The HellFire Pass & Memorial trail, Kanchanabury, Thailand

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The Hellfire Pass & Memorial trail

In WWII, Thailand was occupied by the Japanese. The Japanese took prisoners of war (Western Allied forces and Asian forced labourers) who were used and forced to build a Railway (Death Railway) going from Siam (Bangkok) to Burma (Myanmar). Kanachnabury is a Thai village in the Mid-West of Thailand, close to the Burmese border. In the area of Kanchanabury, many WWII Death Railway memorial places can be found, among which, the HellFire Pass (museum). It is said that the conditions at the HellFire Pass part of Death Railway was the hardest and most gruwsome.

Picture: Memorial museum Picture: HellFire Pass trail

The HellFire Pass

The HellFire Pass is a pass of 110 meter long and 17 meter deep that has been cut out in between two rock walls. The pass was cut out by the prisoners of war and Asian forced workers. An enormous task that was completed in only 6 weeks. Yes, a tunnel was an option, that would have saved a lot of effort and work. However, a tunnel could only be worked on from two ends. With a pass, many prisoners of war could be used to dig. Since a pass would be quicker, a pass was chosen, and the prisoners were expected to work hard. The Asian forced workers were tricked by the Japanese with a promise of high wages. Once they arrived, they were usually even treated worse than the Western prisoners of war.

Picture: HellFire Pass trail Picture: HellFire Pass trail view

The working conditions were horrific and the prisoners were exepected to work long hours (18 hours a day) in very bad circumstances. Sometimes, dynamite was used to create the pass. However, there was not sufficient. That meant that the prisoners had to cut away all the remaining rock manually. Most of the time, sufficient tools were missing which made the work even harder. It is said that the Japanese guards killed 69 Allied forces persons during the build by beating them to death. There are no records of how many Asian people were killed in forced labour. Many people died of sickness or pure exhaustion. There was a heavy loss of life during construction of the HellFire Pass. Illnesses spread easily as the hygene was obviously low, and the prisoners were malnuirished and were weak. Illnesses like dysentery and cholera spread around. It remains unknown how many people died building the tracks exactly.

Picture: HellFire Pass trail Picture: HellFire Pass tracks

The Hellfire Pass got its name because the sight of the war prisoners working in the pass in the night by torchlight looked like a scene frome hell. Imagine that… Ironic thing is that nowadays, the pass isnt even being used… After the war, the section was closed. There is now only a line present between Nam Tok Sai Yok Noi and Bangkok.

Picture: HellFire Pass Picture: Memorial rock

HellFire Pass Memorial Museum

The HellFire Pass Memorial museum is a building right at the beginning “entrance” of the HellFire Pass trail. The museum provides all kinds of information on WWII and specifically on the HellFire Pass. They show movies to provide a basic understanding about how it was during the WWII period and have walls full of old pictures and drawings. You will find that the museum is really impressive.

Picture: HellFire Pass Picture: HellFire Pass

HellFire Pass trail

From the HellFire Pass museum, you can walk a path towards the HellFire Pass (first stop of the trail). Walking the whole path to the end and back takes 3 hours (4km). However, walking to the HellFire Pass and back takes approximately 1 hour. It is quite the trip in the heat of the day. Also, there are several stairs you have to take to go down to the beginning of the trail.

Picture: HellFire Pass Picture: HellFire Pass trail

At the first stop, the HellFire Pass, there is a monument where visitors can leave flowers or flags or any other items hororing those who have fallen. The other stops along the trail offer amazing views over the landscape. At some of the viewingpoints, you can even see the mountains in the discance who are situated right on the Myanmar/Thai country border. At other viewing points you can see the beautifull river Kwai. Furthermore, 124 bodies have been buried alongside the trail. Keeping the history in mind of the place, we can’t help but having mixed feelings.

Picture: Memorial stone Picture: HellFire Pass trail

Good to know:

  • Bring good shoes if you want to walk the HellFire Pass trail. The trail is rocky and good shoes are convenient. However, we managed on flip-flops.
  • Bring sufficient water. Walking 3 hours in 40 degrees Celcius, you need water. You cannot buy anything along the trail.

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