Home > Thailand > Kanchanaburi & Hellfire Pass

Kanchanaburi & Hellfire Pass

For today we thought we would embark on something a bit more hardcore. Kanchanaburi is the home of the bridge over the river Kwai – first detail, it was not built on the Kwai at all. Luckily for Hollywood, the Thai’s did not want to spoil a good tourist opportunity, so they renamed the original river with the new bridge to “Kwae”, so now the film and reality can match.



our songtaew - great for 5 minutes, rough for 1 1/2 hours

the train ride up: for different reasons they missed the views!

There are plenty of tours that go from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi by mini bus, but there is something wrong about coming here on a bus, so we took the 3rd class train with 1950’s wooden benches, wide open windows and no doors for the 3 hour ride up the Death Railway – so called because of the POW’s and Asian labour used to build this track all the way to Burma in the second world war. (15,000 POW’s and 90,000 Asian labourers died building the track in just 9 months, they reackon it averages to about 1 person for each sleeper laid). Most day trips finish at the bridge, but as we were under our own steam, we haggled a songthaew (the pickup truck with bench seats) at Kanchanaburi and headed on further up the valley for an hour and a half heading up into the hills near the Burmese border to a place called Hellfire Pass.

entering the pass - it must have been hellish

deep in Hellfire Pass

Hellfire is the home of another Anzac Memorial Museum, and a prominent point on the railway where a deep cutting through solid rock was carved out by starving and dying soldiers in absolutely wretched conditions, with over 700 POW’s dying in a matter of a couple of months carving out little more than 100m of cutting, working day and night to the shouts of “Speedo” and regular thrashings so powerful that often the men would die simply of their beating.

The museum introduced us all to the full horror of the place, the audio guide providing yet more detail on the treatment of the “surrendered” and therefore worthless POW’s, the cholera epidemics, the malnutrition, malaria, dengue and host of other tropical diseases. And this was before we went down the small path and entered the pass, you can still see the drill marks where the hammer and tap men drilled into the rock by hand. Really traumatic. You can really imagine how it must have been with the noise heat, pain and suffering to build this train line simply to allow the Japanese to prepare to invade India. What makes it even worse, that only 2 years later, the allies dug the track up to avoid any repeats. For anyone with any thoughts that war is glorious, they need to come here to experience the pain and futility.

Station in Nam Tok is like out of a msueum

Nam Tok Station beautifully decorated and clean - a far cry from Thon Buri at the other end of the line.

Meanwhile our driver waited, so we made our way back out of the pass, and he dropped us back in Nam Tok, the current end of the line, so that we could take the train through the more scenic parts of the journey over the timber viaducts and cuttings back to Kanchanaburi. Here the museums depict in ever more detail (and in some bizarre exhibitions) life in WW2. We also found out that there are 2 “original” JEATH war museums, the really good one, and the one we went to. If anyone does go (highly recommended for a big dose of pacifism), then go to the one near the cemetery and not the one near the river.

train heading down the Kwae

the third class windows are the best for the scenery

on the bridge over the River Kwai

One of the few light hearted moments, was watching the soap carver cutting the most beautiful flowers out of bars of ordinary household soap. Intrigued we watched asked a few questions and he kindly gave us a demonstration. As good tourists, we read the signs and bought a souvenir.

After a couple of days of the kind of emotional immersion Kanchanaburi can offer, we were ready for a change and headed back to Bangkok for a day before starting to head up north – a really worthwhile, but emotionally exhausting couple of days.

subtle signage

un-subtle signage - presumably for those who cannot read

Categories: Thailand Tags: , , ,
  1. Joe & Verna
    January 22, 2012 at 4:48 am

    It is true we do not know the truth of what went on during the war.My dad was in the Solomon Islands no matter hoe we tried we coudnt get him to tell us any stories.

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