Kanchanaburi and Hellfire Pass

I have been wanting to visit Kanchanaburi for years. We tried on a previous trip to Bangkok, but I ended up getting sick and had to cancel. Last year when we were in Chiang Mai, we opted to not do any additional travel due to the extreme restrictions in place in Thailand due to COVID. So, this year was the year!

The fastest and easiest way to get there would be to fly from Chiang Mai to Bangkok and then take the train to Kanchanaburi. Where’s the fun in that? We like taking train trips so decided to take the train south, spend a couple of nights in Bangkok, and then continue to Kanchanaburi. There are two trains to Bangkok daily: a day train that leaves at 8:50 am and includes a meal and snacks (2nd class with a/c) and a night train (1st class sleeper with a/c, though you can also book 3rd class accommodations without a/c and without a bed). The night train is popular with the backpacking set. You leave Chiang Mai in the evening, sleep on the train, and wake up in Bangkok the next morning, thereby saving a night’s hotel stay. The problem for us with the night train is that we enjoy looking at scenery, so we decided to go with the day train.

We used Grab, a popular ride share app to order a car to take us from our apartment to the train. We have been taking songthaews to get around but learned that Grab is cheaper, and the cars are comfortable and have air conditioning. Definitely a better way to get around! We had pre-purchased our tickets and got to the station quite early, so enjoyed a cup of coffee and waited until it was time to board.

The train car is arranged like a bus with two sets of seats on each side of an aisle. We were so looking forward to a relaxing trip south. Just before the train was scheduled to leave, a family of four boarded. They were British and their children were one and three years old. We knew immediately that they would be seated behind us and we were 100% correct in our assumption. I don’t know about you, but never in a million years would I have taken my children at that age on a ten-hour train ride. The plane only costs $10 more per person than the train and takes a little over an hour. No brainer, right? I guess they wanted the train experience, too. The one-year-old was quiet the entire trip, other than when his mother used the toilet. He was not happy when she was out of sight. The bigger issue was the three-year-old girl. She had a very high-pitched, loud voice and talked for the ENTIRE TRIP. Her parents made virtually no effort to keep her entertained. Let’s just say that the pounding headache (mine) started within 20 minutes of leaving the station and continued for the rest of what ended up being an eleven-hour trip. I do not blame the child at all; she was acting her age. It simply made the train ride difficult for everyone sitting near them.

About an hour into the trip, we were given our first snack. Two packs of six sandwich cookies – tasty. We were also offered beverages. Then came lunch. It was…interesting. Everyone was provided with two warmed up packages of toppings and rice to put them on. We were also given some dried banana slices. The packages are hard to read, but one was (very) spicy chicken; the other was clams cooked in garlic and pepper. I opened the clams and decided against eating them. After my food-poisoning episode after cooking class, I did not want to take any chances. Mid-afternoon, we were provided one more snack. Also, “interesting”. I saved it for later (held onto it for a day and then threw it out).

Bangkok just opened a brand-new train station. We arrived an hour later than expected and were pretty wrung out after our non-relaxing train ride. The new station is enormous and resembles and airport. We found signs for the taxi queue, but there were no taxis in sight. Perhaps because we arrived so late, they had all given up? Anyhow, a tuk-tuk pulled up and offered us a ride to our hotel for 500 Baht. This was overpriced (by Thai standards) but we decided to go for it because we did not know how much longer we would have to wait for a taxi to show up. The tuk-tuk had strobe lights that spun and flashed in our eyes for the entire ride. I am not sure who would enjoy that, but we sure didn’t! The driver got lost trying to find our hotel, but we eventually got there. We had booked a room at the Theatre Residence due to its location near the train station we would leave from to get to Kanchanaburi. It was also located right by the Chao Praya River, with a view of the Grand Palace and Wat Arun.

Our plans for Bangkok were to spend a day taking the BTS (skytrain) around town. We have spent quite a bit of time in Bangkok and so didn’t want to visit the typical tourist sites. We had breakfast overlooking the river and found that it was exceedingly hot and muggy. We are used to warm temperatures in Chiang Mai, but mornings there are very pleasant. It doesn’t heat up until afternoon. Bangkok started out hot and got hotter. We were tired from the train ride and so rather than sightseeing, opted for walking around the area where we were staying. There was a market nearby that we perused. We found that the prices of the goods there were double or triple what we were used to in Chiang Mai, so no temptation to buy anything.

The next morning found us up bright and early to have breakfast by the river and check out of our hotel. We took a Grab (like Uber/Lyft) to the Thonburi train station. This is a local station, not like the large modern station that we arrived in the other night. The trains are all 3rd class, with no air conditioning. A ticket costs $100 Baht (around $3), no matter how far you are going. We were taking the train to Saphan Kwai Yai (bridge over River Kwai) station, which was about 2.5 hours away from Bangkok.

Though the train seats were not as comfortable as the 2nd class train we rode on, we greatly enjoyed the train journey. The windows provided comfortable air flow, so we never got too hot. There were vendors that boarded and sold beverages, fruit, and snacks. The view through Bangkok was fascinating. Many people live literally right next to the tracks. We passed by people cooking, eating, and showering (using a garden hose) just a few feet away from the train. Obviously, not all who live in Bangkok live well.

We struck up a conversation with a couple from the US that were also going to Kanchanaburi (actually, the national park near the city). It helped pass the time to have someone to talk to. The terminus for the train is Nam Tok, which is near Hellfire Pass. We did not ride that far since we had a driver booked to take us there the following day.

Our hotel was about a 10-minute walk away from the train station. Let’s just say it was hot and sticky, like Bangkok. We were happy to arrive and check into our air-conditioned room. We stayed at U Inchantree Kanchanaburi. The staff were very welcoming when we arrived. The gentleman that took us to our room picked up an inchantree blossom to give me and explained that the trees here were over two hundred years old. The hotel is named after the trees and is located on the River Khwae. Actually, historically, the portion of the river where the bridge stands was not on the River Khwae; the river was renamed to match the movie. The bridge in the movie is not the actual bridge; it is a replica and is located elsewhere. The “real” bridge was visible from our hotel.

After breakfast the next day, we walked down to the bridge. We got there just before other tourists started to arrive. There is a market next to the bridge with lots of stalls selling t-shirts and other River Kwai Bridge memorabilia. Across the river is the tackiest idea for a bar I have ever seen.

Our driver picked us up around 9 am and drove us to Hellfire Pass. The drive was very pleasant and took around an hour. We passed through tapioca fields along the way.

A little historical information: Hellfire Pass is a railway cutting on the former Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway, in Thailand. It was built by forced labor during the Second World War, mainly by Allied prisoners of war (POWs) and Asian civilians. The name Hellfire Pass comes from the sight of emaciated workers laboring at night by torchlight, resembling a scene from hell.

Giving credit where credit is due, Chat GPT produced this information regarding Hellfire Pass: The Burma Railway was a project undertaken by the Japanese Imperial Army to connect Thailand and Burma (now Myanmar) by rail. The railway was intended to supply the Japanese forces fighting in Burma against the British and their allies. The construction began in June 1942 and was completed in October 1943. The total length of the railway was about 415 kilometers (258 miles), crossing rugged terrain and dense jungle.

The Japanese army conscripted about 250,000 Asian civilians and 61,000 Allied POWs to work on the railway. Many of them came from British colonies such as India, Malaya and Singapore. The workers faced brutal conditions, such as malnutrition, disease, exhaustion, and violence. It is estimated that more than 12,000 POWs and 90,000 civilians died during the construction of the railway.

Hellfire Pass was one of the most difficult sections of the railway to build. It was located in the Tenasserim Hills near Kanchanaburi province in Thailand. It was a rock cutting that measured about 500 meters (1,600 feet) long and 26 meters (85 feet) deep. The workers had to use primitive tools such as hammers, chisels, and dynamite to break through the solid rock. They worked around the clock for six weeks to finish the cutting.

The work at Hellfire Pass was especially harsh during April and May 1943, when a speedo or speed-up policy was enforced by the Japanese to meet a tight deadline. The workers had to work up to 18 hours a day with little rest or food. Many of them collapsed or died on site. Those who survived later recalled that Hellfire Pass was like a living hell.

After the war ended in 1945, Hellfire Pass was abandoned and reclaimed by nature for decades. In 1985, an Australian POW named Tom Morris returned to Thailand and rediscovered Hellfire Pass with his son Terry Morris. They cleared some of the vegetation and debris from the site with their bare hands.

In 1987, Tom Morris contacted Rod Beattie, an Australian historian who had been researching on the Burma Railway for years. Together they formed a team that conducted extensive surveys and excavations at Hellfire Pass and other sections of the railway.

In 1996, with support from both Thai and Australian governments, the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum opened at the entrance of Hellfire Pass.   The museum aims to honor those who suffered and died during the construction of the railway, and to educate visitors about the history and significance of Hellfire Pass. 

The museum itself is fairly small but the displays are very moving. I will let the pictures speak for themselves.

There is also an interpretive trail with free audio where you can learn more about Hellfire Pass. There is a short walk (45 to 50 minutes) and a longer one (3 hours). If you opt for the longer walk, you are given a walkie-talkie. Let’s just say, the temperatures and humidity were quite hellish there. I can imagine that there are those that needed medical assistance on the longer version. I wanted to do the shorter walk but started down the stairs into the canyon. We made it down about 3 flights before giving up. There was no end of the stairs in sight, and I am still recovering from hip replacement surgery, so didn’t want to risk it. It is an out-and-back trail, so however many flights of stairs there were to climb down, we would have just as many to climb back up!

As we were about to leave, busloads of guys in military uniform were arriving. Turns out that they were from a military school. If they were heading into the museum, it was a perfect time to leave, given how many of them there were and how small the space is!

Our driver was willing to stop at a local waterfall, but we decided against it. Erawan waterfall was another option, but it is best viewed during rainy season, so we just headed back to our hotel to relax.

There are several ways to get from Kanchanaburi back to Bangkok. We had booked a flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai at 2 pm so needed to get to the airport around 11 am. We could’ve taken the train back but there were a couple of problems. Firstly, the timing. The train to Bangkok leaves Kanchanaburi at 7:11 am. It would’ve been a time-crunch to have breakfast and still catch the train. I just hate to miss a good meal, so we decided again that option! Secondly, when we got to Bangkok, we would then have to find transportation to the airport, which is about a 45-minute ride. Another option would be taking a van or bus to Bangkok. The problem with that option was that again, these services drop you at a bus depot. You still need to get transportation from the depot to the airport. We ended up taking the lazy way out and booked a private car and driver for the ride. Maybe not the most cost-effective, but certainly the most comfortable and straight-forward!

Now we are back in Chiang Mai, waiting out the smoky season and getting used to warmer temperatures. The mornings are still pleasant (unlike to the south in Bangkok and Kanchanaburi) but it is heating up to around 100 degrees in the afternoons. Songkran is in a few weeks; I know that will be an adventure! Time to purchase my water gun so I can join in the fun!