Hellfire Pass and Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Amazing Thailand! So says the tourism adds, and it’s true…it’s an amazing country to visit, explore, and experience the varied activities and options available. And Kanchanaburi is well and truly on the tourist map; home to the famous “Bridge on the River Kwai”. But why do so many people come here?

Hellfire Pass

It’s certainly not all for the history of the area or out of a sense of respect to those who perished here…perhaps it’s the beautiful surrounding countryside and the pretty waterfalls that abound or getting that all important “selfie” on the bridge. To be honest though, there’s nothing wrong with that at all. Tourists visit many areas for many differing reasons, but after spending some time in the area coupled with my own knowledge of this place, I just wish more people would take a moment to stop and really think about what occurred here during World War II.

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery

To begin the experience, the best place I found was to first visit the Thai Burma Railway Museum in the centre of town, near the main train station. It’s an excellently well-presented and run museum (120 Baht entry fee), which gives you a grounding in the history of the so called “Death Railway”. It’s an emotional roller coaster of a place for me; to go through the museum is moving and it’s a start to prepare you for the tears that will follow as you visit the surrounding sites. There is a lot of information about how the railway and bridges were constructed but it also gives a prelude to the human suffering that built both.

You walk out of the museum, across the road, and into the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. There are almost 7000 former Prisoners of War buried here from the Netherlands, Australia, Britain, and the Commonwealth. The size hits you first, just row-upon-row of neatly maintained graves stones, decorated with a sea of flowers amid the green manicured lawns. I wondered the rows, reading the names, ages, regiments and epitaphs, and taking time to share their space, regardless of their nationality. Here and there, relatives had made their pilgrimage to place their own touching words of remembrance or lay a cross. Then it starts to really hit you of what occurred in building this railway. It becomes harder to read the stones as you you move from row to row, tears cloud the eyes too much.

Some of the 7000 dead buried here

You can sit on a few stark white stone seats that are dotted around the cemetery and simply look, take time to take it all in. It’s the least they deserve! I’m afraid to say that whilst sitting, I couldn’t help but to observe other tourists and how they approach visiting a place like this. I make no apologies for the following observations…

Bombardier H. Simpson, RA

Large tourist buses from Bangkok and local minibuses arrive at regular intervals at the cemetery and museum on their hectic day-trip schedules. It was strange how you can pick the nationalities and how they approach a place like this. A group of tourists would disembark from the bus, rush about for 20 mins and then leave. Although some people didn’t even enter the cemetery as they had to light up a cigarette and just stand on the path and chat, take a quick photo over the hedge…much more important obviously! The Dutch seemed to only visit the graves of the Dutch, and the Australians did exactly the same. The British visited their own sections, then some did actually take time to look at other nationalities as well. All very strange, but maybe it was the only time they had. The local Thai visitors simply came into the entrance, had a brief look around, took a few photo’s of themselves and left. Although some Thai’s did take part in a kind of photo shoot amongst the grounds, full of poses, selfies, and glamour shots – not sure what would happen if a bunch of foreign tourists did the same at a Thai burial site?

I observed little respect there, which was extremely disappointing.

Chungkai War Cemetery

Another cemetery, Chungkai, is a few km’s outside of Kanchanaburi across the river and is seldom visited by many people as it’s not on many of the tour operators’ to-do list. You’ll need some transport to get here and a map, but it’s well worth the effort. This smaller cemetery is beautifully maintained and a smaller replica of Kanchanaburi cemetery in its layout and design.

Chungkai War Cemetery, Kanchanaburi

Here, you can actually hear the birds, smell the freshly cut grass, and take the time to wonder the rows of Dutch and British graves. It’s a moving place to be, and sitting on one of the white stone seats, you can spend some time with the 1700 men who are buried here and, as I did, in your own way, let them know that they’re not forgotten and that they never will be. Whilst there, I only saw seven other people visit the site, and I had mixed feelings over this. One of sadness that so few people visit but then also relief that these men are truly at peace in this place.

I found great peace here, however, the tears still flow regardless…

 

The Bridge over the river Kwae, Kanchanaburi

River Kwae Bridge, Kanchanaburi, Thailand, Death Railway, Hellfire Pass

So, to the famous Bridge over the River Kwai, made famous by the 1957 David Lean film. Even though I knew it would be tacky, it’s still disappointing to see a pretend tourist train go back and forth across the bridge, it’s like something from DisneyWorld. This, coupled with the western-styled restaurants, tacky souvenirs and gem shops does leave you a little deflated.

However, it’s an incredible part of history and a feat of human endurance in its building. It’s also worth a walk across the bridge, as the far bank does offer a little respite from most of the tourists. Evidence of British and American bombing raids are evident on the Bridges structure.

Hammer and Tap cutting, Hellfire Pass

Hellfire Pass

For me, the last part of the puzzle was the journey to Hellfire pass. A place where the suffering of allied prisoners were horrific and extreme. There is a visitor centre at this location run by volunteers, founded by Australians, and partly funded by the Australian Government. It’s free to enter, but a donation is expected. You can take a tour here, but you’ll be time-retracted and this place needs time. Take a local bus from Kanchanaburi bus station (40 Baht each way), takes just over an hour and it drops you off by the side of the road at the entrance gate and picks up from the same place.

If you see nothing else of the Kanchanaburi Death railway history, make an exception to visit here, it’s an incredible place.

The visitor centre is extremely well thought out and thought provoking. It deals more with the human suffering (both Allied and Asian), and holds no punches in its recreation of events here. It’s a brutal, truthful, and horrifying example of what man can do to their fellow man. There is a video section within the centre, that shows photos and drawings from the surrounding camps; and with the haunting music accompanying this, it’s an emotionally draining experience. However, one you must do…

Remembering, Hellfire Pass

You can then walk along a specially cleared section (by volunteers) of the actual railway line, running through Hellfire pass and beyond. You can walk for about 3kms one-way, and the round trip will take you at least 2 hours. There is an accompanying audio you can use as you walk and it’s an excellent resource that is well narrated and produced, as well as having survivors describe their harrowing experiences where you tread.

It’s a Bastard of a place really. It’s hot, humid, slippery, treacherous, and swarming with mosquitoes and ants. It’s a tough 3 km walk, even today. But think about the men who had to march from a sub camp, 6 kms each way to the railway line. Then have to work between 12 to 18-hour shifts with Japanese Engineers and Korean guards beating and torturing you. It’s beyond belief what these men endured. Disease was rife in the prisoner camps and the men suffered from malaria, cholera , dysentery and beriberi, and then, were still forced to work like animals until they literally dropped dead.

Hellfire Pass, Thailand, Kanchanaburi

Cut out by hand , Hellfire Pass

As an emotional gut-wrenching experience as this is, I can’t recommend it highly enough. As you walk along the track, you can see the holes, hammered out of the bare rocks by hand, see metal spikes laying all around used on the sleepers, see the original wooden sleepers quietly decaying in the jungle; and see the massive boulders, moved by hand after being blasted apart.

Just to clarify that over 12,000 allied prisoner of war and approximately 100,000 Asian forced labourers (Burmese, Malay and Indonesian – no records were kept by the Japanese and no known graves exist) perished in building the Thai-Burma railway in 1943. Also, some 500 American prisoners who died in the camps were repatriated to the United States after the war.

But, above everything else, all around you is the chilling presence of those who suffered so terribly and died here, it hangs amongst the trees, across the boulders and, seeps from the pores of the rotting sleepers.

The Endless Thai/Burma Railway

‘Thanks Joe…for Everything’

For more information on the history of the area, please see this website;

Hellfire Pass Commemoration

1 Comment

  1. Agreed. Hellfire pass is a must visit. Incredibly powerful and moving. The best preservation of history I’ve experienced in Thailand. Good post, Neil.

    Like

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