. The museum was contemporary, and while textiles is not something I would usually go to a museum for, it was an enjoyable stop. Jim Thompson House is a must in the Thai capital, with an incredible collection of artifacts in six traditional teak Thai-style houses, surrounded by beautiful trees. However, the big cultural draw in Thailand is undeniably the temples, with incredible histories that are still very important to local culture. With the death of the King right before we arrived in Thailand, their importance and meaning was especially evident.
In the North, the Black House (Baan Dam) in Chiang Rai was a highlight, an artistic take on temples with various arrangements of animal skins and skulls. It was pretty weird, but the artistic and dark approach made for a unique experience. We were quite templed out by that point, so the Black House and the White Temple were both interesting diversions from what we had come to expect.
Crossing into Laos, with spectacular temples in Luang Prabang and rural motorbiking, the notable museum experience was absolutely the COPE Visitor Centre in Vientiane. The museum highlights the ever present danger of unexploded ordinance in large parts of the country. COPE’s mission is to provide physical rehabilitation services and support to victims and help clear hidden bombs from farmland. The experience was informative and I was moved to donate to this very worthy and important organization.
Thus began a changing theme in museums going forward on our adventure, as many museums began to exhibit war and hardship rather than art and religion.
Flying to Hanoi, we took in many historical sites and only scratched the surface, with many bia hoi breaks in between: Ho Chi Minh Museum and Stilt House, Hỏa Lò Prison, Temple of Literature, and the Vietnam Military History Museum.
Further south in Ho Chi Minh City, we visited the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum. The latter felt like the most important place to visit out of the them all. The American War is well documented, understandably from an anti-American stance, with exhibits of propaganda, photography, and artifacts, including graphic details of the horrific effects of Agent Orange. Many (mostly American) military machines of the era sit outside of the building.
The most impactful exhibit was a gallery called Requiem, featuring hundreds of photographs from combat photographers from both sides of the war. The incredible scenes captured in the collection were especially captivating after looking at so many artifacts behind glass, and it put so much into context as this was the last of many museums we visited in Vietnam. It was especially sad to learn that all the photographers featured were killed in action.
Traveling to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, sobering tales of genocide at the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum filled a somber day. Stories were told via audio guides at both locations, especially well at the Killing Fields as there’s little to see at the location beyond a few trees and pitted fields until you go inside the Choeung Ek Monument, a Buddhist stupa filled with over 5000 human skulls.
In Siem Reap, I made a quick stop at the Angkor National Museum for a short time one afternoon. It was exorbitantly priced at 16 American dollars, but was the most modern museum of the trip. The exhibits were well crafted and the gallery of 1000 buddhas, with carving styles spanning multiple centuries and empires, was an incredible collection to see. The rest of the museum answered some questions I had after spending a few previous days wandering Angkor Wat, which made for a nice way to cap my time in Cambodia.
As I look back on the trip, it wasn’t shiny technology or modern displays that made the most memorable impressions on me within the many museums I spent time in. The things that stuck with me were usually an interesting fact or two, or a specific artifact that got me thinking. The content was incredibly varied and usually captivating.
That being said, there’s plenty of room for new ways of telling stories and sharing culture. The usual artifact-and-text-panel format will evolve. Many of the subject matters require a sensitive approach, but involving technology and new approaches doesn’t mean things need to be flashy. Many of the things I learned revolved around education, reflection, and a desire to learn from the past – all things to build upon going forward.
I hope to return to Southeast Asia again someday. As I hide from the incessant rain of the season in Vancouver, my memories continue to inspire me to elevate our ways of telling stories.