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.
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.
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.
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.
Open daily from 08:30 to 16:00.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 last bus from Nam Dok leaves at 16:00 or 17:00, but check the daily schedule.
One way bus ticket costs 50 THB.
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.
Seychelles will reopen its borders from the end of this month as the island nation prep...
Fairbanks, Alaska, is the largest inland city in Alaska, is located right on the Aurora Oval, a...
Namibia is an incredible country with a huge landscape and biodiversity. There are many amazing ...
Planning a visit to Coron, Palawan and don't know the best Coron activities to include on your Co...