HELLFIRE PASS – Thailand / Burma Railroad
The Burma-Thailand Railway has a dark and tragic history. Sometimes referred to as The Death Railway, it ran between Bangkok, Thailand and Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar). It was constructed during World War II by American, Australian, British and Dutch Prisoners of War as well as conscripted nationals from Burma, Malay and Thailand. Massive amounts of human labor were needed to complete the construction which ran through open plains, jungles and semi-mountainous terrain. Working conditions were harsh with over 12,000 prisoners dying during the forced labor construction. I’ve previously written about the famous Bridge On The River Kwai which was part of the Burma-Thailand Railway. For that article click here – Bridge On The River Kwai.
Construction of several portions of the rail route required excavating “cuttings” through solid rock. Lacking mechanization resources, most of the cuttings were completed by manual labor. The “cutting” at Hellfire Pass (also known as Konyu Cutting ) was the deepest and longest cutting along the entire length of the Burma-Thailand Railway. The cutting was necessary to allow the railbed to continue with reasonable grade westward toward Burma. Hellfire Pass acquired its name by the otherworldly construction scene at night when the 24 hour a day jungle construction site was lighted by torches and lamps with the cacophony of construction sounds echoing throughout the valley. The task required carving a railbed into the side of steep rock cliffs and, at the actual cutting, it meant creating a channel for the railbed notched through solid rock.
Today travelers with an interest in history can visit Hellfire Pass. It is located about 206 kilometers northwest of Bangkok. That’s about a three hour drive. You can also take the train from Bangkok to Nam Tok, Thailand. The rail line today follows the route of the Burma-Thailand Railway and crosses the River Kwai on the now famous Bridge On The River Kwai at Kanchanaburi which is 123 kilometers from Bangkok. The line continues 60 kilometers beyond Kanchanaburi, ending at Nam Tok, Thailand. The Burma – Thailand Railway fell into disrepair beyond Nam Tok and was overgrown by the jungle following the war. It was rediscovered in the 1980s but that portion of the railway is no longer operational. Indeed most of the track has been removed west of Nam Tok. As a result, visitors to Hellfire Pass must travel the remaining 20 kilometers from Nam Tok by car or taxi.
Australia and Thailand established Hellfire Pass as a Memorial to those who worked and died on the Burma-Thailand Railway project. A visit to the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum provides insight into the tragic history of the project. You can learn more about the pass, see maps, and download the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum Audio Guide at HFP Guide.
There is a well maintained walking trail from the museum to, and along, the Hellfire Pass trackbed. It is most interesting and informative. But please be aware. The track bed lies far below the museum in the river valley, down a steep rocky embankment requiring descending a large number of stairs to reach track level. The entire trail is around 4 kilometers long which may not sound like much but remember this is the jungle – the temperature is hot and the humidity is high. There are many interesting sites and things to see along the trail. The actual Kanyu Cutting / Hellfire Pass fortunately is relatively close to the beginning of the trail. You need not hike the entire trail to get a sense of the place. Keep in mind that once you decide to finish your hike you must turn around and retrace your steps and finally climb all those stairs back up out of the valley to the museum. So plan your hike, take lots of water, and pace yourself.
Very nice stairs from the Memorial Museum lead down, down, down into the river valley to reach the railbed of the Burma-Thailand Railway and the HellFire Pass Cutting.
One of several memorials along the walking trail.
English Text from the memorial seen above describing the history of HELLFIRE PASS and the railway project.
A small section of track remains leading to the actual cutting of HELLFIRE PASS.
The actual cutting of HELLFIRE PASS runs through solid rock. Tracks for the narrow gauge railway have been removed long ago.
A small memorial along the path.
Flags and remembrances left in the cutting wall by visitors.
Hellfire Pass is a bit off the beaten track. It takes some effort and planning to get there and the hike along the railbed though the pass is somewhat physically demanding. The museum and memorial provide interesting and helpful information and background. A visit to Hell Fire Pass is truly a moving experience, giving a glimpse into the trials, challenges, and horrors experienced by those forced to build The Death Railway.
You can read more about the railroad project in my article – click the link below:
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