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Death Railway in Kanchanaburi, Thailand – Scenic journey. Dark past.

The cast-iron bridge over the River Kwai and the accompanying two-hour train that snakes through the countryside are what remains of Thailand’s Death Railway. They are stark reminders of a devastating history that looms soberly over the swathes of rainforest in Kanchanaburi, considered by locals to be one of the most beautiful areas in the country.

The train of death in Kanchanaburi, Thailand – A scenic journey into a dark past.

Beige and blue roofed huts and two boats in front of the Bridge over the River Kwai in Thailand.

The historic Bridge over the River Kwai

Often, the act of travel goes beyond the search for beauty in one’s surroundings, but involves an essential journey into a country’s history to recognize and understand how to reconcile the peace of the present with a devastating past.

History of the death railway in Kanchanaburi, Thailand.

Between 1942 and 1943, during World War II, 60,000 American, Australian, British and Dutch Allied prisoners of war and some 100,000 Asian civilians were subjected to slave labor in the construction of the Thai-Burmese railway by Japanese forces occupying Thailand. It was a 415-kilometre railway line between Thailand and Burma, in the neck of the shared peninsula, whose tracks were tortuously dug by hand through jungle terrain and rock cuttings to provide a route for transporting weapons, troops and supplies.

The “Speedo” period of 1943 saw a rapid acceleration of demand for completion which increased the tortuous conditions. In its construction, around 13,000 prisoners of war and 90,000 civilians from Thailand, Burma and Malaya died from brutality, disease and malnutrition, giving it the name Death Railway.

The railway was in operation until June 1945; the border tracks were destroyed in 1946 by order of the British Empire, to protect its interests in occupied Burma.

People look out over a blue and white train - the Death Railway in Kanchanaburi - as it curves alongside the bank of a green, jungle-like river

Kanchanaburi’s Death Railway today.

Today, only a 130 km section of the railway remains in Thailand, reopened by the State Railways of Thailand in 1957. It is a route that retains its origins in the village of Ban Pong, wedged almost centrally between Bangkok to the east and Kanchanaburi to the northwest, and terminating at Nam Tok, the current end point of the Death Railway on the edge of Erawan National Park.

Travelling from Bangkok, many visitors are already unknowingly on the path of the railway before reaching Kanchanaburi, where the lesson of the region’s dark history begins poignantly.

Things to see in Kanchanaburi: scenery and history.

Kanchanaburi can be visited on a day trip from Bangkok, either on your own or on a small group tour. However, the rise of eco-lodges and floating huts on the river attracts those who wish to spend the night and enjoy the city’s nature reserves.

Here’s how to make this trip and what sites to see centered on the history of the Death Railroad.

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery

Those who died in the construction of the railway were buried in unmarked graves next to it, and the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery was one of three final resting places established after the war in honour of those who lost their lives. The other two war cemeteries are at Thanbyuzayat in Myanmar (the final resting place) and at Chong Kai near Kanchanaburi.

As one stands within the manicured lawns lined with rows of graves with inscribed bronze plaques, one realizes with sadness the human cost of the railway one will soon travel.

Two people stand beside a large tree inside a row of square bronze tombstones in Kanchanaburi's war cemetery.Orderly rows of bronze tombstones with inscriptions in Kanchanaburi war cemetery.

Open daily from 08:30 to 16:00.

JEATH Museum

The oldest of the Death Railway museums, opened in 1977, the JEATH War Museum is dedicated to the victims of the River Kwai Bridge and the construction of the Death Railway. JEATH stands for: Japan, England, Australia, America, Thailand, Holland.

Along with artifacts donated by survivors, a Japanese transport train, and photographic exhibits, the museum features reconstructions to bring to light the horrific circumstances the POWs faced. From the bamboo huts in which the POWs lived, to the train cars in which they were imprisoned, to models of the oppressive working conditions, the JEATH aims to show the brutal reality of war.

Museum exhibition showing POWs building the death railway between Thailand and Burma.A rusty red and black Japanese train, used during World War II, on display at the JEATH Museum in Thailand.A wooden carriage used during the construction of the Death Railway in Thailand, on display in a museum. The text is inscribed in white on red paint.

Open daily from 08:30 to 18:00.
The entrance fee is 50 THB per person.

Thailand-Burma Railway Center

Overlooking the Kanchanaburi war cemetery, the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre is a recent preservation similar to the JEATH. It includes films and interactive exhibits on the construction of the railway.

Open daily from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm.
The entrance fee is 150 THB per person (70 THB for children).

Visit the Bridge over the River Kwai

It wasn’t just the railroads that were built with slave labor. With a route crossing many rivers in the valley, bridges were also built by hand. The bridge over the River Kwai is the best known of all, made famous by the 1957 film dramatizing the story of the Thailand-Burma railway.

The black iron railings of the Bridge over the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, backed by forest greenery.Tourists visiting the Bridge over the River Kwai in Thailand, walking along the Death Railway track and standing on the ledges of the viewing platform.A woman leans on black rails on a platform on the Bridge over the River Kwai looking out over the Thai river, vegetation and orange-roofed buildings. A person takes a photo on a train station platform, next to a red and white station sign that reads in black lettering "River Kwai Bridge" in Thailand

The first bridge, built in 1943, was made of wood and was later replaced by the steel bridge that remains today. The walkways on either side of the rails have viewing platforms overlooking the river. It is a poignant reminder of how and why it came into being as visitors walk its tracks between the two daily train runs across it.

Death Train Journey

From the River Kwai Bridge station in Kanchanaburi, a scenic 17-stop ride winds through mountain cliffs and bamboo forests and past valleys of evergreen riverbeds to the serenity of seven-tiered waterfalls.

In the last third of the journey, you pass Tham Krasae station, another outpost of the Death Railway, whose trestle bridge with wooden viaduct curving around the rock wall and spanning the river embankment was also built by prisoners of war.

Blue, white and pink train cars curve in a curve through the jungle greenery of Kanchanaburi, Thailand.Brown river with floating huts and green jungle valley in Kanchanaburi province in Thailand.People hanging from train carriages on the Death Railway in Thailand, passing jungle scenery. Death Railway train in Thailand, passing golden cliffs on the right and jungle greenery on the left.Rows of rice paddies backed by jungle greenery and a towering golden Buddha in Kanchanaburi, Thailand.A woman peers out of the window of a blue and white train carriage as it passes through the Thai countryside

Only three trains run this route between Kanchanaburi station and Nam Dok daily, a journey with 19 stops.
Foreigners are charged 100 THB for a single one-way ticket. Tours include the train ticket.
If you are not picked up at the last stop (Erawan Falls), you will have to buy a return ticket at Nam Dok, allowing enough time (at least 30 minutes) to buy it and get on board.
The left side of the train is the most scenic for the riverside views.

A man in a blue T-shirt and shorts, holding a pink basket in the yellow wooden interior of the Death Railway car.

Hellfire Pass Interpretive Center and Memorial Trail.

Hellfire Pass is the largest rock-cutting excavation on the Death Railroad, named for the scene of flickering torchlight and fires burning as prisoners worked late into the night during the construction period of the “Speedo”.

Limestone Rock Passage is a 1.5-mile (2.5 km) memorial trail, honoring those who suffered here, hand-drilling holes for the explosives used to blast the rocks, then hand-clearing them. An interpretive center is a place for reflection and learning before entering the cut below.

The remains of a railway track on a rocky path between two high cliffs - part of the Death Railway track in Kanchanaburi, Thailand.

Hellfire Pass memorial site. Image: © Tourism Authority of Thailand.

The area is also home to the Hintock Bridge, 400 metres long and 27 metres high, whose collapse and subsequent rebuilding on three occasions came to be known as the Deck Bridge.

Open daily from 09:00 to 16:00.
It would be advisable to wear suitable footwear when visiting the sites due to the rocky climbs and stairs.

Erawan Waterfalls

You’ll find chlorine blue and neon turquoise pools within the jungle greenery of Erawan National Park. It’s a typical last stop on this journey that invites you deep into Kanchanaburi’s pristine wilderness after gleefully passing by its banks from the train carriage.

This park, replete with hiking trails and caves beyond the star water attraction, is named after the Hindu god of three-headed elephants, Erawan, and the tallest waterfall is said to resemble the deity.

Stepped waterfalls with pools of turquoise water within a dense forest - part of the Erawan Waterfalls in Kanchanaburi, Thailand.

Erawan Waterfalls in Kanchanaburi. Image: © Tourism Authority of Thailand.

A person swims beside one of Kanchanaburi's many waterfalls that flow into deep blue waters in Erawan National Park.

Swimming in Erawan National Park. Image: © Tourism Authority of Thailand.

The higher level waterfalls require more stamina and time, as you have to walk a bit on worn paths with wooden stairs. A 1.5km marked trail leads to the highest waterfall in about 30 minutes and is one of the best for swimming, but the first three waterfalls are the most accessible.

Erawan National Park is open from 8am to 4:30pm.
The entrance fee is 300 THB / 100 THB for locals.
If you plan to hike to all the waterfalls, bring suitable footwear for walking on the rocks, stairs and jungle trails, and swimwear to enjoy the pools.

Sai Yok Noi Waterfalls

Across the Nam Tok train station from Erawan is Sai Yok National Park, another picturesque waterfall site. Here the Sai Yok Noi Waterfall (Khao Phang Waterfall) cascades over golden limestone rock, reaching 15m high into the jungle foliage.

A group of young Thai men sit on a mound of golden limestone rock in front of a large waterfall flowing from the jungle.

Death Railway tours and tickets.

A tour booking includes transportation to and from Kanchanaburi, and pick-up in Bangkok can start as early as 7 or 8am. All tours usually include a local lunch, museum and Erawan entrance fees and train ticket. The driver will meet you at Erawan Falls (your last stop) to travel back to Bangkok.

This two-day, one-night trip is a slow exploration of the sites and includes a stay in an eco-friendly bamboo floating hotel. With private pick-up and drop-off in Bangkok, you’ll head out on the River Kwai and Erawan National Park tour with a licensed guide. This extensive trip also allows you time to take the train journey at your leisure.

A full day tour in Kanchanaburi includes stops at the River Kwai Bridge, JEATH Museum, Tham Krasae Station and Tiger Cave Temple. The tour starts in Kanchanaburi, so you will need to travel there from Bangkok.

This day tour focuses more on the train journey between Thailand and Burma, ending at Erawan Falls.

How to get to Kanchanaburi from Bangkok.

The best way to get from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi is by train or minibus. The currency code for Baht is THB. 100 Thai Baht at the time of writing cost €2.75 / $3.30.

By train

Trains depart Thonburi train station in Bangkok at 07:50 and arrive in Kanchanaburi at 10:25. A second train departs at 13:55 and arrives at 16:24. You can buy a ticket that continues from Kanchanaburi to the River Kwai Bridge station or beyond – these two trains are on the service that crosses the bridge and continues to Nam Tok. The one way ticket costs 110 THB per person.

A woman in a blue vest leans on the window sill of a train carriage, looking out over the green landscape of the Kanchanaburi countryside.

By minibus

A minibus service runs daily every 20-30 minutes, between 5am and 11pm, and departs from Mochit Station, Bangkok.

The journey to Kanchanaburi takes two hours.
One way ticket costs 110 THB per person.

Between Kanchanaburi and Erawan National Park.

The bus between Kanchanaburi and Erawan National Park runs every hour.

The last bus from Nam Dok leaves at 16:00 or 17:00, but check the daily schedule.
One way bus ticket costs 50 THB.

More info.

I’ve travelled a lot in Thailand, and you can find more stories about cycling around Bangkok to see a different side of the urban city, how to ride the 762 curves on the road from Chiang Mai to Pai, or how to try Muay Thai training in Thailand.

More talking points on responsible tourism in Thailand:

Disclaimer: This post has been created in collaboration with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) for when we can travel again. For more Thailand travel tips, find guides and insider articles on the Thailand Fan Club website, the official online tourism portal.

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