HELLFIRE PASS

by Carmel on March 20, 2014 · 11 comments

Hellfire_memorial

Arriving to Kanchanburi, you would have little idea by looking at it of the small Thai town’s sordid history. We booked a short weekend visit because we had read about it as an option during our first visit to Thailand, but didn’t have time to make the side trip before heading north. Our return visit to Bangkok to catch a flight out to Cambodia for Christmas gave us a few extra days to play with, so we opted to spend two of them in this town, two hours to the northwest of Bangkok.

Upon arrival at our accommodations, the owner told us that we’d make best use of our limited time by booking a tour. We’re not generally fans of tours, but there are times when it makes the most sense. This woman was an awfully good salesperson and sold us on the idea quickly since entrance fees to the park and transportation to Hellfire Pass would cost us almost as much anyway – and it included lunch.

Wait, national park? We came to Kanchanaburi with one goal in mind – to see the infamous Death Railway (also called the Burma Railway). I had little idea of any of this important part of world history outside of being familiar with the Academy Award winning 1957 film, Bridge on the River Kwai. And even then, I hadn’t actually seen it.

Back to the park. We were completely unaware that there was a national park outside of town called Erawan National Park, but apparently it’s a major tourist site with 7 tiers of falls and immaculate trails, helped kept clean by a mandatory water bottle deposit upon entrance to the park. Having had such a lovely visit to the multi-tiered falls in Laos, we booked the tour, expecting a rather strange day of contrasts ahead.

Hellfire_waterfalls

The morning consisted of a van ride through the tree-filled hills of Thai countryside and then two full hours of hiking and swimming through the falls. It wasn’t terribly warm, but Shawn took a dip in the pool of the largest waterfall and I allowed the abundance of fish nibble on my dried, cracked heels for about a nanosecond before I got too ticklish and had to stop. We met up with our group again for lunch and compared notes on hiking around the falls before heading out for the second half of our day.

We were in the van another hour chatting with each other about previous travels, our home countries, and the usual small talk before coming to the Hellfire Pass Museum.

Hellfire_museum

The Museum was constructed in partnership between the Royal Thai Armed Forces and Australian government to commemorate those who suffered and died in the making of the construction of the railway. Hellfire Pass was a particularly difficult section to create due to the large amount of rock cutting, remoteness of its location, and lack of appropriate construction tools – prisoners sometimes even fashioned their own out of what was laying around. Hellfire Pass was constructed using forced labor during WWII, in part by Allied prisoners of war. It was named Hellfire Pass by the laborers who said the sight of it at night lit by torchlights along the walls resembled a scene from hell. Given what we learned on our tour that day, it must have felt like hell for them, too.

Hellfire_torches

What’s left of the torches that would light the way and a drill bit left in the hard rock

Prisoners worked 18 hours a day. In the photos, the men are barely clothed (due to the excessive heat and humidity) and are emaciated from barely being fed and the hard manual labor. They were beat by the Japanese soldiers and many died from diseases, such as cholera and dysentery. It sounded like an all too familiar scene from other parts of the world where the War was being fought, but another sad side to this scenario was that many regular citizens were also brought in to augment the labor force. Most of the civilians laborers were Malayans and came with the promise of good jobs. What many of them got was death and what can only be described as torture. The Japanese never kept record of these deaths, so the actual number is unknown.

Hellfire_documents

We spent about an hour in the museum, exploring the few artifacts leftover from the prisoners and laborers. They obviously were not allowed to have certain items, like a radio, but some managed to build them and get updates on how the war was progressing. In the few journals found and testimonies from the survivors, they cited these updates as one of reasons they were able to survive this torture – it gave them some thread of hope and will to live.

Hellfire_radio

What’s striking is the sense of calm overlooking the trees and valley below the museum. You walk down into the pass itself and it gives you a chill. It’s calm, but eerie. As you’re down there, imagining how harsh conditions must have been, it makes you wonder how anyone could continue to keep up spirits and hope to be saved from that hell.

We walked down the well-constructed path to a section of the pass was left in tact. The majority of the railway was bombed during the Burma campaign.

Hellfire_pass

Hellfire_above

Shawn and I hiked back up the hill, mostly in silence. Back in the van, the rest of the group took up their chatting again for the ride to the next stop where we would catch a train on the Death Railway to get back to Kanchanaburi. I was still absorbing what we had just seen and learned, though.

Hellfire_Railroad

Calm day on the River Kwai

The ride back into town was beautiful. The sun was starting its descent, the sky was mostly clear, the River Kwai was calm. It was hard to reconcile what I had seen sandwiched between these sites of natural beauty. This quote came back to me as we were on the train back. It was from a doctor who was a POW at the Pass. He said,

“It gave me a great understanding of men. And a great appreciation for the ordinary things in life…And the value of human relations. You know, when it comes to the end, the only thing that really matters are the people whom you love and who love you.”

-Dr. Kevin Fagan

At the end of this day, I think it was enough to learn and listen to these stories and appreciate the beauty that surrounded me.

Hellfire_lestweforget

 

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

karen March 20, 2014 at 4:34 pm

What an experience to see a part of history that only validates how resilient the human spirit is.
Again, descriptive pictures and writings. Thank you.

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Carmel March 22, 2014 at 7:38 am

It’s inspiring, but mostly humbling.

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Amy March 21, 2014 at 2:37 am

I’m glad you guys got to check out Kanchanaburi and Hellfire Pass, as I think it really adds a historic dimension to a trip to Thailand. Andrew and I went back to Hellfire Pass last month, we caught the really early train and saw the sunrise over the countryside, it was beautiful. We also hiked the Hellfire Pass track in sweltering heat and we struggled – I can’t imagine how awful it must have been to work in that heat while suffering from disease, starvation and torture; It’s amazing anyone survived at all.
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Carmel March 22, 2014 at 7:39 am

I’m so glad we went. Honestly, it was your post that made me champion the idea when we had the idea to go back to Thailand for a bit. It’s such an interesting part of history and something I knew so little about, as well as just a gorgeous part of Thailand I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. We were lucky it was just hot and not humid when we went. I can’t imagine what it would be like at the wetter parts of the year.

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Catherine March 22, 2014 at 6:02 am

The waterfalls look amazing. Must have felt like quite a surreal day, with the quick change from relaxing in the pool to the chilling thoughts of those who died building the railway. It’s great that there are places like this museum to help us remember them though.
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Carmel March 22, 2014 at 7:40 am

The museum was so well done. They did a great job of presenting the information in a respectful and educational way. It was free, as well.

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Tyrhone March 23, 2014 at 7:19 am

Phew, hardcore. Well if I needed a reminder my workload is pretty light, that was it!

Looks like a beautiful place though, I don’t do well with the nibbling fish either, 3 seconds is about my record 🙂
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Carmel March 26, 2014 at 4:42 am

Seriously. It doesn’t stop me from complaining, unfortunately.

Those fish are so creepy.

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Maddie March 31, 2014 at 1:23 pm

Such a beautiful place, I found it so hard to imagine the terrible things that had happened there because it was so incredibly peaceful. We visited nearly 6 years ago so it’s nice for me to see that Erawan is still just as gorgeous.
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Carmel March 31, 2014 at 6:50 pm

It is really peaceful in a lot of ways. I was surprised.

You should go back to Erawan falls. I’m amazed how clean it was.

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Julie K. April 16, 2014 at 12:47 am

The cut looks like it would be difficult to do even with today’s modern equipment — it´s hard to imagine the men in 1943 did it mostly with manual labor and dynamite…Must be such a moving and sobering experience at the same time.

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