Contemplate the horrors of war in Hellfire Pass Museum, Kanchanaburi

Mark Levitin | Live the World

November 23, 2022

Hidden amidst the forested hills of the Tenasserim range, about 80 km north of Kanchanaburi, lies Hellfire Pass, a site of yet another World War 2 holocaust. A Japanese attempt to drag the Burma Railway through the mountains by using slave labor had resulted in massive casualties among the prisoners, both  POWs, and locals. A memorial museum has been erected on this spot nowadays. While not of much interest to a casual tourist, this exhibition provides a grim reminder of the pointless mass murder that war essentially is. The horror and the futility of it may not be the ideas one wishes to contemplate while on vacation, but it may be worth to experience this nonetheless. Just in case – after all, who knows what might happen tomorrow?

© Istock/Panmaule

Konyu cutting

The Japanese called the site “Konyu cutting”. Miserable living conditions, back-breaking labor, and the way this humanmade crack in the ground looked at night, when lit by rows of flaming torches, had led the prisoners to rename it as “Hellfire Pass”. And hell it was: 18 hours a day work shifts, malnutrition, regular beatings, heat, humidity, mosquitoes, infectious diseases. It took six weeks to construct the cutting and lay rail tracks, and one out of five POWs did not survive to see the end of it. Even higher was the casualty rate among the Romusha – local Thai and Mon villagers, rounded up in their villages and sent to labor camps despite the fact they were not taking part in this war at all (and technically, Thailand was allied with Japan). Malay and Chinese hired workers, lured with legal contracts, then locked up with everybody else, added to the body count. Except, there was no body count – nobody cared. And none of this had even produced any notable results – due to frequent Allied air raids, Burma Railway could never be maintained functional enough to affect the tides of war.

© Istock/JHK2303

Museum and interpretive center

Joint efforts of former ANZAC governments, various NGOs and Thai authorities have resulted in a modern, highly educative and well-maintained museum. There is an audio-tour through the cutting, including recorded interviews with survivors. There are a number of descriptive photographs, lots of memorial paraphernalia, and a looped video presentation telling the desperate tale of Hellfire Pass. All of this is clean, neat, digitalized, and hard to associate with the experience of a starving slave forced to smash rocks for 18 hours in tropical heat. One can see how it took the title of Tripadvisor’s “top museum in Thailand”; one can suspect it must have tried hard to achieve just this. The exhibition is ever so slightly lopsided, too – the stories focus on the ANZAC prisoners, returning to their suffering over and over again, while the Romusha are only briefly mentioned once or twice as a statistical fact. One may prefer to leave behind the sterilized modern buildings of the interpretive center, its memorial bowls, flowers and other symbols, and simply take a walk through the cutting. Listen to the trees, look at the stones.

© Istock/Oppdowngalon


No trains run on this section of the former Burma Railway anymore. The easiest way to reach Hellfire Pass Museum is to take a bus from Kanchanaburi. Any bus heading north, that is to Thong Pha Pum or Sangkhlaburi, will do. There a small canteen at the museum, selling more or less anything a tourist might need. The last bus back passes around 17:00 PM, but there is not much point to linger anyway. Take a walk, contemplate the horrors of war, return to your rafthouse or visit some waterfalls in the vicinity. Go on with that vacation. Hope for the best.

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