There are three trains a day from Kanchanaburi to Nam Tok which is the closest station to the Hellfire Pass.
Words can’t fully convey the horror experienced by the men who worked cutting this rail cutting, but the clue is in the name.
This is one of the notorious spots on the Burma Death Railway route and I was travelling on some of this line today.
I arrived at Kanchanaburi’s small but very pretty station just before 6am. The journey would take around two hours and I took this rather than the more leisurely 10.35am train to beat the heat
I bought a single ticket for 100THB – you can’t buy a return and climbed on board the waiting train.
The train picks up tour groups down from Bangkok but I couldn’t see anyone today – probably too early for them. I was certainly the only traveller in the carriage I was sitting in.
Although I had an allocated seat, the caretaker told me to sit anywhere.
I briefly wondered how much of a view I would have this early but the sky was already growing brighter.
The train heaved itself out of the station at bang on 6.07am and slowly chugged to the river and the bridge.
The conductor arrived wearing a very smart militaristic style uniform to stamp my ticket.
There’s a small station just before the bridge but no-one was waiting to board and a minute later we crossed what is known as the bridge over the river Kwai.
It will no doubt come as a tremendous surprise that Third Class Thai rail travel comes with conditioning…
…all the windows were open. It was lovely.
A man wandered down the train twenty minutes later and told me that there were only three of us on the train.
The coronavirus restrictions and fears have greatly reduced traveller numbers and if I thought Malaysia was quiet, Thailand is really feeling it.
I thought a brief stop at a platform had added another passenger but it was another caretaker bringing a bin bag down the carriage.
The next stop saw the third passenger leave us though she had to climb down on to the muddy embankment and make her way along the track. Her carriage did not pull up alongside the platform… well more of a gazebo really.
The train continued through the countryside passing farms and small holdings. Crops included rice, sugar cane, bananas and vegetables of assorted descriptions.
In the early morning mist, it was really beautiful.
I even saw a giant gold statue of a god standing head and shoulders above the treetops in the distance.
A group of school children boarded the train at Wang Sing, so it’s not only a train for the tourists.
At Thamkrasae Bridge a couple boarded simply to ride for five minutes over original the wooden Wangpo (Whang Pho) Viaduct constructed by the Prisoners of War (POWs) and built to carry the railway between the drop to the river on one side and the sheer cliff face on the other.
They climbed off at the next stop, Thakrasae Bridge and waved goodbye to me. The two stations clearly see a lot of visitors doing just that, as I lost count of refreshment stalls.
So, a little background on Hellfire Pass. The name came from the prisoners seeing themselves, emaciated in the torchlight as work continued through the night, it was reminiscent of a scene in hell, they thought.
The Pass in the Tenasserim Hills was a particularly difficult section of the line to build.
It was the largest rock cutting on the railway. With its general remoteness and the lack of proper tools during building, construction was daunting.
A tunnel would have been possible to build instead of a cutting, but this could only be constructed at the two ends at any one time, whereas the cutting could be constructed at all points simultaneously.
The POWs and other labourers shipped in were required by the Japanese to work 18 hours a day to complete the work, during a notorious period called the ‘speedo’.
In November 1942, 1,500 British POWs and 2,000 Tamil labourers began work on the cutting. 400 Australians were brought in April 1943 and by June there were another 600 POWs and an additional, 1,000 Asian labourers. It is unclear where all of these men were from.
Sixty-nine POWs were beaten to death by Japanese guards in the six weeks it took to build the cutting, and many more died from cholera, dysentery, starvation, and exhaustion.
However, the majority of deaths occurred among the labourers whom the Japanese recruited to come to help build the line with promises of good jobs. These labourers, mostly Malayans (Chinese, Malays and Tamils from Malaya), suffered mostly the same treatment as the POWs. No records were kept of these deaths.
The railway was never built to a level of lasting permanence and was frequently bombed by the Royal Air Force during the Burma Campaign.
To ride a railway constructed in such brutal conditions, that resulted in the deaths of so many men is a sobering experience.
At Nam Tok I climbed off the train, met a taxi driver who would take me to and from Hellfire Pass for 800THB (and wait for me), just as soon as I had eaten breakfast at one of the cafes by the station.
The taxi fares to different places are all listed on a sign by the platform so I had no anxieties about being ripped off.
Result. Breakfast and transport sorted within 30 seconds of arrival.
After a breakfast, painstakingly prepared by the cafe owner’s two teenage children(it was sweet watching them work together laying out the serving tray and making my coffee), I jumped in an air conditioned taxi… a flat-bed truck with two foam cushioned benches attached a grooved cage over the top.
I had seen these all over Kanchanaburi and now I was riding one.
Obviously, catching a bus would have been the more environmentally friendly choice but you’d be waiting every long time for one of those – a taxi was the only available option to cover the twenty miles by road to the Pass.
As there was only me, the driver transferred us to a smaller truck. Same set up.
The Hellfire Pass Interpretive Centre, the pass and the memorial are maintained by the Australian Government.
The museum displays the survivors’ stories, in their own words, and it’s an incredibly moving experience to hear them talk. The role of the doctors and the men who worked as orderlies in helping them to survive, their creativity in fighting disease and, very often, standing between a man and a beating is described with great respect and affection.
They also discuss about the importance of humour in helping them to stay alive in the face of hellish conditions. “Dying was easy,” said one man. “It was living that was hard.”
The railway fell into disuse immediately after the war. Agricultural land and forest reclaimed it and for decades, it was ‘lost’.
The memorial and in fact, uncovering the cutting, came about as a result of Australian POWs returning to Thailand in the 1980s to go back to where they had laboured.
It is a very sensitively presented site.
From the museum, a trail leads to the railway bed and in places, the original sleepers are still there and then you reach the Hellfire Pass itself.
It’s actually a very beautiful place and is now pristine. You have to look at the surrounding forest for an understanding of the terrain where the men were constructing a railway.
The men who worked here had to cut through trees, bamboo and undergrowth to start digging. For weeks, during the ‘speedo’ they worked 18-20 hour days, suffering from malnutrition, disease and exhaustion.
Once you walk through the deep Pass, which they carved out using hand tools, you reach a simple memorial.
On ANZAC day each year a ceremony is held here. Before dawn, the Pass is lit with candles and by the memorial a piper plays the ‘Last Post’ as the sun rises.
More than 60,000 prisoners worked on the Railway and over 12,000 lost their lives. This included 6,300 British, 2,800 Australian and 2,300 Dutch.
As estimated 200,000 Asian workers also laboured under the same conditions and around 90,000 of them died.
While the Japanese had better living conditions than the men who built the railway, a 1,000 lost their lives here too.
The Hellfire Pass is a powerful and affecting experience, especially as I was wandering it alone and in silence.
It is one of those places where the birds don’t seem to sing.
I was pleased that I had visited early as, by 10am, the day was heating up, providing a tiny impression of the brutal conditions experienced here.
Other visitors were starting to arrive as I returned to the Interpretive Centre and they were about to start walking the Pass.
This region is heavily polluted and the Centre’s signs ask visitors to take the poor air quality into account with heat before following the two miles of rail bed. Beyond the Hellfire Pass, the trail is very exposed with little shelter from the harsh sun.
My taxi driver wanted to ensure that I saw some of the natural beauty of the area as well as experiencing the history. So, just before we reached Nam Tok’s railway station,he dropped me off for at the Sai Yok Noi Waterfall.
Kids were swimming in the pool and signs asked visitors not to take soap and shampoo into the water with them.
The train that arrived from Kanchanaburi to go back there was considerably busier than the one I arrived on, though far from full.
People disembarked and those waiting in the station climbed on board as did hawkers of a range of snacks including doughnuts and vanilla flavoured crepes.
An engine was pulled to the now front of the train to haul the carriages back along the rails.
The temperature had increased in the third class carriages’ air conditioning.
The carriage was less than a quarter full but more joined us when a tour boarded at Thamkrasae Bridge to ride the Wangpo Viaduct.
I did wonder why the guy wearing the colonial-era helmet had bothered boarding the train when he didn’t so much as bother looking out of the window.
I was surprised when they all stayed on the train.
In the fields, workers were having their lunches. I spotted a couple of cooking stalls on motorbikes where cooks were preparing bowls of noodles and fresh vegetables for them.
As we returned to Kanchanaburi the train driver sounded the horn to warn people to get off the ridge or at least move to the side of the rails so the train could cross the river back into town.