Many of the people that take a side trip to Kanchanaburi are doing so because they have either seen or heard of the movie “Bridge on the River Kwai”. On package tours they take you to see the bridge and the nearby cemetery. Here you can pay your respects to the fallen dead. If you have time you can visit a nearby war museum to learn more about the horrendous living conditions the prisoners of war had to suffer. You can even ride the infamous railway from Nam Tok back to the bridge. But all of that is not only very touristy, it doesn’t really give you an insight into what really happened over 60 years ago.
About an hour’s drive north of Kanchanaburi, on Highway 323, you will reach Hellfire Pass Memorial. The fascinating museum here, which is about the construction of the Burma-Thailand railway, was opened to the public in 1998. Of all of the museums I have been to already about the war, this one did a pretty good job in showing you what really transpired between 1942 and 1943. Surprisingly the museum is free though we were so impressed with their work that we gave a donation at the end. In the lobby, you can borrow an audio guide which will take you around the various exhibits and then outside to visit Konyu Cutting.
The museum alone is only half the story. What makes this place worth a visit is the walk down behind the museum to the now infamous “Hellfire Pass”. A word of warning, the track can be pretty strenuous at times so it is best to take good walking shoes and a bottle of water. Near the start we reached an intersection where we were given the choice of taking the hard route to the right or a quick descent to the pass on the left. Out of respect to the dead, we decided to take the hard way. Whatever hardship we experienced on this walk, we knew that it was nothing compared to what the POWs and Asian labourers had to endure. As we walked along, we listened to the stories of what happened on our audio headsets.
This is from a memorial plaque: “Hellfire Pass and the adjacent cuttings were excavated by POW labour working around the clock shifts over a desperate period of 12 weeks in 1943. The name Hellfire Pass relates to the awesome scene presented at night by the light from torches and lamps in the cutting. This work was done without the aid of reliable mechanical equipment. The most primitive of hand tools were used to drill holes for the explosives used in blasting the rock and for removing the waste rock.”
It is good that this place is out of town and less visited than the bridge and cemetery. The stillness of the air helps to try and catapult you back to what it was like for the soldiers. But we are unable to do this. It is beyond imagination what they had to endure. We stood to give a moment of silence in memory of not only the POWs that died but also the many Asian labourers. On ANZAC day every year, people come here before the break of dawn and walk down the pass carrying candles. They then lay a wreath at the memorial pictured above.
If you get a chance, then please make an effort to visit the Hellfire Pass Memorial.