Have you ever wondered what it was like to be alive during World War 2?
Apart from reading history textbooks and Twitter threads, I don’t know anyone who lived to tell the tale.
When I heard about a war site that’s only an hour away from where I lived, of course I had to see it for myself!
The Penang War Museum, also known as “Ghost Hill”
Dubbed as “Bukit Hantu”, the Penang War Museum carries a dark and cruel past.
Built as a military defence fortress in the 1930s, it served as a British stronghold.
It eventually fell into the hands of the Japanese during World War II in 1941, and that’s when it took a dark turn.
The Japanese Imperial Army turned the fortress into a concentration camp, which lasted nearly four years.
Situated at the top of Batu Maung Hill, the place was rumoured to be haunted with the spirits of prisoners of war.
On the day of my excursion, it was sunny and clear. Making my way to the top of the hill, I definitely felt shivers down my spine.
I had to keep reassuring myself that this place exists, as I was filled with doubts when the curvy route seemed like it would never end.
The Entrance Was Weirdly Bright And Cheerful
When I finally got there, all I saw was a massive sign at the entrance that read “War Museum”.
Turns out, it was a lot less scary than I had imagined. I got my ticket, held up my map, and followed the marked paths.
The first part was one of the most intriguing parts of the museum — the bombs.
The warning signs were right there, so I backed off naturally. Being the person who goes down in history by accidentally setting the place off is not what wanted.
I got pretty jumpy when I saw them this early in my trip, so I picked up the pace.
Things were starting to get interesting.
My footsteps brought my body down a trail of more timeworn weapons and bombs, but my mind and heart were in the 1930’s.
Little snippets and pieces of history started coming together in my mind, when I paid close attention to some old letters and articles on the bulletin board, along with artefacts that just took my breath away.
I Went Down A Dark And Creepy Tunnel
I continued following the path marked with a red cross and found myself in front of a tunnel.
This tunnel was used back in the day for the prisoners of war to as an alternative route to escape from the enemies.
It was pitch black and all I could see was the entrance.
I was reluctant to enter because I am not the most adventurous person, especially when it involves darkness. (You might even call me a scaredy cat.)
However, I got to thinking about the prisoners who once went through these tunnels, fearing for their very lives, hoping these oddly built tunnels would confuse intruders.
I got the flashlight from my phone ready and braced myself to just go through it.
As I kept going deeper and deeper into the tunnel, the loud chattering from other visitors slowly faded, while my heartbeat got louder.
The tunnel eventually got narrower as I advanced deeper, to a point where I had to go on all fours, hunch my shoulders and knees, in order to squeeze myself through.
The claustrophobia, the pitch-black darkness, and the total isolation made me almost lose my mind.
But I focused on the tiny dot of light ahead of me and kept going.
At last, I got out! The exit was rather unexpected, as I let out a good laugh. After the heart-thumping journey in a concrete tunnel, I came out only to find that I was right where I started, at the front of the museum!
Sure, I had a few scratches here and there, but the experience actually made me feel confident about overcoming my fears.
I guess things are not always as bad as how we imagine them to be.
This place did not disappoint, as I came to another escape option. Although this time, it required crawling through another smaller tunnel, and then climbing nine metres up a ladder.
Having gone through the first oh-so-terrifying tunnel earlier, I was less scared this time round. The amount of light shining down the ladder made it extra tolerable.
Seven-metre crawl and nine-metre climb? Challenge accepted.
But this time, I realised I was a lot less fit than I remembered. I would not have lasted a day if I were to live here as a prisoner.
This experience made me realise I could use a lot more exercising and fewer J.Co donuts.
Glimpse of Life During World War 2
Something from the tourist map I was holding caught my eye — the “torture chamber”. Off I went in search of the mysterious spot, and what I found startled me.
Over on the ceiling, weapons were hanging from rusty chains.
I was torn between looking up and down because at the center of the room, there was an oddly-placed cage, and it was distracting.
The cage was made of wood, with varying artefacts kept inside. On the walls were pictures of cruelties that had happened during the time of the Japanese ruling.
The pictures gave me an eerie impression of all the atrocities that have been going on in this cage.
True enough, prisoners were tortured and punished here.
To make matters worse, I noticed a basic drainage system in the room connected right under the cage, probably for blood to flow through.
I couldn’t stay there any longer, as I could almost feel my heart choking up my throat.
I left the room and took the map out of my back pocket for reference.
There were booby traps set up somewhere according to the map, so I set myself to go look for that. Sadly, I could not find them, unless I were to get caught in one.
So then I made my way to the fort relic instead.
In the center of the fort relic was a guillotine, aged with mold and rust.
Similar skull figures were found at various points at the museum, like in front of the barrack of Malay soldiers.
I cannot be sure if those skulls were chiselled by the British or the Japanese, or if it was only added to build up visitors interest.
Either way, they definitely gave me the spooks.
The museum’s efforts to make the place look identical to what it looked like back then was evident.
Dummies were kept in the medical infirmary to resemble the old times. They even had flasks, bed frames and blankets for them!
What I learnt from walking amongst such suffering
It’s funny to think that even though I was in my homeland, I could feel so foreign.
It was a challenge for me to relate to those who were once where I was standing.
Not too long ago I was still ignorant towards the casualties of war, but after my visit, it’s safe to say that all my utmost respect goes out to those who were the casualties of war.
Having experienced the bone-chilling site where once upon a time housed torments and terror, drenched with blood, I now value how simple life is for me in comparison.
I am inspired to start appreciating life and people around me, witnessing the bitterness of lives once lived.
Today, the state of our country is in shambles. We are up in arms over matters that make the nation seem foolish.
If we could just learn from past mistakes and come together, we could collectively evolve into something better as a nation.
For more stories like this, read: I Explored Tanjung Rambutan’s Mental Asylum, Here’s What It’s Really Like and I Visited An Abandoned Scottish Mansion In Malaysia – Here’s What I Found