Lessons from the “Hellfire” of Thailand

Fiona Boler is a student at University of Winsonsin- La Crosse and an ISA Featured Blogger. She is studying abroad with ISA in Bangkok, Thailand.

Thailand is a country full of undeniable beauty. With breathtaking Thai highlands, crystal clear waters and incredible temples, you are never too far from something wonderful. My first introduction to Thailand was driving through the streets of Bangkok where one is surrounded by high rises, shopping areas and bumper to bumper traffic. However, you cannot help noticing that you are also among gigantic gold encrusted temples, statues of the Buddha, and old monuments that seem to be a constant reminder of the influence our past has on the present.

View from the top of a temple in Wat Thepthidaram, Bangkok, Thailand.

After exploring the Temples of Bangkok and relaxing on the island of Koh Phangan, I was on my way to the Kanchanaburi Province of Thailand with my new family of ISA exchange students. While in Kanchanaburi, we went to the Hellfire Pass museum. The museum and monument remembers the over 180,000 South East Asians and 60,000 Allied POWs that lost their lives, along with many others who lived to tell their grueling stories of forced labor on what they called the Death Rail. It was during WWII that the Empire of Japan constructed the 258-mile long railway connecting Bangkok to Rangoon, Burma as a strategic war move.

While walking around the museum grounds you are able to see where the forced laborers had to dig into the mountain side and carve out rock in order to build the railway. Many were malnourished, sick, and eventually worked to death.


Preserved part of the original railway through the pass, Hellfire Pass museum, Kanchanaburi, Thailand.
Top down view into the man made Hellfire Pass in the Tenasserim Hills, of Kanchanaburi Thailand. One of the most difficult and deadly sections to build on the railway.

You can’t help but feel the pain and suffering that the construction of this railway brought. Though this is a tragic part of our world’s history in which we may not want to remember, we must not overlook how interconnected our histories are, and the impact of war and conflict that effects us all…

Monument built into the Hellfire Pass remembering the Allied POWs. Hellfire Pass museum, Kanchanaburi Province, Thailand.

So what is it that we gain when we take the time to explore the history of a place, and particularly a place you may perceive as much different from your own?

We realize that in many ways, our stories are more connected than not. We may be separated by land and water but we are connected in much stronger ways, through our past and ever present experiences on this beautiful planet.

Still functioning part of the death rail over the River Kwai, Kanchanaburi Province, Thailand
Still functioning part of the death rail over the River Kwai as a passenger train goes by. Kanchanaburi Province, Thailand.

I feel extremely grateful to be in a position where I can experience a country, continent and culture that only a month ago seemed so far from my own. As I continue to travel and hear the stories of Thailand, I continue to feel as though our world and people are much more connected than you and I are led to believe. I see history as an important avenue in creating understanding. Unfortunately, many of these are histories we do not learn in school. Therefore, it is up to us to seek out the untold stories of the past, because once you can understand where people are coming from, our differences start to become less important, and our overwhelming similarities come to light.

Hellfire Pass museum.The peace vessel monument overlooking the Hellfire pass and Tenasserim Hills, of Kanchanaburi, Thailand.

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