Hellfire Pass itself is a cutting on the former infamous Death Railway
in western Thailand
. Today there's an excellent museum here about (primarily) the Australian POW
s forced by their Japanese
captors to work on the construction of this difficult stretch of railway line, working them to death in many cases.
Beyond Hellfire Pass a hiking trail follows circa 4 miles (6 km) of the former railway line (the railway tracks have long since been removed), cleared of the worst undergrowth, which passes more cuttings and sites of former bridge constructions. A highlight of the Death Railway dark tourism trail.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
see also under the separate Death Railway
entry for general background info.
The construction of the Japanese "Thailand-Burma Railway" that became known to the world after WWII
as the Death Railway had been comparatively unproblematic up to Kanchanaburi
(with its famous Bridge over the River Kwai
), but going north-west from here, the terrain got considerably more demanding as it went along steep river valleys and into the hills.
This required the building of numerous trestle bridges and viaducts. The one at Wang Pho is still crossed when riding the train today – see under Death Railway
. Also required were several 'cuttings' – i.e. narrow gorges hewn out of the rock (instead of tunnels) for the train line to pass through, rather than around hills. The POW
s and other forced labourers often had to do this by hand, with nothing more sophisticated than pick axes (in a few other cases there were compressor powered drills and dynamite, but mostly it was raw, rough manual labour). Konyu Cutting was a particularly long and infamous example of such cutting construction. It became known as Hellfire Pass due to the torch lights that were used to illuminate the construction site at night – during the "speedo" phase (see Death Railway
) when conditions became particularly bad for the POWs.
, the railway line into Burma was dismantled, the tracks removed and scrapped or used elsewhere – only the eastern stretch past Kanchanaburi up to the current terminus at Nam Tok remains in use. North of that the course of the former railway line was quickly reclaimed by nature and/or farming and fell into oblivion for many decades.
Death Railway researcher Rod Beattie (today curator of Kanchanaburi
's excellent Thailand-Burma Railway Centre
) surveyed this stretch of the former line, machete-ing his way through the thicket and undergrowth, finding many artefacts that had been left behind and basically rediscovering this part of the Railway. Later, esp. through the inspiration by former POW J G "Tom" Morris, the Australian Government's Department for Veterans' Affairs set up the Visitor Centre/Museum at Hellfire Pass, opened in 1998, and memorials and text plaques were added at the Pass itself. A few miles of the course of the former railway line were cleared and prepared for tourists to walk, as part of the whole Hellfire Pass experience.
This combination, of an informative museum and the genuine-ness of the original cuttings and railway foundations, make this more remote part of today's Death Railway trail unique, probably its best bit. It's well worth the extra effort it takes to get here – and do allow it the time it deserves!
What there is to see: It makes sense to start at the museum, which is officially named Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum. To enter you have to take your shoes off, just like at a Buddhist temple. To begin with there's a short intro video. The main part of the museum then consists mostly of lots of text panels, supplemented by a few artefacts (such as rusty tools) and various documents.
They tell the story of the Death Railway
in general, and its section around Hellfire Pass in particular. A diorama/model of the immediate surroundings, covering the length of the hiking trail, illustrates what the railway line must have looked like from the air back then.
An interesting note is that the museum mentions the fact that in Japan
the construction of the railway is still regarded as a triumph by some veterans. (Indeed, at the controversial Yushukan
War Museum in Tokyo
one celebrated exhibit is the first locomotive that went into service on the Thailand-Burma Railway.) It also notes that while there were trials and prison sentences, few of those in higher command were ever held responsible.
There are lots of touching personal stories and vivid descriptions of the hardships faced by the POW
s – and how they managed to overcome them (if they did), including icky descriptions of the food, being more maggots than meat, and how they used dried bird tongues to augment their rice, as rations were about a quarter of the calories a man would have needed. There were also "funny" sides to the stories, e.g. sweepstakes for shitting in the dysentery ward of the POW camp: the one who held the record for shitting in a given day would get a cigarette as a reward from the pool. It's little personal stories like this that make the whole thing very moving, more than the cold statistics ever could.
All text panels and labels are in Thai and English (which is flawless – unsurprisingly, given the place is run by the Aussie
The museum also provides an audio guide, which is well above average in quality – well spoken and with snippets of interviews with Australian survivors. Very illuminating and personal. You can buy a CD of the audio guide track at the museum shop – though it doesn't seem to be completely identical, less about the museum, more about the hiking trail. Apart from English there are also Thai and Dutch versions.
To the side of the museum proper is a platform overhanging the slope down to the actual railway. This platform includes a small memorial called a peace vessel (a water bowl with flower petals floating in it), overlooking the Kwai valley. It's very serene.
The main "exhibit" of the museum, however, is Hellfire Pass itself – and the hiking trail beyond.
Steps lead down from the museum to the old railway line. A few yards of tracks and sleepers have been reconstructed as a memorial, but otherwise the track is bare here.
Inside Hellfire Pass, aka Konyu Cutting, the vertical rock face is impressive enough. A tree growing inside (i.e. where the rail tracks would have been in the past) only helps to emphasize the incredible depth of the cutting.
There are memorial plaques and wreaths of poppies, small crosses and little Australian flags have been laid down. A few original artefacts are placed by a kind of central shrine too.
Next to this is as special plaque in memory of Sir Edward "Weary" Dunlop – a surgeon who, under the most adverse conditions, managed to save countless lives in the POW camps, and whose ashes were scattered at this place after his death in 1993.
At the far end of Hellfire Pass proper is a black granite cenotaph in memory of all those who lost their lives on the Death Railway
. Beyond this spot the hiking trail along the old railbed begins.
You first come to a lookout over the curve of the Kwai valley – opposite you can see the hills that are on the Myanmar/Burma side of the border … Just beyond, a sign instructs visitors with a tour group to return to the museum rather than carrying on along the hiking trail. That would be a shame, though.
It is quite noticeable, however, that this must apply to most people who come here – beyond this point no other visitors could be spotted when I was there (with my wife and a Thai guide), except two Thai peasants collecting wood. The loneliness and silence make the hike very atmospheric, though.
More text panels have been erected along the trail that explain the significance of various points along the former railway line.
A bit further on you come to another stretch sliced through the rock, called Hammer & Tap Cutting (after the tools used in carving it out), then to the site of the Three-tier Bridge – a long gone trestle bridge, one of many but a particularly long one. Since the bridge is gone, you have to clamber down and back up at the opposite embankment. The stone foundations are still in place and in surprisingly good shape, though. The bridge was bombed by Allied air raids – and you can still see a couple of bomb craters nearby. The bridges hit by bombs, however, would always have been repaired quickly, so the disruption of the line never lasted long.
Past another slit in the rocks, Hintok Cutting, you come to the point where a gravel road intersects with the former railway line. This is the spot where you can have yourself picked up and driven back – if you've made such an arrangement. It's well worth continuing on the rest of the trail first, though.
It levels out a bit and next comes the site of what was Hintok Station – you can still see that here there was a stretch of double track – i.e. where trains going in opposite directions could have met and let each other pass. There's an old oil drum from the Japan Synthetic Rubber company still in situ.
Next comes the site of the "Pack of Cards Bridge" – you guessed it, it collapsed like one …
After Compressor Cutting, so named after the fact that here the POWs manual labour was for once assisted by compressor driven mechanical drills, the trail prepared for tourists ends.
Beyond, a sign explains, the course of the railway has been cleared of vegetation, but no improvements such as steps have been added, so it's a more strenuous hike, including steep bits to clamber up and down – so it's only for those who are fit enough. The trek to the end of that stretch and back would add another three hours to the hike.
If you don't want to do this, you can return to Hintok Road, or, if you must, all the way back to the museum.
If you're staying at Hintok Camp (see under 'access & costs' below) you could theoretically clamber down the hillside to it – it's only a stone's throw away from this point. But it really is steep and you could easily get lost in the woods on the way down – and you'd need to pass through farm fields – so it's probably better to hike back and use regular road access to the Camp …
Access and costs: a bit remote, i.e. not easy or cheap to get to, but there's at least nominally free entry to the museum (donations welcome, though).
to get to Hellfire Pass you really need your own transport or a car with driver (and better still: with guide). There are organized day excursions by coach/minibus, from Kanchanaburi
as well as from Bangkok
, to various places in the region, including Hellfire Pass. However: most of these do not allow sufficient time here (often only an extremely meagre 30-60 minutes), so don't do it that way. You're better off splashing out for the full deal, combining a visit to Hellfire Pass with a ride on the Death Railway
over Wang Pho viaduct, and making a day or two of it at least, staying over en route or at Hellfire Pass. Near the end of the hiking trail is the excellent Hintok River Camp – a luxury tented camp with half or full board (from ca. 50 EUR per person) located at an extremely picturesque spot high above a sharp bend in the river – you can even arrive by boat! This makes the ideal base. (See under Thailand
for a recommended agent who can arrange all of this.)
If you're driving yourself: take Highway 323 from Kanchanaburi north/west past Nam Tok – the access road to Hellfire Pass branches off at a field/clearing in the forest to the left about 50 miles (80 km) from Kanchanaburi and about 7 miles (11 km) after passing the River Kwai Village Hotel.
Access to both the hiking trail and the Memorial Museum is nominally free – however, donations are welcome, and indeed needed for maintenance. Use your discretion, but maybe the admission charges at other such sites (see Kanchanaburi
) can be a guideline … (take into account the relative quality of what you get!) The film shown at the museum "suggests" you leave the audio guide deposit rather than having it refunded …
Audio guides: 200 Baht refundable (or donatable) deposit – to be returned by 3:50 p.m. the latest (after that a 500 Baht late fee applies).
Opening times: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
On ANZAC Day (25 April) special memorial services are held at Hellfire Pass and other Death Railway
To do the hike at Hellfire Pass and beyond you should wear good sturdy shoes and carry plenty of drinking water. The trail is mostly easy, but there are sections where you'll have to climb down steps set into the rock and some steep bits back up, namely at places where there used to be bridges that are now gone. You only need to be halfway physically fit for this. It's not too taxing. In wet weather, however, steps can be dangerously slippery and in the rainy season water flows across the trail can impair access. In sunny weather, a few open stretches especially along the first half of the trail may mean you'll need a sun hat, but most of the walk is pleasantly shady.
Note: in June 2009 a rockfall near Hammer & Tap Cutting occurred and the hiking trail had to be closed at ca. 800 yards from the museum, although Hellfire Pass itself remained open. The damage done by that rockfall and any potential future risks to hikers were assessed after the incident – but I haven't heard of the outcome. So it may still be best to check ahead if the trail is open before you go. If it's not open at those stretches prone to rockfalls then you can still walk the other, flatter end of the trail if you access it from the gravel road that cuts through the trail between Hintok Cutting and the former Hintok Station.
Time required: the museum alone requires at least an hour, better a bit more than that to take it all in.
The length of the hike along the trail can be tailored. The shortest bit is just down to Hellfire Pass and back, which could be done in half an hour at a push, including some time to take in the various memorials – but you'd miss out on some good bits beyond. For the full length of the prepared hiking trail, you'll need about two hours.
If you have a car and driver/guide, you could be picked up at the gravel road that intersects with the hiking trail at Hintok – to cut short the return walk.
In total at least half a day should be allocated to the full Hellfire Pass experience. Even more if you want to venture beyond the end of the official hiking trail along the extra couple of miles or so that the former railbed can be hiked, albeit less comfortably. In that case you'll definitely need a full day.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
see Death Railway
. Apart from the historically dark sites there are also some literally dark bits: the area sports several caves which tourists can visit – of which the Phra That cave
is especially impressive, and esp. dark: first you have to climb a steep and strenuous path (with 590 steps!) but the reward is worth it. A local guide lights a single carbide lamp and leads visitors into the dank dark limestone cavern. A wooden walkway helps; otherwise you'd have to walk in a deep layer of bat droppings – hence the ammoniac smell – which is crawling with creepy-crawlies. A snake was also winding its way along the rocks when I was there in early 2009. And overhead hangs a sizeable bat colony! It's pretty wow!
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
This corner of Thailand
offers some of the best (inland) scenery in the entire country. The famous Erawan Falls
, a seven-tiered system of waterfalls, many of which have emerald bathing pools at the bottom, are a particular gem. But be prepared for some steep and slippery clambering about – and beware of those "fierce monkeys" that signs warn you of: they really can be fierce and like to steal stuff and rummage through rucksacks. Do not feed them – it only makes them more fierce.
There are also large reservoirs, offering water sports, and rafting or cruises on the Kwai River are popular too. And of course there are the usual temples and other cultural offerings. Elephant rides are also popular, if you find that sort of thing agreeable, but they are a bit expensive.
A particularly famous/infamous and these days heavily marketed attraction is the Tiger Temple, which is often incorporated into tours to Hellfire Pass as an option. I strongly dissociate myself from this – see why under 'non-dark combinations' in the Kanchanaburi
- A - Hellfire Pass 01
- A - Hellfire Pass 01b - donations very welcome at Hellfire Pass Museum
- A - Hellfire Pass 02 - museum exhibits
- A - Hellfire Pass 03 - Peace Vessel at the museum
- A - Hellfire Pass 04 - the hiking trail
- A - Hellfire Pass 05 - re-laid old tracks
- A - Hellfire Pass 06 - Konyu Cutting
- A - Hellfire Pass 07 - memorial at Konyu Cutting
- A - Hellfire Pass 08 - Aussie memento
- A - Hellfire Pass 09 - poppies by broken compressor drill in the rock
- A - Hellfire Pass 10 - cenotaph
- A - Hellfire Pass 11 - where the hiking trail proper begins
- A - Hellfire Pass 12 - view over the valley towards Burma
- A - Hellfire Pass 13 - Hammer and Tap Cutting
- A - Hellfire Pass 14 - site of Three-tier Bridge
- A - Hellfire Pass 15 - today at least steps aid the ascent
- A - Hellfire Pass 16 - Hintok Cutting
- A - Hellfire Pass 17 - old bomb crater
- A - Hellfire Pass 18 - near site of Hintok Station
- A - Hellfire Pass 19 - old Japanese oil drum
- A - Hellfire Pass 20 - dam at Pack-of-Cards Bridge site
- A - Hellfire Pass 21 - Compressor Cutting
- A - Hellfire Pass 22 - end-of-trail sign
- A - Hellfire Pass 23 - semi-cleared pass beyond
- B - Hintok camp with forest fire
- B - Hintok camp
- B - Hintok forest fire
- B - River Kwai at Hintok
- C - Phra That cave 1
- C - Phra That cave 2 - snake
- C - Phra That cave 3 - bat colony
- C - Phra That cave 4
- C - Phra That cave
- D - National Park Erawan Falls 1 - swimming in natural pools - with fish
- D - National Park Erawan Falls 2 - a fierce monkey
- D - National Park Erawan Falls 3 - a not so fierce monkey
- D - National Park Erawan Falls 4 - the eponymous waterfall
- D - National Park Erawan Falls
- E - River Kwai dragon boat speeding along
- E - River Kwai in morning mist