Constructed during World War II, the Thailand to Burma railway is also known as the Death Railway. It is said that one man died for every sleeper that was laid on the track. The line was repaired and restored after the war and still runs passenger services as far as Nam Tok to the north of Kanchanaburi with the most famous section of the line being the Bridge over the River Kwai. The railway beyond Nam Tok is no longer in existence, but sections such as the infamous Hellfire Pass have been reclaimed and can be visited as part of a tour for those interested in the history of the railway and the part it played in the Second World War. For railway buffs, look out for the old locomotives that are in position outside Kanchanaburi train station and the River Kwai station.
The building of the Death Railway
During the war, the Japanese army occupied territories that ran from Singapore up to Burma. With Allied ships active in the Indian Ocean, the Andaman and the Bay of Bengal, the Japanese wanted a safer overland supply route for their troops in Burma. A rail line was already in existence from Bangkok down to Hua Hin and the south and a decision was taken by the Japanese to build a branch line to the west of Bangkok that would then run north to Burma. The Thailand to Burma railway was constructed between Nong Pladuk in Thailand (50km south-east of Kanchanaburi) and Thanbuyazat in Burma, a distance of approximately 415km. Work began at both ends of the railway in June 1942 and was completed 15 months later.
An estimated 60,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) were made to work on the railway alongside 180,000 men who were used as forced labour from Asian countries including Thailand, China, Indonesia, Burma, Malaysia and Singapore. The conditions were savage and the treatment by the Japanese army was brutal. At least 90,000 labourers died in addition to the 16,000 POWs who lost their lives with many dying from cholera, malaria, dysentery, starvation or exhaustion.
Wang Po viaduct
Taking the journey by train from Kanchanaburi to Nam Tok takes passengers over the impressive Wang Po viaduct. With the river on one side and cliffs on the other side of the track, the railway curves around the Wang Po viaduct which consists of a series of wooden trestles originally built by POWs. The views of the river and the Kanchanaburi countryside are stunning, but it is very poignant to look out of the train window and think about the hardship endured by the men who were forced to construct the railway with a combination of basic tools and brute force whilst being subjected to the harshest possible conditions. Almost every man who worked on this particular section of track died.
The passenger line finishes at Nam Tok, but approximately 20 minutes’ drive further on is the disused railway cutting at Konyu better known as Hellfire Pass. The POWs who built this section of track had to gouge out a series of openings and embankments which cut through solid rock and jungle. The longest of these cuttings was at Hellfire Pass with the name deriving from the fires that were lit to enable round the clock construction to take place. Thanks to the wonderful work of a volunteer Australian-Thai group, this part of the Death Railway now serves as a memorial walk with a museum at the entrance.
It’s possible to visit the Death Railway and the Bridge on the River Kwai as part of a day tour from Bangkok. On a group tour this often involves a whistle-stop visit to Kanchanaburi war cemetery and a quick visit to the bridge and the railway. A private tour from Bangkok will give you more time and freedom. Alternatively, if you are spending time in Kanchanaburi any hotel or tour agent in the town can arrange tours for you. If you have the time this is a better option with Kanchanaburi and the surrounding countryside a pleasant place to explore.
If you are confident enough, it is actually quite easy to arrange your own trip to Kanchanaburi and the Death Railway. Trains depart from Bangkok Thonburi station (also known as Bangkok Noi on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River). Depending where you are staying in Bangkok, Thonburi train station isn’t the most convenient to get to so it may be just as easy to get a taxi directly there (especially if you are travelling with luggage). If you are travelling light, you can take the boat along the Chao Phraya River to pier number N11 (Tha Railway Station) from where it is a short walk to Thonburi station.
Train times from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi/River Kwai
|STATION||Train number 257 ||Train number 259|
|Khwae Yai Bridge|
(Bridge on River Kwai)
Train times from River Kwai/Kanchanaburi to Bangkok
|STATION||Train number 260 ||Train number 258|
|Khwae Yai Bridge|
(Bridge on River Kwai)
The trains are classified by Thai railways as ordinary 3rd class which means they are basic and travel slowly. The seats are hard and there is no air conditioning (just fans and the breeze of the open windows). However, don’t let that put you off because the slow pace of the train lets you see things and neighbourhoods you wouldn’t otherwise get to see. It’s also an opportunity to interact with local people and practice your Thai language skills and with Thai food vendors wandering up and down the train selling fruit, drinks and snacks you certainly won’t get hungry. In theory, it is also possible to take a train from Bangkok Hualamphong to Nakhon Pathom and change trains there to connect with the service on to Kanchanaburi. However, Thai trains aren’t the most reliable in the world when it comes to time-keeping and connections can easily be missed so it may be best to take the direct service from Bangkok Thonburi station. Another alternative is to take one of the special tourist services that are run by Thai railways.
Special tourist service
The State Railway of Thailand run a special tourist train to certain destinations at weekends and on public holidays. These are open to anybody but tend to be used mainly by Thai day-trippers. Full details of these trips can be found on the State Railway of Thailand website. The one that includes the Death Railway is the one that goes to Sai Yok waterfall. The itinerary includes brief stops (either on the way there or the way back) at Nakhon Pathom (to see the giant chedi), Kanchanaburi (for the war cemetery), Bridge on the River Kwai and Nam Tok (to visit the waterfall). The fare in second class (air-conditioned) is 200 Baht return.