Hell Fire Pass Museum, Thailand

My wife and I were very interested to read Dennis Cavagnaro’s article on the River Kwai (Nov. ’04, pg. 24), as we had made a similar trip in September-October ’03.

I must admit that since we were on the “Discover Thailand” tour of Overseas Adventure Travel (800/955-1925 or www.oattravel.com), we arrived in Kanchanaburi by bus on what Mr. Cavagnaro describes as a “package tour” ($1,795-plus from Orlando, Florida). Our group was only 16 strong and we stayed at a delightful lodge, the Legacy River Kwai, outside town. This lodge has separate “cabins” and a large central dining room complete with a baby elephant!

(By the way, the Thais do not pronounce Kwai as “Kweye” since that word means something that is improper; they pronounce it “Kway.”)

On arrival at Kanchanaburi we had lunch at the foot of the steel-and-concrete bridge which, we were informed, was built by the Japanese; the only bamboo structure, since defunct, was farther downstream. We visited two of the cemeteries and noted that November 1943 must have been a terrible month, judging from the number of deaths in that month.

The JEATH War Museum is very moving, but, for us, even more moving was the Hell Fire Pass Museum. Hell Fire Pass is to the northwest of Kanchanaburi and carried the railway through a mountain in a cutting 350 meters long by 25 meters wide; the sides of the pass are 40 meters high and of solid rock.

It was named Hell Fire Pass because the Japanese were so desperate for their supply line that they forced the prisoners to work cutting the pass around the clock under the light of torches, which prompted the name.

There are many sleepers (cross ties) and some ballast (crushed rock between the rails) on the ground plus a short length of track which is decorated with a whole group of Australian flags and an occasional Union Jack.

The museum offers great detail, including audio and videotapes on how the railway was built and how many prisoners died. It is maintained mainly by the Australian government and is quite heartrending. It was built half a mile from the pass and can be reached the “easy way” on the level of the floor of the pass or the “hard way” over the mountain along the side of the pass. It was interesting to note that most of the visitors were English, Dutch or Australian, as the troops of those nations bore the brunt of the suffering.

To anyone going to Kanchanaburi, we would say go a little farther to Hell Fire Pass. It can be reached by means of the entertaining local train to or from Nam Tok which runs over the famous viaduct as described by Mr. Cavagnaro.

We too felt that the movie gives a sanitized version of the treatment of the bridge builders, including several modifications of facts. We also felt that the movie did a disservice to the dead by glamorizing the situation and trying to make it heroic rather than showing the horrendous saga it really was.

Ormond Beach, FL