Midday heat topped 40 degrees Celsius as we sipped our last drops of water under a scorching sun. We’re not out of shape, but the extreme weather and rugged terrain left us exhausted just 45 minutes into the hike. Only then did we begin to imagine how horrific this place must have been for those who were forced to chisel through solid rock for 18 hours a days. Only then did we begin to understand why Allied World War II POWs named this section of the Thai-Burma railway Hellfire Pass.
In terms of human lives lost, the most costly event of the Japanese occupation of Thailand and Burma during World War II was the construction of the Thai-Burma Railway, better known today as the “Death Railway“. Building began on the 415 kilometres of track that linked Bangkok to southeastern Burma in June 1942 and lasted until October 1943, though forced labour on the railway continued until the end of the war in 1945. Some 16,000 Allied POWs and 90,000 Asian forced labourers perished from disease, starvation and beatings by Japanese officials.
Arguably the most difficult stretch of the railway to construct was in a mountainous area of Thailand’s Kanchanaburi province. Numerous rock cuttings were needed to make to make way for a track that was laid along steep mountain slopes. Australian, British, Dutch and other POWs, and Malay, Chinese, Indian, Burmese and other labourers were forced by the Japanese to clear enormous outcrops of limestone and quartz.
Due to the eerie flicker of torches that provided light during nighttime labour, the fiery hues that emerged from the rocks when chiselled and the overall hellish conditions under which the work was performed, the largest cutting became known as Hellfire Pass. POWs also referred to it as “Hammer and Tap” after the tedious means by which the cutting was created.
Men worked in continual shifts of 16 to 18 hours a day with only a small portion of rice to eat. Drinking water was also in short supply. Most of the water that could be lugged from the Khwae Noi river was used to lubricate the rocks, rendering them more easily broken by chisel. Explosives were used in some places, but these were also in limited supply and many huge boulders were broken entirely by ‘hammer and tap’. Once boulders were cracked into smaller (but still relatively large) shards of rock, they were tossed down the mountainside or used to stabilise the ground on which the railway was laid.
In 1943, as the war began to tip in the favour of the Allies, work on the railway increased to a frenzy. An early monsoon caused deadly mud slides. Many forced labourers succumbed to cholera, dysentary, malaria and other diseases. Others, too exhausted to carry on, were beaten to death by frustrated Japanese officials.
Though all of the lost Allied POWs were accounted for by their own governments, the Japanese never kept track of the dead and no one knows exactly how many Asian labourers lost their lives in the tragedy. The Japanese initially coerced many of these labourers by promising “high paying work”, but some accounts suggest they were treated even worse than the POWs.
Most of the Death Railway was dismantled by Thai and Burmese authorities after the war ended, but evidence of it still exists along the vast path it cut through the wilderness. The site of Hellfire Pass became an official memorial in 1987 and an Australian-sponsored museum opened in 1996. With extensive information, moving works of art and actual personal effects used by some of the prisoners, such as crude shoes and journals, it’s one of the area’s most comprehensive museums.
A hiking trail takes visitors on the original path of the railway and through some of the cuttings. Not far from the museum, the trail’s first passage — Hellfire Pass itself — is the most dramatic. Visitors can climb a viewpoint to look down on this 110-metre-long alleyway cut 17 metres deep into solid rock. Some visitors leave flowers and flags at the memorial plaques found at the far end of the pass.
While the majority of visitors only see the museum and this first, largest cutting, those who wish to explore the site in a more intimate way can walk the full four kilometres of the trail. It’s a relatively demanding hike, and we found it difficult to contain our emotions as we imagined what it would have been like for those forced to toil here. Set along steep and rocky mountain slopes, some stretches of the trail are so rugged that it’s hard to believe a train could have ever made it through.
The trail leads hikers through several smaller cuttings, some of which are a stone’s throw from craters caused by Allied bombs dropped towards the end of the war. In a few places, the path opens to viewpoints with sweeping views of the Khwae Noi valley and the mountain range that forms the border with Burma some distance beyond. The bodies of 124 POWs were laid to rest in this valley, and they remain here today.
When we stopped at one such overlook, a breeze rustled the bamboo trees as leaves twirled gently to the ground. Despite the heat, the atmosphere was quiet and peaceful — we encountered only one other hiker along the trail. The viewpoints offer an opportunity to pause, reflect and perhaps feel a sense of communion with those who died here. The terrain must have felt like a prison to the labourers, but we wondered if some were afforded a moment of peace as they gazed over the forested landscape.
Splintered wood and galvanized iron scraps from the original railway can be found scattered unceremoniously along the trail. Though these look no different than spare parts from any old railroad, they serve as tangible connections between modern visitors and the men who fought, were imprisoned and often made the ultimate sacrifice to protect their loved ones, their countries and the freedom of future generations.
Hellfire Pass is located 80 kilometres northwest of Kanchanaburi town, immediately off Route 323. While most visit as part of a tour, we were glad to have come on our own by motorbike as most tours don’t allow for hiking too far beyond the first cutting. Though it’s a fairly long trip on motorbike, signs are clearly marked and reaching the memorial is not complicated.
It’s also possible to catch a bus or minibus bound for Thong Pha Phum or Sangkhlaburi and ask to be dropped at Hellfire Pass. Buses return to Kanchanaburi throughout the day and can be caught on the other side of the road.
How to get there
The museum is on Route 323, around 80 kilometres northwest of Kanchanaburi town. Any bus to Thong Pha Phum or Sangkhlaburi will pass by here. You can also come by motorbike, though it's quite a long ride. Admission is free but donations are welcome.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 17th November, 2016.