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Thailand – The Legacy Of Hellfire Pass

Neil Sowerby sheds a tear on the site where so many POWs suffered and died

Written by . Published on July 14th 2011.

Thailand – The Legacy Of Hellfire Pass

In the second part of his Thai odyssey travel editor Neil Sowerby visits the Hellfire Pass memorial and finds the tiny reminders of the Death Railway unbearably poignant...

HELLFIRE Pass. A corridor carved through rock to let the trains pass. Part of a grand plan to help the Japanese army extend its conquest of South East Asia into Burma and across to India. The name seems harsh for such a ravishing setting, until you learn how it was created.

Konyu CuttingKonyu CuttingBy slave labour using picks and buckets and bare hands. By living skeletons working 18-hour days in unbearable heat or torrential monsoon, debilitated by cholera, malaria and lack of food, at the mercy of cruel guards who didn’t care whether they lived or died. Sixty-eight men alone were beaten to death during the blasting of the rock alone. No wonder the prisoners named it Hellfire.

As with the more documented Holocaust in the west, succeeding generations must never forget what went on here and downriver at Kanchanaburi with its famous Bridge Over The Kwai.

Around 60,000 POWs, mostly British and Australian, and 300,000 Asian conscripted labourers toiled to build the 255 mile long Burma-Siam Railway (or Death Railway) during World War II. It’s said that one worker died for every tie laid.

Particularly gruelling was the period called Speedo when the Japanese increased the workload to get the line finished ahead of schedule as the war ebbed from therm. The war cemeteries in ‘Kanburi”, where the main camps were hold, 9,000 Allied victims. The death toll in total topped 100,000.

Before my trip to Thailand, ostensibly to check out how the Gap Year industry works, I had researched and become fascinated the wartime history of the area. Our itinerary included the Bridge over the Kwai, put on the map by David Lean’s 1957 film (viewed by survivors as altogether too rose-tinted).

The Bridge itself is a self-conscious tourist attraction, a photo opportunity in a every visitable town. It just felt flat. Not so Hellfire, an hour up the line, little of which remains in use. Here only in small stretches can you discern where the tracks were laid.

The Broken DrillThe broken drillIt’s best first to visit the beautifully organised museum, a primer for the uninitiated. This and the whole memorial are there because of one Aussie ex-POW, Tom Morris, who found the courage to retrace his wartime ordeal and persuade his government to fund the project. That involved reclaiming a 4km stretch from the jungle that took over once the war was over. It’s now a beautiful memorial walk.

After the bustle of Bangkok I was ready for a spot of contemplation in beautiful surroundings. I was not prepared for what I felt in the sun-dappled Konyu cutting and beyond. Rosemary and poppies for remembrance are stuck in the rockface, there’s a tribute stone to the legendary Lt Col “Weary” Dunlop, an Australian surgeon, who saved many lives through his skill and courage standing up to his captors (he survived and died aged 85 in 1993).

And there, the memento that made me quietly weep, the tip of a compression drill embedded in the rock. It’s been there since one prisoner couldn’t find the will or the strength to pull it out. Perhaps he died in the attempt.

Up above on a scenic circular walk back to the museum three workmen were repairing a terrace. Taking a cig break in the shade from the blinding sun. Taking their time. No rush. Another tear.

Don’t miss Neil Sowerby’s great guide to what to experience in the Thai capital: www.planetconfidential.co.uk/Abroad/10-things-to-do-in-Bangkok

And his report on the Real Gap Experience projects in Western Thailand: www.planetconfidential.co.uk/Abroad/Mind-the-Gap

Fact file

Hellfire Pass Memorial and Museum: www.hellfirepass.com/museum_hellfire_pass.html

To read more on the history: Surviving The Sword: Prisoners of the Japanese 1942-45 by Brian MacArthur (Random House £9.99pb)
The Railway Man by Eric Lomax (Vintage, £7.99pb).

A monthlong trip with Real Gap’s Thai Experience explores Kanchanaburi and Sangklaburi with an opportunity to help local volunteer projects. Includes jungle trekking, the River Kwai, floating markets and restaurants, waterfall pools in Erawan and indigenous Thai communities.  Price starts from £999, land only for four weeks, including accommodation (hotel/guest houses), all breakfasts, airport transfer and tour of Bangkok and Kanchanaburi.  For more information visit www.realgap.co.uk or call 01892 701890.

Gap Year For Grown Ups offers similar specially designed itineraries for the over 30’s but on a shorter timescale. For more information visit www.gapyearforgrownups.co.uk.
Thai Airways flies daily to Bangkok from £598 per person (inclusive, subject to change) for return economy. It also has a good-value internal Domestic Discover Thailand Airpass (valid for three months from date of issue) costing US$278 for 3-internal flight coupons with additional coupons available at US$92 each. Further information: 0844 561 0911; www.thaiairways.co.uk  or e-mail reservations@thaiairways.co.uk

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