Day 39: We were up crazy early today at 4.45am, to catch a 6am train to Nam Tok, then a bus to Hellfire Pass, a memorial centre to commemorate the prisoners of war and Asian labourers who worked on the Thai-Burma railway.
We left to walk to the station at 5.30am in early morning darkness. Despite it being silly o’clock, the town was already kicking into action with cars and motorbikes on the streets and people setting out fresh meat and other goods on roadside stalls.
We bought our tickets and boarded the train to Nam Tok. The first carriage we wandered into had fabulous old style hard wooden benches. In the interests of comfort, we changed carriages to one with padded seats.
The train trip took about an hour and a half – it’s billed as being one of the scenic in Thailand, and it was spectacular. With all the windows wide open (no air conditioning on this one either), we clickety-clacked across the River Kwai bridge, past green fields and small villages, and passing at slow speed over the very impressive wooden Wampo Viaduct which hugs the cliff face.
We arrived in Nam Tok and set off in search of the public bus to Hellfire Pass. We walked less than a kilometre to the main road, and sat waiting at a wooden bus seat with a couple of locals. The buses seldom run to schedule (if indeed a schedule even exists) so the advice is to just turn up and wait. Which we did.
After a while the public bus came into view – and in some bizarre turn of fate, we found ourselves climbing onto a swish VIP bus! The bus company mixes and matches buses depending on what’s available – we struck lucky this time. We walked up the bus steps to the air conditioned upper deck, and plonked ourselves in luxury padded reclining chairs. This was exactly what we expected when we booked a series of VIP bus trips in Laos, but continually found ourselves squashed into rickety old mini vans and sleeper buses.
The bus dropped us right outside the Hellfire Pass memorial centre, and we walked down the driveway to the centre entrance. The memorial centre is managed by the Office of Australian War Graves, and is clearly very well funded. A sparkling clean and modern building, with excellent exhibits on the story of the Thai-Burma railway and the lives and suffering of the prisoners of war. The centre also offers free audio tour guides that are very well constructed, with lots of commentary and quotes from surviving prisoners of war.
After we’d toured the exhibits, we headed outside to the lookout and walkway. The Australian Government has cleared around 7km of the old railway track-bed as part of the memorial. The shorter walk goes to the Memorial Obelisk through Hellfire Pass. The longer one (around 4km each way) goes to Hintok Road, the original site of one of the POW river camps. Sadly due to a landslide last month, only a small section of the longer walk is currently accessible, which was disappointing. It was still a beautiful walk, and very very peaceful.
Hellfire Pass (also known as Konyu Cutting) was the largest cutting along the length of the railway, and the most deadly for the people forced to construct it. It was completed using only hand tools over a 12 week period – mind blowing.
The name comes from the appalling work conditions imposed on POWs and Asian labourers. In 1943, when the Japanese introduced the ‘speedo’ period to meet accelerated deadlines for completing the railway, prisoners were forced to work through the night. The flickering lights of oil lamps and bamboo fires, along with the noise of rock being drilled, and the shuffling of hundreds of weak prisoners, conveyed an image of hell.
We started the walk back to the centre, and suddenly Jim yelled ‘snake!’ And there on the steps that Lil had just walked up, was a stripey snake that we later identified as a Banded Kukri snake. It seems that snakes are everywhere here…
We also saw a mad looking big white hairy caterpillar, which was crawling along on a rock next to the path. It reminded us of Dougal in the Magic Roundabout (for anyone who remembers the TV series). A quick look online confirmed it’s a Thai Silk Moth caterpillar, and thankfully not dangerous.
With enough history and wildlife for one day, we had a quick coffee at the centre cafe, then walked out to the main road to wait for the bus back to Kanchanaburi.
We waited about 25 minutes and then the bus came into sight. No VIP bus this time – it was a good old local bus, with open doors and windows, harder seats and no air conditioning. It was still comfortable though, and very cheap – the 2 hour journey cost us the equivalent of $2.50 each.
The driver’s rear view mirror was a carved wooden affair, like something straight from grandma’s house. And there was a cute metal pig clock hanging above him too, though it was broken so not very useful for telling the time. From time to time the driver flicked switches on a panel above his head to operate tiny ceiling fans – there was also a spare one at Lil’s feet, though quite where that would plug in if needed, we have no idea.
We got back to Kanchanaburi, had another tussle with the guesthouse washing machine, then headed out for drinks and dinner.
It was Jim’s birthday today. Lil was planning to buy him some books, then realised he’d have to drag them around Asia for the next year, so he got some scoffable sweet treats instead. Including a Kinder Egg – because no birthday is ever quite complete without a sickly chocolate egg and plastic flying car.
Jim was hankering for pizza for his birthday dinner, which we haven’t had in over 2 months. We found a restaurant that has a wood fired oven and excellent pizza, washed down with some not-so-excellent red wine.
We also had a couple of beers at one of the local bars, and chatted to some more English, Australian and South African expats about how they ended up living in Kanchanaburi, and what they do every day (drinking beers at the pub seemed to be a common daily theme).
And then home to bed, after another huge day. Tomorrow we pack up again, and head to the ancient Thai capital, Ayutthaya.