Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum
If you are a regular reader of my blog then you’ll know that I’m particularly interested in history and especially the history of the two World Wars. Of course, Kanchanaburi is famous for the bridge over the River Kwai but this is only part of it’s significance to the history of the Second World War. The bridge formed part of the Death Railway and if you travel towards the northern part you will find Hellfire Pass, right near the Myanmar border.
Here Allied POWs worked in the most appalling conditions. Blasting through the rock using mainly hand tools. The site is now run as a memorial by the Australian government and there is an interesting museum to explore before you walk through the pass to the memorial. A free audio tour gives insight into what happened and includes testimony from survivors. It’s a sombre place to visit but it’s important to preserve these memories. In this blog post, I’m going to share some of our experiences at Hellfire Pass and give you some tips on visiting from Kanchanaburi.
How to get to Hellfire pass from Kanchanaburi
Firstly, you need to get there. You can easily reach Hellfire Pass by using the public bus from Kanchanaburi bus station. It’s a lot cheaper than either a tour or taxi. We got a quote of around £65 for a taxi to take us there but the bus cost around £1 per person.
Firstly, you need to get to the bus station which is located on the outskirts of Kanchanaburi. We took one of the red songhtao taxis which dropped us right outside. Once inside the bus station, you need to look for the correct bus. For Hellfire Pass you need to take non-AC bus number 8203. Be careful who you ask. Initially, we asked a bus driver and he put us on his bus but we became concerned that it wasn’t the right on. So, I saw a small information desk and went to ask there. We were on the wrong bus. So look for the information desk which is just inside the main entrance of the bus station.
The journey to Hellfire Pass
The first bus leaves around 7.30 am and then they are fairly regular. Once we found the correct stand we bought our tickets from the lady conductor and waited for the bus to be ready. Inside the buses are basic with no air conditioning but the windows open and it’s fine when they are moving.
The journey takes approximately 90 minutes. So settle in and watch the countryside. I like to take these opportunities to see life outside the towns and cities and you get to see some interesting things en route.
Important Note: You should take your passport with you when you make this trip. The bus gets quite close to the Myanmar border. So there is a Thai security check on the road just before you reach Hellfire Pass. On our way there a security officer boarded the bus and checked everyone’s documents. He went through ours for ages before giving them back but he just seemed to be browsing as he handed them back with a smile. On the return journey the security officer checked the locals’ ID documents. However, he waved ours away when we offered them. But it’s definitely necessary to carry your passport just in case.
Finding the museum
The bus stops right outside the museum entrance. Be sure to tell the conductor where you want to get off. Then they will warn you when the bus is approaching your stop. They like to get you ready by moving your towards the exit in advance. So that the bus keeps on schedule.
We found it a bit confusing when we arrived as there are no signs to tell you where to go. Although, actually it’s quite straightforward but they could do with some signs. So here are the instructions to make it easy.
Walk straight ahead into the complex and follow the road around to the left. It curls round to the right so just keep following it. After a while, you will see a sign directing you to the Museum parking so you know you’re going the right way.
After a little way, you will come to a t-junction. Turn right and keep going to the museum car park. Stay to the left and you’ll see a white building on the left-hand side. This is the visitor’s centre. Head in there to enjoy the air-conditioning and start your tour.
Hellfire Pass Interpretive Centre
When you first arrive at the museum and memorial you will enter this white building which is the visitor’s centre and interpretive centre. It’s a lovely cool building and we were welcomed at the reception desk just inside. Here we received a map of the complex and directions to the exhibits which are downstairs. There is no charge to visit the museum or memorial.
Before you head into the museum exhibits, step outside onto the viewing balcony for a fabulous view across Khwae Noi Valley. You will find yourself looking across a beautiful valley. Sadly, this the location of one of the most infamous sites of the Second World War and many men suffered and died here during the construction of the Thai-Burma Railway.
Head back inside and explore the museum. It is laid out over 2 floors and gives a detailed account of the events that took place. Make sure to watch the short film which has testimony from some of the survivors as well as more information on the railway construction.
The Memorial Walking Trail
Afterwards, pick up an audio guide at the desk on the lower floor. There is a small fee to hire the audio guide, around £1.50 per person and you need to leave a passport as a deposit. This is well worth it as it’s very informative. In addition to the main narrative, you can select extra information including survivor testimonies.
You can also stock up on snacks and cold drinks here before you head out onto the trail. As well as drinks for sale there is a drinking water dispenser available. It was very hot when we visited and we needed lots of water.
Outside you descend lots of steps until you reach the main trail. Follow the path along and make sure to stop and listen to the audio to find out about the various landmarks. I found this place so peaceful and rather eery. It is so sad to think about what took place here. Especially when you listen to the words of the survivors. When we visited it was so hot and just walking along the trail was hard work. I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like to be forced to work night and day in these conditions.
At Konyu Cutting you walk through Hellfire Pass itself, the path that was cut through sheer rock. Although very little of the railway now survives here, you can see some remains of the tracks as you enter the cutting. Surprisingly, this cutting was constructed without the use of power tools so prisoners were forced to cut the rocks by hand.
At the end of the path, you come to the memorial to all who suffered and died here. It’s a place for reflection and remembrance. We spent some time here listening to the words of some of the survivors on the audio guide.
The walk to the memorial takes approximately 40-50 minutes and that was quite enough for us in this heat. However, if you want to walk further then the path continues to Hintok Cutting. This is several kilometres away and takes approximately 3 hours. If you want to undertake the long walk then you need to let the staff at the visitor’s centre know. They will provide you with a two-way radio for safety and you are advised not to undertake this walk without them.
For more information on the memorial and museum at Hellfire Pass, you can visit the official website by clicking on this link. You will also find a map on the website which gives a good visual guide of the walk and what you will see.