The Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting) is probably the next-most famous railway site after the Bridge Over the River Kwai, as it was the deepest and longest cutting on the Death Railway or Thai-Burma Railway. It is located on the now-disused section of the railway towards Myanmar, about 20km or 20 minutes away from Nam Tok and Nam Tok Sai Yok Noi Railway Stations by car. If there’s a place that you need to visit in order to better appreciate the railways around ASEAN, this is it.
The Hellfire Pass experience begins with a visit to the Hellfire Pass Interpretive Centre, a museum before actually heading down to the former alignment of the Thai-Burma Railway.
The rather modern look of the Hellfire Pass Interpretive Centre.
For this trip, I took the short walk from the Hellfire Pass Interpretive Centre to the Memorial Obelisk in Konyu Cutting. The long walk would require a lot more time, water and walkie-talkie sets to be taken to communicate with the museum.
The entrance fee to the Hellfire Pass Interpretive Centre is free, however, donations are welcome to maintain the facility.
A lookout point from the museum to the Khwae Noi Valley kick starts the visit.
A sign at the lookout point describes the view along with significant portions of the railway.
A rather picturesque view from the lookout, though disturbingly pristine as thousands have died here in terrible conditions.
The museum visit starts with a walk through of a panel of names decked similarly to the Konyu Cutting.
The names inscribed are of POWs who have worked on the Death Railway, along with their relationships such as “friend” or “uncle”.
Despite the huge number of names listed on the panels, tens of thousands more go undocumented, both western POWs and Asian romushas, both in name and task on the Death Railway. In fact, all names of romushas are unknown and were never documented.
The Hellfire Pass Interpretive Centre includes videos and information panels on the POWs and Thai-Burma Railway. The pile of rocks in the middle is an estimate of the 3 cubic meters of rubble that the POWs and romushas were expected to move daily.
A drawing of the POW train from Singapore to Ban Pong making a stop at Slim River Railway Station.
The museum also accurately describes the “Speedo” period where most deaths occurred on the Thai-Burma Railway.
The conclusion section includes re-visit memoirs from the former POWs who worked on the railway, and to lead onwards to the walking trail.
Quotes from the former POWs who worked on the railway line the walls.
The stairs here lead down to the walking trail.
Heading down a nicely-manicured flight of stairs to the former railway alignment, something which the POWs did not have.
The lookout point as seen from the stairs heading down to the former railway alignment.
While the long way down might be tiring, it’s probably just less than 1% of the tiredness of what the POWs had to endure during the construction of the Death Railway.
The set of stairs lead down to the former trackbed. Small gravel are placed on the walking trail to simulate ballast, though I wish that real ballast was used to make the walk a little bit more difficult.
This junction also marks the starting point of the walking trail.
A short section of gap between the track beds (not sure if it’s a landslide during the disused years or an existing gap) now has a modern bridge built over it.
Heading along the disused railway alignment to Konyu Cutting or Hellfire Pass.
Small gravel mark the walking trail to Konyu Cutting, making it a little bit too easy for a remembrance walk.
A few wooden sleepers also can be found on a very short section of the path.
The strangely serene view of the Khwae Noi Valley from the former railway alignment, one which the POWs would have seen while unwillingly building the railway.
The approach to the Konyu Cutting.
The information board just before the Konyu Cutting.
The Konyu Cutting was built with primitive methods colloquially known as “hammer and tap”. Work was all done manually by the POWs including the planting and detonating of dynamites into the holes which they have created.
A short section of original track has also been relaid here by the men of ‘C’ Company 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment.
Flags of POWs’ home countries are also placed here in remembrance of their sacrifices.
The plaque of the relaid railway tracks stand beside them.
The real experience of what the POWs built can really be felt once you stand inside the Konyu Cutting or Hellfire Pass. In the night where lamps are burning and people are toiling by force while enduring dehydration and hunger, it would probably really look and feel like hell.
The most modern equipment used in the Konyu Cutting during the “Speedo” period was a compression drill, and it did not work well all the time too, as seen from this broken bit still embedded in the rock.
A tree emerges from within the Konyu Cutting, as a result of the railway being disused and reclaimed by the forest for around 38 years from 1947 when the railway closed to 1985 where the site was surveyed to be appropriate to be preserved as an historical site.
The Memorial Obelisk lies at the end of Konyu Cutting.
Flags of nationals who have perished while working on the Death Railway are also planted here in memoriam. (Chinese, Malays and Indians from Malaya formed a bulk of romushas, if you were wondering about the Jalur Gemilang hung there.)
The Memorial Obelisk at the end of Konyu Cutting, with flags of the 4 main POW nationalities and the Thailand flag in the middle.
“Gabions” preventing landslide into the Konyu Cutting are now doubled-up as seats for visitors at the Memorial Obelisk listening to their tour guides, and for the ANZAC Day dawn ceremony.
For those who are continuing with the longer walk to Hintok, the entrance to the longer path is to the right of the Memorial Obelisk.
As there is a gap in the alignment immediately behind the Memorial Obelisk, a side path has to be used to access the onward portion of the former railway alignment.
The staircase beside the gabions lead to the upper level where the original rock level was before the cutting.
On display is a small ballast wagon on a temporary narrow-gauge line used to manually haul away stone rubble which were either hand-cut or blasted off from the cutting.
Rocks would be picked manually after the stone has been cut or blasted off.
The workers would have most likely thrown off the rocks at the end of the cliff or place them in front potential landslide areas.
Heading back to the Hellfire Pass Interpretive Centre through the Konyu Cutting.
The lone tree growing out of the Konyu Cutting soars higher than the other surrounding trees.
Hard to believe that these rocks were cut by hand in a ridiculously short time frame of just about six weeks.
Today, sounds of birds chirping and even a friendly black stray cat line the once-torturous work site.
The POWs and romushas have all done their time in hell for this.
The climb back up to the Hellfire Pass Interpretive Centre is steep and tiring, but it’s nothing as compared to what the workers would have gone through 77 years ago.
Back at the Hellfire Pass Interpretive Centre, you can get some snacks, drinks or wet towels to freshen yourself up, but a reminder by the tables remind you that the workers never had this luxury.
Souvenirs can also be purchased here to support the upkeep of the Hellfire Pass Interpretive Centre and Walking Trail.
Overall, the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum and Walking Trail is a definite must-visit for everyone in ASEAN to understand about the bitter effects of war close to home and to appreciate today’s standard of living. Also, it teaches railway fans not to simply enjoy the scenic ride in Kanchanaburi but to humble ourselves to appreciate what was done before in order to have such peaceful enjoyment today, and to better appreciate the current railways in the region on how they were built or removed, by force or otherwise. With the majority of countries in the world involved in World War II, the history of the Death Railway is also pretty relatable to most people today.
I recommend everyone to pay a visit to the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum and Walking Trail at least once in your lives. Fellow human beings have gone through hell on earth so that you can have your peace today.