War is a horror.
There is no sense in glorifying war, or idolizing those poor souls unfortunate enough to find themselves on the battlefield.
Battle sites are not hallowed ground. In fact, one of the most striking things about visiting battle sites is their eerie sense of normalcy – the ease with which the earth shrugs off the stain of war.
But travelers have a responsibility to confront the legacy of warfare, to bear witness, and to affirm the value of peace.
Let us always remember.
1) Siem Reap, Cambodia
Siem Reap, in northwestern Cambodia, is the gateway city to the majestic temples of Angkor.
The name Siem Reap means “Thai Defeat” in commemoration of the Cambodian victory over an invading Thai army in the 14th century.
Many of the Angkorian temples feature elaborate stone carvings that depict battle scenes in exceptional detail.
As one of the richest cities in the ancient world, Angkor was attractive to invading armies, and was also the scene of bloody rivalries between rival Khmer princes and kings.
Stone carvings of 14th century battles at Angkor by Soham Pablo
2) Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam
Dien Bien Phu was the site of a major victory by nationalist Vietnamese forces over the French army in 1954.
The town is located high in the misty mountains of northern Vietnam, near the border with Laos. Even today it is hard to get to, at the end of a long and winding road.
For the French soldiers who defended the doomed garrison, surrounded by a determined enemy in the last days of the siege, Dien Bien Phu must have felt like the last and loneliest place in the world.
French soldiers defending their doomed garrison in a hill bunker by Tom Winker
3) Plain of Jars, Laos
From 1964 until 1973, the United States dropped the equivalent of a planeload of bombs on Laos every nine minutes.
Many of those bombs fell on the remote Plain of Jars in the north-central highlands, where a Hmong army funded by the CIA and led by the legendary General Vang Pao fought a brutal civil war against communist forces.
Incredibly, this massive bombardment and vicious ground war was kept secret from the American people.
Bomb craters litter the Plain of Jars, as do unexploded cluster bombs, which continue to maim many people each year.
Bomb craters litter the Plain of Jars, Laos by Peverus
4) Okinawa, Japan
Okinawa, a tropical island chain in southernmost Japan, is one of the most laid-back places in Asia.
The Okinawa diet is supposedly one of the healthiest in the world, although when I visited I lived mostly on a dish called goya champuru – scrambled eggs, fried spam, and slices of a bitter green vegetable.
At the end of World War II, however, Okinawa was anything but laid-back.Having island hopped across the South Pacific, American forces confronted over one hundred thousand determined Japanese soldiers, who were dug into the limestone cliffs of the island.
The Battle of Okinawa lasted for 82 days in the spring of 1945, and was the bloodiest battle of the Pacific War.
An idyllic island with a bloody past by Guwashi999
5) Putao, Myanmar
I desperately want to visit Putao, a town in Kachin State, deep in the mountains of northernmost Myanmar.
Putao is the last town before the Himalayas rise up to the Tibetan plateau, and is within sight of the 19,000 foot Hkakabo Razi peak.
From 1942 through 1944, British soldiers fought a rearguard battle against the Japanese Imperial Army in Kachin State, aided by local Kachin tribespeople and a small American force known as the Kachin Rangers.
Putao was the only place in Southeast Asia where the Union Jack flew throughout the war.
Today, Kachin State is the scene of a standoff between the military of Myanmar and the Kachin Independence Army, whose soldiers are pictured below.
Fighting continues between the Kachin Independence Army and the Myanmar military. Photo by fredalix
6) Korean DMZ
The demilitarized zone that divides North and South Korea is one of the most heavily armored strips of land in the world.
Incredibly, it’s usually possible for foreign tourists to visit the DMZ on daily guided tours.
Although the Korean War might feel like ancient history, a trip to the DMZ is a reminder that the conflict is very much alive.
When the North launched artillery shells into the South in the Fall of 2010, the shock-waves had governments trembling from Beijing to Washington DC.
Tourists visiting the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea by yeowatzup
7) Hiroshima, Japan
Is Hiroshima a battle site?
Was the blinding flash of the atomic bomb on August 7th, 1945, a battle? An act of war? Or simply an atrocity – a brief moment when hell appeared on earth?
These are important questions, and I don’t have the answers.
Go to Hiroshima. Go to the Atomic Museum. Go to the Peace Park. Find a quiet place within yourself, and consider the capacity of humankind.
Consider the capacity of humankind at Hiroshima. Photo by monkist
Have you visited any of these Asian battle sites? What impression did they leave on you?
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Main image – Korean War refugee, Wikipedia Commons