The Death Railway Of Kanchanaburi -The Bridge over River Kwai

“The Bridge over the River Kwai” Have you seen it? I haven’t. Do you know about the Thai-Burma railway and why it is called the”Death Railway”? 

I also did not know until I visited Kanchanaburi, Thailand. I regretted my ignorance about the Burma Railway, which was constructed during the second world war. 

I was unaware of the emotional rollercoaster ride I was about to embark on while visiting the Death Railway as I had no idea about the places to stay at Kanchanaburi. My mind was preoccupied with the stunning Erawan National Park and not with the Death Railway.

Death Railway Tham Krasae Bridge
The Wooden Trestle Tham Krasae bridge part of the Death Railway

It was mid-afternoon when my friend and I arrived at Kanchanaburi, a small city to the west of Bangkok. However, we traveled from the east of Thailand, where places were not yet famous for tourism and were contrasting to Kanchanaburi, which catered to the tourists from Bangkok. 

Streets were lined with bars on either side, pubs screaming away loud music in the evening, tour operators stuck posters everywhere, the tuk-tuk guy came along hoping you would hop onto his bike, and the massage parlor girls calling out to you. I was staying at one such lively street. 

I was still not aware of what Kanchanaburi had in store, so I googled to see the things to do, and the top of the list was “The Thailand-Burma Death Railway Centre.” 

It showed just a kilometer from the place I was staying, and it fit perfectly into the afternoon plan. My roomie squirmed at the thought and said, “You go if you want to, I am not going to be part of this!” 

Wondering about the origin of the sudden outburst, I asked what the matter was, and she replied, “don’t you know about these places? They are very disturbing!” It still did not strike me, and I was like, “You do not want to do the number one item on the must-see places? That is crazy! I Am going anyway..” She did come along as she had nothing else to do for the noon, but I despised my decision of going there later.

The Death Railway Museum

Thailand-Burma Railway Centre, commonly called the Death Railway Museum, is a small building or a library with no pomp and show. A banner read to maintain silence and pay respect. I got my tickets and moved in to explore the Museum.  

The music of the train chugging around was heard in the background. Above me on the roof was the model or the section of the wooden railway trestle bridge constructed during the second world war. Another turn and I were staring at the empty eyes boarding the train to Bangkok to start their work on the Burma bridge. 

Death Railway Museum
Death Railway Museum

Tip: Death Railway museum is the first thing you should see before going on the Death railway tour or HellFire pass tour. The Museum closes by 6 pm, and you will easily need 2 to 3 hrs to read and take it in. Fee is 140Thb

Bridge Over River Kwai – History

The history behind it goes like this – 

During the second world war, lives were lost because of the bombings and holocausts, massacres, punishments, inhuman treatments leading to starvation and diseases. 

The Death Railway is aptly named because one sect of men, supposedly superior to the other, assumed that they could exploit the workforce to such extents that many lost their lives constructing the railway. 

World War 2 happened when Japan was predominantly trying to establish its dominance over Asia and the Pacific. By 1942 Japan had already invaded Thailand, the Philippines, Malaya, Burma, Singapore and captured and imprisoned British, Dutch, and Australian soldiers. 

Rangoon being a strategic port and capital of Burma was constantly under attack, and the commonwealth nations teamed up at the Indo-Burmese border for an attack. It was getting difficult for Japan to send resources to Rangoon as quickly as possible, considering southeast Asia was full of dense jungle, which holds even today. The only sea route through that Japan had access to Rangoon was exposed to bombings from aircraft and submarines. Due to this, Japan had a hard time providing ammunition to its soldiers fighting in Burma. Hence, Japan decided to develop a land route between Thailand and Burma to transport goods that would be safe, as both the territories fell under them. 

Thus, the Thai-Burma Railway was planned to be constructed by the Japanese. It was a 250-mile rail link running between the countries, the majority of which fell through the tough terrains of Thailand. 

In the late 1800s, when the British were looking to build a railway line between Thailand and Burma, they analysed the route and found it too treacherous and rough to drop the plan. Japan took up the same path and decided to come up with the rail route by 1943. 

This was simplified because they had 60,000 prisoners of war and hired labor from their captured territories through a contract.

Kwae Noi Valley
Kwae Noi Valley as seen from HellFire Pass where the PoWs worked

Now. Just for an analogy – 

I stay in Bangalore, India, and the year is 2017, where the technology has advanced swiftly. 

We now have machines that can drill through the earth to form tunnels. Our metro lines are not cutting through forests. It is going through a well-developed city. It took four years to complete and operate a 26 mile stretch of phase 1 metro railway. But the Japanese, without any modern equipment, decided to construct a 250-mile railway track through thick, dense jungle, over the khwae noi river, in just a year. This contrast is striking, indeed!

Prisoners of War & Romusha

The one set of construction of the Thai – Burma railway construction began from the Burma end and another from the Thailand side. 

As the 60,000 PoW (Prisoners of War) deployed were not enough, people were hired through contracts from the southeast Asian countries. 

Contracts were made with the Thai, Burmese, Malayans, Tamilians, Chinese, Javanese, Singaporeans, Dutch, and others. Initially, it was fantasized with the promise of high wages, good food, and to bring the family along, but all of them were struck with reality the moment they arrived to board the train with open bogies, and people were crammed into the bogies. 

The situation of existence was very pathetic. People had to stand and sleep and stand at the door to pee with the other holding the one to prevent a fall. This long train journey itself proved fatal for some. The dead ones were saved from the worse conditions of campsites with little to no food, long work hours of more than 16hrs, no medication, no proper sanitation. 

People fell sick and impoverished. Once the news of these campsites spread, further laborers refused to join in, and the Japanese had to force them and found cruel ways to hire them. This kind of forced laborers is called Romusha, who had a strength of about 2,00,000. 

While the PoW and Romusha ploughed through the earth, their conditions deteriorated faster due to diseases like cholera, dysentery, and malaria. The Museum has photos of them and video clippings which is heart wrecking. 

Just a bag of bones, lifting those heavy wooden planks, and setting up the railway track is an unbelievable sight! Their ordeal doesn’t stop there. A particularly difficult period called “Speedo” in mid-1943 demanded pushing the completion schedule ahead of time. It was surprising as the deadline was already quite tight.

death railway tools
Tools used while constructing Thai-Burma Railway

The Spirit of the Workers

The Museum also showcases the things used by the prisoners, like letters from a faraway land or the letters that they never posted. They wrote on toilet paper or leaves, used hair as a brush and pen, simple tins or vessels, and had pictures of their beloved. 

The workers kept their spirits high by singing and dancing before the Speedo period. They formed support groups among themselves to help each other get through loneliness and sickness. 

Not just that, they also knew that they were building a bridge that eventually helps their enemies, due to which they came up with simple sabotage plans to break the railways. 

They made plans like keeping a termite or white ant nest near the wooden bridges hoping that nature would take its course or sometimes replace the timber with lesser quality wood. They did it in such a way that the Japanese did not know about it because anything that has an immediate effect would mean repeating the work or severe punishment, maybe even death. 

However, I also couldn’t stop wondering how 60k soldiers who were working as prisoners of war could not stand up against the Japanese while at work, given they were soldiers trained to fight.

Prisoner of War Romusha
Picture of a Prisoner of War at the Campsite of Death railway

By the end of this Siam – Burma railway completion, about 12,000 PoWs and nearly 1,00,000 romushas lost their lives. Many Romushas had no accounts of their deaths, especially the Tamils and few other Asians. It is believed that the Death count could be much more than what is shown in these accounts.

death railway museum
A tribute to the PoW and Romusha. “Peace” written in all their native languages

Death Railway Tour – Kanchanaburi

The Erawan waterfalls and half-day tour of Death railway were planned for the next day. 

The death railway tour consists of the Thom Krasae Cave and the train tour through the Tham Krasae Bridge. The majority of the railway line passes by the side of the Khwae Noi River, known as River Kwai in English. And at one section just before the Kanchanaburi station, the railway line goes through a bridge crossing the river. This is the famous Bridge on the River Kwai section.  

However, this Bridge was damaged by bombing during the war, but a section of the remnant size was preserved at the Museum. I am pretty not sure whether it is the Hellfire pass museum or the Kanchanaburi one. 

The Bridge was repaired later, and one can see the difference in the portion between what was made then and later.

Thom Krasae Station
The station before the Thom Krasae Station – waiting to board the Train

It was around 3 pm when we arrived at the Thom Krasae cave. 

Along the course of the railway construction, many caves like this were used to stock up the materials and resources to keep it dry. 

The Thom Krasae cave is popular with the tourists as it is right before the Thom Krasae bridge, and also it has a beautiful Buddha statue installed inside it. It is a big wide cave that one can stop by and walk along the railway line for a short distance.

Tham krasae cave
Tham Krasae Cave where materials were stocked

Despite all the cruelty and the tragedy that went into constructing this railway bridge, it indeed is an engineering marvel. 

A cliff, the Kwai river was flowing along, and a three-tier wooden trestle bridge over which the railway tracks are laid, and the train chugs along with it precariously. It is a mesmerising sight to see! 

By 4 pm, the colorful train arrived at Thom Krasae station, and we hopped into it along with the plenty of tourists already in. There is no place to sit in it. While the train chugged over the wooden trestle bridge, everyone hung out of the window to take a good shot of the train curving along the hill and the river. 

For a moment, I was scared of the train falling into the river with all the weight leaning towards one side of the train.

Train over Thom Krasae Bridge
The Train chugging over Thom Krasae Bridge

I looked down at those solid wooden tracks and the gushing river and wondered how man ever balanced himself and constructed such a place! 

Most of the tourists got down at the following stations. Different tours operate in different ways. However, I liked my tour as I got to explore the Krasae cave also. 

Hereafter, we drove to see the Bridge on the River Kwai. The same train passed through this Bridge, but it takes time, so the tour operator went us there to show the Bridge around. 

Walking through the iron bridge gave me chills, made me wonder how the conditions would have been then, how they managed to construct this, and many more emotions stirred in. However, it was momentary. The place is filled with cheerful tourists who forget about these thoughts and get engrossed in the silly photographs that each one tries to take.

Bridge over the river Kwai
Bridge over the River Kwai

 This was, however, not enough for me! The Museum made a grave impact on me that just walking on the Bridge over River Kwai was not enough. 

So the next day, my friend and I decided to take the complete train ride from Nam Tok to Kanchanaburi and check out the Hellfire pass by ourselves. Hellfire pass is the most difficult section of the railway line.

View from Bridge over the river Kwai
View from Bridge over the river Kwai

Book this tour with Klook – Kanchanaburi Day tour 

HellFire Pass

Hellfire pass is a challenging section of the railway line, close to the Burma border in the Tenasserim Hills overlooking the Kwae Noi Valley. 

The railway line passes through vast rocks of the mountain, splitting apart rocks amidst a dense jungle. Ideally, a tunnel is made through a hill, but tunneling would mean people working on either end of the tunnel, paving a way through the rock. With so many romusha and PoW at hand, and the need to finish the railway line as quickly as possible, the Japanese instead decided to split the rocks, level it, and lay tracks, even though this was a much harsher way as compared to tunneling. 

With workers working in shifts, torches alighted in the jungle creating eerie shadows and all the noise emanating, it resembles Hell, and hence, it was named HellFire pass.

HellFire Pass
Welcome to HellFire Pass

We boarded the bus from Kanchanaburi to Hellfire pass. Not so difficult, we went to the bus station and asked for a hellfire pass and got into a bus they pointed to, informed the driver and conductor to stop at hellfire pass. There was another foreign couple who did the same. 

The bus passed through Nam Thok and Sai yok national park. Thai police got into the bus and did a quick check as the bus passed through Burma. The bus dropped us at hellfire pass, which seemed like Switzerland. The place was surrounded by hills, lush, thick green hills, and meadows. There was even a farm nearby, and it felt just like the alps in summer. A fresh spell of rains had left behind wet roads, raindrops on the grasses, and a muddy trek path.

HellFire pass trek trail
HellFire Pass Trek Trail Map

HellFire Pass Trek Trail

After the second world war, the British ripped apart the railway line from Burma to most of it and prevented the Burmese and Karen from entering Thailand. The railway line runs from Three Pagoda Pass, which is a gateway from Burma to Bangkok. Much of this line was damaged through air bombings during the war. 

The railway line was then sold to Thai Railways, and the portion from Nam Thok to Bangkok is still functional. The four-kilometer stretch that runs through hellfire pass is now open up for hiking, for us commoners to walk through the same path where sweat and blood were once used to build the railway line. 

The hiking trail goes up to a landmark called compressor cutting; however, when I visited, I got to know it is open only till Hintok cutting. These landmarks are named after the cutting process that was used to get through the rocks. At the start of the trail is a museum that is similar to that of the one in Kanchanaburi. It is advisable to get the audio guide from here and set it on the trail.  

You can also arrange for a pickup from Hintok cutting, the last point in the trail, at the Museum before you start the trail, and that if you are determined to complete the 2.5km stretch. A ste

hellfire pass museum
The Path leading to HellFire pass trek

Hiking the HellFire Pass – Death Railway

The start of the trail warns of how you need a day to finish the trail. The rain had left a fresh lease of green color against the stark, dark color of the rocks. It would be best if you got on this trail. The trek path is on the railway bed, so it is all stones, and hence a good shoe is a must. One can see the railway line or the wooden plank or some tools used and left behind or placed behind in the railbed section. 

To your left is the lush deep Kwae Noi Valley and to your right is towering rocks, sometimes as high as 8 meters.

hellfire pass
HellFire Pass – A portion of Railbed seen here

The railbed leads to a small memorial, and I decided to walk further down. The trek path as such is not a very difficult one. There is a little bit of up and down, but it is a railway line, so most of it is a flat surface. The problem, though, is walking on the rock gravel of the railway line. 

The breathtaking view of Kwae Noi Valley opened up in front of me when I sat for a moment at the resting place. This gives you a picture of how thick the vegetation is in the area. Walking further, I arrived at the Hammer & Tap cutting section. It is a technique used to cut through the rock

hellfire pass
HellFire Pass – a cutting passing through Rocks

Out of nowhere, the clouds gathered again, and it started to pour heavily! Unfortunately, I was not carrying my raincoat, and my bag was not waterproof. The umbrella didn’t help much though the heavy pour. I decided to walk back instead of finishing the trail. I was surprised to see streams of water that had popped up in rain which were not there just an hour back when I crossed the path. My shoe sole also gave up in the rocky terrain. And I got so overwhelmed that I wanted to burst into tears. 

I wouldn’t say I liked this heavy rain, and I still had a proper shoe-in at least one leg, and I imagined the plight of men with no dress, working under the rain, in this rocky terrain, with no shoes. I am sure there would have been many many leeches too, so impoverished and had to work at this place day and night. It sure was Hell!! 

HellFire pass
Trek path at HellFire Pass

If you are the empathetic or sensitive kind, the HellFire pass is sure to get under your skin. You are walking through this path that once had 2,00,000 people working on, now an alone path, quiet here. It was one Hell of an experience. I went through the Museum here too, wiped off the tears, freshened up, and decided to wait for my friend to return from the trail. We planned to catch the train from its first station Nam Tok!

Death Railway Train Ride – From Nam Tok To Kanchanaburi

About every half an hour or so, the bus passes through the HellFire pass bus stop. We walked down, found an empty bus stop, sat there looking at clouds and meadows. A bus did arrive and dropped us at the Sai Yok National Park. 

From Sai Yok national park songtheaws ply to Namtok railway station regularly once it is complete. I had to sit bending my head like a convict because there was no space and was pushed to the corner where I had to fold myself.

Nam tok Railway Station
Nam Tok Railway Station

The train leaves at 3 pm, and the ticket counter opens at around 2:30 pm. I was the first to get the ticket because I was dying to get the best seat and also a lot of tourists started to pour in. A ticket to Kanchanaburi costs 100bhat. I got into the last compartment to get a better view of the whole train curving over the Thom Krasae bridge. Soon buses filled with tourists coming in, and the train was packed with everyone trying to get a window seat and the tour guides asking them to find one too. 

This ride was very scenic, with the river Kwai peeping in from time to time, chugging over the trestle bridge and the endless farms of tapioca, aka cassava fields. Tourists, part of tour operators, got down at various stations, and the train was pretty much only for use up to Kanchanaburi. It was 5:30 pm by the time we reached Kanchanaburi. Given the scenery and the ride, I have no complaints about it.

River kwai
River Kwai following along the Death Railway route
tapioca fields death railway
Tapioca fields as seen in the Death Railway train journey
death railway train journey
The Death Railway Train journey passing through some scenic landscapes

Kanchanaburi war cemetery

The last thing that I had to do was visit the war cemetery and pay my respects. 

The Kanchanaburi war cemetery, locally called the Don-Rak War cemetery, can be found right opposite the Death Railway museum. 

It is where most of the Australian, British and Dutch PoWs are buried. After the war, the bodies were buried along the railway, and other cremation grounds were excavated and brought here to set up a memorial. 

There is also a similar war cemetery on the Burma side. The war cemetery is maintained well, and the lush green grass, flowers, and chirpy birds made the place so warm! 

This was the irony of having a place in good condition to rest after you are dead. I walked through the rows of memorial slabs which bore the name and nationality of the soldiers. There were a lot of young people, and the oldest was maybe just 45yrs. Everyone in their 20s and early 30s, off to war, working in such tragic conditions and dying of sickness or cruelty, leaving behind their family and toddlers, lie buried in a foreign land. That is one cursed life. And the people who take selfies here have no ethics at all

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery
Memorial at Kanchanaburi War Cemetery

A visit to Kanchanaburi and the death railway was a very emotional experience for me. I am not sure how many would appreciate having a vacation this way; to learn history, to know about the times that were not so far, to understand how cruel man can get, understand how blessed you are, and learn from the mistakes of the past. 

But have we learned anything at all? 

In some parts of the world, the war still goes on, somewhere the son returns home in a coffin, somewhere a baby has washed ashore, somewhere the mass massacre of the innocent still happens, somewhere the festival and celebration has died down, for someone it all becomes just a memory.

Will we learn anything at all? 

Kanchanaburi left me sore. Everything about Kanchanaburi. 

Kanchanaburi has a lot of stay options. One option is to stay around the War Museum. The Maenam Kwai road is at a walkable distance from the Kanchanaburi railway station and the War Museum. This road is lined up with all the hostels and good hotels and cafes. It is an excellent place to hang around, and the weekly market is also just around the corner. 

Another option is to stay along the Kwai river. There are even floating cottages, and the only problem is that you might not have the nightlife or easy commute to the city. 

The other option is to stay near the Bridge over the River Kwai. This is the River Kwai Bridge railway station with lots of markets and stays options around.

Everything about Kanchanaburi. Book your tours and sightseeing here – Klook packages

Book your stay

Kanchanaburi has lot of stay options. One option is to stay around the War museum. The Maenamkwai road is at walkable distance from the Kanchanaburi railway station and the War museum. This road is lined up with all the hostels and good hotels and cafes. Nice place to hang around, the weekly market is also just around the corner. Other option is to stay along the Kwai river. There are even floating cottages, the only problem is that you might not have the night life or easy commute to the city. The other option is to stay near the Bridge over the River Kwai, this is the River Kwai Bridge railway station. Lot of markets and stay options around.

Find your ideal stay option here – Click Here

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  1. Your post made me nostalgic! And it took me back to my trip of Kanchanaburi. Looking at all the photos, I felt I was there again, reliving the moments. 🙂
    You had almost same itinerary as mine. 🙂

  2. What a fun way to travel by local train to the area and explore by foot afterwards. I love that there’s so many different things to do and see once you get to the main attraction and exploring the caves looks pretty cool.

  3. Very well written, detailed, touching and in-depth post. Wishing all well in your travels. I wish to see this part of the world soon.

  4. That is one epic post. I remember seeing the movie years ago and also reading about it subsequently but your blog post is another level.

    Fantastic post and in-depth research. Hope to tread this path someday.

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