Photo: Walking the trail.

Hellfire Pass

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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 POWs named this section of the Thai-Burma railway, Hellfire Pass.

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In terms of human lives lost, the most costly event of the Japanese occupation of Thailand and Burma during the Second World War was the construction of the Thai-Burma Railway, better known today as the “Death Railway“. Building began on the 414 kilometres of track that linked Bangkok to southeastern Burma in June 1942 and lasted until October '43, though forced labour on the railway continued until the end of the war in '45. Some 15,000 Allied POWs and 90,000 Asian conscripted labourers perished from disease, starvation and beatings by Japanese officials.

Lest we forget. Photo taken in or around Hellfire Pass, Kanchanaburi, Thailand by David Luekens.

Lest we forget. Photo: David Luekens

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 lay track along steep mountain slopes. Australian, British, Dutch and other POWs, and Malay, Chinese-Singaporean, Tamil-Indian, Burmese, Javanese and other labourers, were forced to clear enormous outcrops of limestone and quartz.

Due to the eerie flicker of torches that lit up the 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 River Khwae Noi was used to lubricate the rocks, rendering them more easily broken by chisel to create holes large enough for explosives. 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 ... Travelfish members only (Around 1,000 more words) ... please log in to read the rest of this story.

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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.

Hellfire Pass
80 km west of Kanchanaburi, off Route 323
Mo-Su 09:00-16:00
Admission: Donations accepted

Location map for Hellfire Pass

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