Journey to Hellfire Pass, Thailand

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Thailand is famous for its pristine beaches and turquoise waters, golden temples and elephant rides beside slow flowing rivers. So the words “Hellfire Pass” are startling: how does this place fit into our idea of Thailand as a bucolic paradise? Our guide Swai joins us today to share a bit of his nation’s history, and explain why a journey to Hellfire pass is a good way to get to know a piece of Thailand's history.

Do you know Hellfire Pass?

Hellfire Pass came to be during WWII, in Kanchanaburi province, Thailand. It's a piece of world war history many people haven't learned about. During WWII the country was under control by Japanese guards who forced some of the Allied prisoners of war (POWs) to construct a rail route to join tracks between Thailand and Burma. The plan was 303 kilometers in Thailand and 111 kilometers in Burma.

During the period of the construction, there was a challenging area with steep hills and rocks along the cliffs in Saiyok District. Here all POWs had to work both days and nights. At night they had to hold torches in ones hand while the other hand had to dig into the solid quartz and limestone rock-bed to open a pass for the rail track. When the war ended, the construction on the tracks was abandoned, leaving behind the incomplete rail bed as evidence of their immense efforts.

Why was it called “Hellfire Pass”? Because their working situation was so terrible in that steep, dense jungle area, especially at night. The POWs had only tiny bright torchlights, and the smoke and flames from nearby firepits; it must have felt as if they were toiling endlessly in the hot, hellish environment. The conditions were so harsh that it caused thousands of POWs to die from accidents, heat and exhaustion during the railway construction.

Today, Hellfire Pass Museum is located within the precinct of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment in Saiyok District of Kanchanaburi Province. Kanchanaburi Province is at the western side of the country, approximately 129 kilometers from Bangkok, while Saiyok District is located another 78 kilometers westward from the centre of Kanchanaburi Province.

The museum has been supported by funds from the Australian Government. It tells this piece of WWII history, presenting images and videos of how it was like to work on the construction. You can only get to the museum by car, neither train nor boat go there. The nearest railway station is Nam Tok Station, 20km away at the end of the (incomplete) line. Although the museum sits on the water, there are no piers for boats, since it’s located among steep cliffs and jungles. The cliff is approximately 11 meters from the river level (the River Kwai, actually pronounced in Thai “Kwae” not “Kwai”.)

From the Hellfire Pass Museum, you can go for a gentle walk along the memorial trail to the end of the unfinished track, less than one km away.

To experience the Hellfire Pass Museum, you can visit with me on one of my private tours, either leaving from Bangkok, Laem Chabang Port or Pattaya area or Kanchanaburi.

Thanks Swai, for sharing a piece of Thailand's history. Visitors looking for an interesting daytrip from Bangkok should definitely consider a visit to this historical site. You can read about another one of Swai's daytrip suggestions here: Amphawa Markets.
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