Kanchanaburi – Walking through Hellfire

Having completed our North Thailand roadtrip we wanted to visit, for various reasons, Kanchanaburi and Petchaburi in the west and so flew from Chiang Mai to Bangkok on trusty Nok Air. Because this was an internal flight we flew into Don Mueang airport in the east of the capital rather than the main international airport Suvarnabhumi on the south side.

We researched various ways of getting to our destinations. The train would have been an interesting one but first of all we would have needed to get across the city to the central train station plus there were only two (very slow) trains a day which would probably have entailed us having to spend a night in Bangkok before boarding the early one next day. A public bus would also have been slow, crowded and smelly so we ruled that out.

Our research told us we could take a private minbus to Kanchanaburi but there seemed to be no way we could hire a van to take us from Kanchanaburi to Petchaburi which didn’t involve returning to Bangkok in the first instance.

I knew that there was only one viable option which was to hire a car again and drive ourselves about. But driving through Bangkok? Are you mad?, asked Jane. Well, as it turned out, driving through Bangkok wasn’t really too difficult; probably better than driving in Bristol if you ask me, though you do need to keep your wits about you. Thais are on the whole very polite drivers but they will overtake on the inside and don’t often signal their intentions. The motorbikes and scooters are the worst culprits as they continuously weave in and out of the traffic.

The drive to Kanchanaburi was about two hours of not very interesting countryside but GiGi our satnav didn’t get us lost once. She was obviously happy that we were sticking to major roads and not trying to go off piste down some country lane like usual. I’m sure I heard her humming to herself at one point but that may have been my imagination working overtime.

In Kanchanaburi most of the accommodation is in resorts along the River Kwai (pronounced as in ‘square’ not as in ‘why’). But you know us by now, we don’t do resorts unless we have to. So AirBnB came to our aid once more and we found a wonderful home 15 minutes away from the city centre, down yet another narrow, dirt lane in a tiny settlement. This one doesn’t even fit the description of ‘ban’ (village).

We moved from the ultra modern in Pai to a two storey, traditional house in Tambon Thung Thong, though that’s not a name which appears in any map I’ve seen. Banklangtung Art Home is owned by the most delightful, wonderful host we have so far met – Leelawadee. She is just an absolute treasure.

It’s a large two storey building with a wonderful open plan area downstairs and two generous bedrooms upstairs. There are balconies everywhere and plenty of places to sit, to eat and to relax. It has a gorgeous garden and all day long you are surrounded by birds singing and butterflies flitting.

Leelawadee is an artist and a renowned one at that. At the moment she is preparing three paintings for an important travelling art exhibition which features the top 100 artists in Thailand. She also teaches art, although now only to monks at a school out in the sticks somewhere.

Leelawadee with one of the paintings for her art exhibition

At first glance the area which we were in seemed dry and dusty and not likely to be much good for birding. But that was definitely not the case. Leelawadee became our birding buddy and took us on several morning walks, accompanied by her dog Kim. The fields and paddies were alive with birds – Egret, Drongo, Kingfisher, despite there being no river nearby, Parrots, which were a surprise and Hoopoe, to name but a few. We didn’t choose this place for the birding but it’s turned out to be a really great place for new birds to add to our tally, including a rather splendid Green-billed Malkoha, a type of Cuckoo which, with its long tail, made for an arresting sight.

Green-billed Malkoha

Most tourists come to Kanchanaburi because it is so bound up with the events of WWII, when the Japanese used Allied POWs and Asian slaves to build a railway from what was then Burma to Thailand. It is a harrowing story to be sure yet we felt compelled to immerse ourselves in it.

Our first stop was to visit the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, which is superbly maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Each grave has a shrub or flower at it and as we were there a team of ground staff were busy keeping the area clean and cultivated.

The cemetery itself is only a a short distance away from the site of the former ‘Kanburi’, the prisoner of war base camp through which most of the POWs who worked on the Burma – Thailand railway passed on their way to their jungle work camps. It is a very sobering and moving sight – row after row of headstones of men who perished building what came to be called the Death Railway.

There are 5,085 Commonwealth soldiers buried in the cemetery. Lads from UK regiments but also ANZACs and other Commonwealth regiments. There are also 1,896 Dutch war graves, which was something of a surprise to me. But, of course, the Dutch have been involved in this part of the world for centuries so it should not be such a surprise to find their soldiers buried here as well.

When POWs died their Japanese captors made meticulous records. The men who buried their comrades also made their own notes of each burial plot and often interred private letters, etc. which their former comrade had. In this way all but a few remains have been recovered and reinterred in this cemetery. The bodies of American servicemen who died were repatriated to the USA.

The headstones in Kanchanaburi represent about 50% of the nearly 13,000 POWs who died constructing the railway, the others being buried at another site in Thailand and one in Myanmar. But some 80,000 to 100,000 ‘coolies’, slaves from South-East Asian states conquered by the Japanese also perished and, sadly, their remains to this day lie where they were dumped, unmarked and unrecorded.

These bald statistics make for uncomfortable reading and yet visiting the cemetery isn’t all doom and gloom. It is a very peaceful place, even with the traffic blaring all around you and you do feel that you are in some small way able to honour those men who lost their lives simply by being there and being silent for a while.

The next place which virtually everyone who visits Kanchanaburi goes to see is the Bridge on the River Kwai. The story of the dreadful conditions suffered by the POWs and slaves came to the world’s attention in David Lean’s 1957 film of the same name. This was, of course, a film loosely based in the facts and the original bridge was actually constructed some 300 mtrs upriver of the present one. But, you just have to go and have a look at it and stand there, don’t you.

But this is not just a tourist attraction. It is a bridge on which trains really do run and there are signs on the bridge telling you what you need to do if one should come along.

As luck would have it we heard the distinctive sound of a locomotive horn as we were sitting having a drink and rushed up onto the bridge to get a good look. I want you to know that I took my life in my hands to take these photos for you, dear reader.

You do have to say, there cannot be many countries in the world where you would be able to get anywhere near a railway bridge let alone be allowed to stand on a small safety platform whilst the loco trundled by. Admittedly it goes very slowly but those things aren’t going to be able to stop on a sixpence should you happen not to get out of the way quickly enough.

At night, from a riverside restaurant, the bridge took on a more romantic atmosphere which made you forget, at least for a short while, the terrible suffering it has come to represent.

The cemetery, bridge and museums all give you the story of the death railway but to get a better sense of what it was like for the men who were forced to work on making the track you need to visit Hellfire Pass, some 70 klms from Kanchanaburi.

The Siam-Burma railway was 424 klms long and work was completed in an incredible 18 months. It was built to service the needs of the very large Japanese army stationed in Burma and work was begun in June 1943 following an agreement between Japan and the then neutral Siam (Thailand).

At the Hellfire Pass you can pick up a brilliant audio guide from the visitor centre. This tells you the story of the building of the railway in the words of Australian survivors and the centre is supported by the Australian government.

You walk down the gravel bed of the railway, still with some of the original sleepers in place and listen to the voices of those who worked and suffered here all those years ago. It is a very moving experience.

The bed of the railway is still in place

Hellfire Pass itself, which the Japanese called Konyu Cutting, is a 600 mtr long cutting chiselled out of the mountain by hand. It is 25 mtrs deep. Just imagine what it must have been like to break the rock by one man holding a steel chisel whilst another man struck it with a hammer and to do this day after day after day when all you had to eat was a few small bowls of maggoty rice and you were ill with all sorts of tropical diseases.

During the final ‘Speedo’ period, when the Japanese were in a rush to get the work completed, gangs of 500 men worked 16 – 18 hours a day and at night the glow of the bamboo torches in the cutting cast eerie shadows of the guards on the walls of the cutting. It was then that the term Hellfire Pass came to be used.

Walking the pass today can give you only a tiny glimpse into the world in which the men toiled. And it must simply have seemed like hell on earth. It is said that for every sleeper laid, 4 men died. There was a lot more which we learned from our excellent audio guide but it would be too much to repeat it all here.

Walking through Hellfire

All along the pass and at other points on the track are flags and other mementoes left by families of veterans from the countries involved.

Momentoes

There is also a memorial site at the end of Hellfire. On ANZAC Day every year people gather in a service of remembrance.

The walking track continues for 5 kilometres beyond this point but if you want to go further, as we did, you are asked to carry a two way radio. The ground is quite rough in places, passes through several more cuttings but also across the site of former bridges and embankments so that there are many steep descents and ascents. Add to this the heat, 35-37C, and it makes for an exhausting walk.

But it’s worth it not merely for the historical information but also for the birding which proved to be excellent. So good, in fact, that we returned the following day to walk the same route but this time only concentrating on birdwatching.

Black-hooded Oriole

Black-crested Bulbul

The Hellfire walk ends at Hintock Road. Just before that is a deep depression and a dry river bed. In the rainy season this would be full of water, as it was when the death railway was being built. The prisoners not only had to dig out cuttings and make embankments but they also had to construct many bridges. Naturally, the prisoners took no pride whatsoever in their work and, indeed, tried to sabotage the railway as much as possible. They would choose wood which looked sound but wasn’t. And wily Australian bushmen knew where to find the ‘white ant’ – the termite – which they would secretly introduce into the structures they built. The bridge at Hintock Road got washed away three times before the line was completed.

When the Americans dropped their atom bombs and forced Japan’s surrender the Allies were faced with the task of getting all the surviving POWs out of their jungle camps and the only way they could deal with such large numbers was to ship them out on the very line they had been constructing. You can imagine that the prisoners’ relief at being rescued was somewhat tempered by the knowledge that they would be travelling on the very line that they had been so assiduously sabotaging.

The POW camps were at the bottom of this valley and the men had to trek to work every day.

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