Hellfire Pass Interpretive Centre and Memorial Walking Trail
The Hellfire Pass Interpretive Centre and Memorial Walking Trail is located just above Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting). It was built and is maintained by the Australian Government. Opened 25 April 1998 and refurbished and rededicated on 12 December 2018, it's dedicated to the allied prisoners of war and Asian labourers who suffered and died at Hellfire Pass and elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region during World War II.
Opening of the centre
The Peace Vessel [at Hellfire Pass Interpretive Centre] emphasises the positive values of life where war once raged.
The decision to build the interpretive centre was taken by Prime Minister Paul Keating in 1994 when he attended Anzac Day at Hellfire Pass. This was the year in which a portion of the ashes of the prisoner-of-war surgeon Sir Edward 'Weary' Dunlop were buried at Hellfire Pass.
Moved by the ceremony Keating gained the approval of the Thai government to build the interpretive centre. Hellfire Pass, like many other sites that Australians sometimes claim to 'own' given their centrality to the national memory of war, resides on foreign territory and on land controlled by the Royal Thai Armed Forces Headquarters.
In 1995-96, the Australian Government allocated $1.6 million for the construction of the interpretive centre. With bipartisan support, the Hon. John Howard continued to support it when he became prime minister in 1996. A refurbishment project was undertaken in 2018-19 with a rededication held on 12 December 2019.
The building of any centre raises complex issues of interpretation, particularly if the history it displays is 'difficult'.
In Australia, some ex-prisoners of war feared that the interpretive centre might play down the atrocities perpetrated by the Japanese, or might suggest that their work on the railway had contributed to the Japanese war effort.
The Thai government preferred that the interpretive centre promote reconciliation, rather than dwell on the circumstances of the Japanese occupation some 50 years earlier.
The designers of the interpretive centre aimed to present the story of captivity in a balanced way with minimum use of physical artefacts. It's not so much a 'centre' as an interpretive centre, which prepares visitors for the experience of visiting the cutting below. In this sense, it's different from other centres in Kanchanaburi.
The interpretive centre presents the history of the Burma-Thailand railway under chronological and thematic headings, explaining the rationale for the railway, the way in which it was constructed and the hardship experienced by those who worked on it.
At first, the content was criticised for being too Australian because much of the visual and textual material it presented was drawn from Australian prisoners of war. However, all the text has now been translated into Thai, and the story of the Asian workers (rǒmusha) is also included.
In recent years, most of the 100,000 or so visitors each year to the interpretive centre have been non-Australian. The comments in the visitors' book show that the centre's contents inspire a sympathetic response from people of many nationalities.
The interpretive centre is a place for reflection about the suffering of those who built the railway. Its contemplation desk, overlooking the Kwae Noi Valley, the beauty of which many POWs commented on even as they suffered, contains a peace vessel by a former prisoner Peter Rushworth.
The interpretive centre provides visitors with an audio tour guide to Hellfire Pass (Konyu cutting) and the walking trail below.
On the walking trail are interpretative panels, several cuttings, the sites of the massive Three-Tier Bridge and 'Pack of Cards' Bridge, the impressive 7m embankment, and Hintok station where trains passed each other.
Although the bridges no longer survive, the landscape reveals the profound difficulties of constructing the railway in this steep and rugged terrain.
Where the walking trail begins there stands a black stone pyramid-like memorial to all 'who suffered and died' in 1942-45. Critics claimed that its installation in 2005 had 'desecrated' the grave of Dunlop, but it forms an effective focal point for Anzac Day ceremonies. It's also less explicitly Christian than the cross, which had been used on some previous occasions.
Rediscovery of the Hellfire Pass
Hellfire Pass was 'lost' in the jungle for many years after 1945 and was rediscovered only in the 1980s.
After World War II, most of the Burma-Thailand railway was dismantled.
The Thais kept a 130km section of the railway operating in the south, but the rest of the railway, including Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting), disappeared beneath agricultural land, jungle and a major reservoir near the border with Myanmar (formerly Burma).
However, in the 1980s, Australian ex-prisoners started to return to Thailand. Like many veterans, they felt the need, as they grew older, to revisit the sites where they had felt such intense experiences 40 years earlier.
Although it was not easy to locate, they found Hellfire Pass, full of tangled undergrowth.
One ex-prisoner, Tom Morris, became committed in 1983 to developing the Pass as a commemorative site honouring the allied prisoners of war and the Thais who risked their lives to supply them with food and medicines.
With a grant from the Australian Government in 1985, a survey of the railway was conducted by an engineer from the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation (SMEC), Jim Appleby, who happened to be working on a dam on the Upper Kwae Noi.
This confirmed that Hellfire Pass was a suitable site for remembering the POW experience. It was dramatic, emotionally significant and close to the major road (Highway 323) linking Kanchanaburi with Three Pagodas Pass.
At first, the development of Hellfire Pass was coordinated by the Australian-Thai Chamber of Commerce (led by Ken Bradley in Bangkok) working together with the SMEC, the Australian Embassy in Bangkok and various units of the Australian Defence Force.
The cutting was cleared of the jungle.
'Relics' of the railway, such as sleepers and rails were collected, and stairs were built down the steep slope from the road.
Hellfire Pass was dedicated on Anzac Day 1987 when Sir Edward 'Weary' Dunlop, the POW surgeon, unveiled a memorial plaque.
By an extraordinary coincidence, 25 April was the date on which Australian prisoners had started working around Hellfire Pass in 1943.
The site continued to be developed over the years by a mix of individual and government initiatives.
The Victorian 'Bill' Toon raised some $90,000 through selling stickers, books and 'relics' of the railway.
Rod Beattie, an Australian foreign national (ex-pat) living in Kanchanaburi personally cleared much of the railway from Hellfire Pass to Compressor Cutting (a section that now forms a walking trail).
In 1992, Ross Bastiaan, a Melbourne periodontist, placed near Hellfire Pass one of the many bronze plaques that he has installed at battlefield sites around the world. With its 3-dimensional map and a brief history of the railway, it can still be found near the old concrete steps, which have been replaced by wooden stairs.
On Anzac Day 1994, part of Dunlop's ashes were buried in the Pass and a memorial plaque on the rock face was dedicated to POW doctors. Another portion of Dunlop's ashes was scattered on his farm in Victoria and a third portion launched into the Kwae Noi from nearby Home Phu Toey. Here a Thai businessman, Kanit Wanachote, who had met Dunlop on one of his trips to Thailand and developed a close friendship with him has created the Weary Dunlop Park.
Since the mid-1990s, the Australian Government has taken on the role of managing Hellfire Pass and the walking trail.
Prime Minister Paul Keating attended the 1994 Anzac Day ceremony and committed the Australian Government to build the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum.
Opened in 1998, the museum sits above Hellfire Pass as a memorial to all who died on the railway. It also provides an interpretation of the history of the Pass and the construction of the Burma-Thailand railway.
The veterans who returned in 1980s were the first of many thousands of Australians to seek out this site of memory. No matter what time of the year, the visitor will find Flanders poppies, Australian flags or messages of personal tribute wedged into the cracks of Hellfire Pass.
Get in touch
HELLFIRE PASS INTERPRETIVE CENTRE
207 Moo 11 Thasao,
Sai Yok District
Kanchanaburi 71150 THAILAND
Phone: +66 (0) 34 919 605
Mobile: +66 (0) 817 330 328