Hellfire Pass

To get a real sense of what the laborers endured building the Thai-Burma Railway it’s best to make the journey to Hellfire Pass, the deepest cut through the mountains on the line. It’s not the easiest place to get to if you’re relying on public transportation. We got up at 5am, and walked a mile to the train station for the predawn train. This is the last bit of the line in existence. The British dismantled most of it after the war because it would have been too difficult to maintain, given the terrain and conditions.

We rumbled over the Kwai River as the sky began to lighten, and for the next two hours we traveled through fields of manioc toward the mountains, stopping for school children on the way.

Along the journey the train slows way down to traverse one of the few remaining original wooden trestles. The train passes inches from the rock wall on one side (no photos of that side, but there’s a great shot of it in the movie The Railway Man,) and curving around the cut high above the river on the other side. Lots of people ride the train just to see the trestle and get off at the next stop to take pictures, then ride the train right back to Kanchanaburi. Our train had a large Japanese tour group.

The train doesn’t go as far as Hellfire Pass, so you have to take a bus for a half hour then walk another half mile to the visitors center. We walked through the little village to the highway for the bus only to learn it wouldn’t come for an hour. The cook at a nearby food stall struck up a conversation with us, then offered to ride us up the mountain in his truck. Yes, please!

The interpretive center and the memorial walkway were built by the Australians to honor the prisoners of war who died during construction. The videos and displays describe the dire conditions — no shoes or proper clothing, barely subsistence rations, no medicines against tropical diseases or injuries — and we took our time through the galleries, difficult as it was to learn the brutality of the Japanese captors.

Then it was time to start the walkway. There are two options, a shorter one-hour walk to Hellfire Pass, and a longer, more challenging hike over uneven terrain through more passes and points of interest. We opted for the longer one, which required us to carry a safety radio, and someone from the visitors center checked in with us every hour to ask our position and make sure we were ok. Both walks are enhanced by an audio tour.

The beginning of the walk reminded me of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC, where friends and family members leave notes and memorabilia near their loved ones’ names. Here, fellow prisoners of war leave flags, service pins and other memories to honor their friends who didn’t make it.

The entire railway line was constructed with hand tools, including cutting through solid rock along the cliff edge. Hellfire Pass is the deepest of those cuts and standing between the walls it’s hard to imagine how anyone survived this brutal work, half starved and barefoot in dry-season heat and monsoon mud.

At the end of the easier part of the walk are the flags of the countries whose prisoners are honored, and a place to sit down in the shade. The temperature was rising and I suspect we were approaching 35°C/95°F without a breath of air.

We forged ahead on the extended trail, listening to ever-more frightening stories on the audio tour, dragging our feet up steep uneven steps, scrambling down rocky slopes, trying to understand how human beings can treat other humans with such cruelty. It was not an easy walk, both physically and emotionally and we were relieved when it was time to turn back.

At one resting spot on the audio tour an ex-POW described the beauty of the valley they worked beside every day, covered in dense teak forest. He vowed to return after the war but by the time he came back some time later the teak was completely gone. Many of the sleepers on the railway were teak, a wood so heavy it took six men to carry one sleeper.

Back at the interpretive center we cooled off with a couple of smoothies, then waited on the highway for a bus to take us the two hours back to Kanchanaburi. The entire trip took more than twelve hours.

Before this trip all we knew about this chapter in WWII history was the fictionalized story in the movie Bridge on the River Kwai. The real story is much more brutal and we’re both glad we were able to understand in a small way what so many men suffered in the name of war, and to pay our respects.

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