Kanchanaburi Death Railway - 1stop Bangkok

By Dave Rudd

Hellfire Pass demonstrates the harsh challenge

Hellfire Pass demonstrates the harsh challenge

The Death Railway in Kanchanaburi is perhaps the most poignant reminder of the ravaging of the Imperial Japanese war machine in Southeast Asia, and is easily accessed from Bangkok. Also known as the Burma Railway, it originally went from Bangkok, through Kanchanaburi, and on to Rangoon (Yangon) in Burma.

It was built using forced labour, specifically Allied prisoners of war and Asian labourers. Around 16,000 Allied POWs died while building Kanchanaburi’s Death Railway – mostly British, Australian, and Dutch – while 90,000 Asians perished. Well-known parts of the 415-kilometre Death Railway include Hellfire Pass and the Bridge over the River Kwai.

Death Railway history

The Japanese took up what the British initially saw as too challenging in building a railway between Bangkok and Rangoon. The terrain between the two capitals is harsh and jungle-clad. The Japanese, however, desperately needed a supply route and ultimately to attack British India.

Thousands of Allied POWs were taken from Singapore to work on the Death Railway following the capture of Thailand in 1942. They were subjected to appalling living conditions and beaten regularly. Food and clean drinking water were scarce and threat from disease and death were constant.

The plan was to build both ends of the railway inward, including from Thanbyuzayat in Burma and Nong Pladuk in Thailand. Towards the end of 1943, the two sections met in the Three Pagodas Pass region and included a series of wooden bridges and cuttings, including the metal Kwai Bridge and Hellfire Pass.

Kanchanaburi’s Death Railway lasted intact for less than two years before the Kwai Bridge was spectacularly bombed by the Allies towards the end of the war. Of the thousands of dead POWs that worked on the railway; 6,318 were British, 2,815 Australian, 2,490 Dutch, 356 American, and a number of Canadians. Cemeteries dot the Kanchanaburi area as a reminder to their plight.

After the war, the Death Railway was never used in its entirety again although some sections are still used today for tourism. Lengths of Kanchanaburi’s Death Railway can also be walked, yet the Khao Laem Reservoir has covered large parts of it.

Death Railway sightseeing

The cemeteries in Kanchanaburi are sobering

The cemeteries in Kanchanaburi are sobering

There are memorials up and down the route from Kanchanaburi dedicated to the suffering of the many thousands who lost their lives during the construction of the railway, along with a number of museums.

Death Railway museums and cemeteries

The Death Railway Museum in Kanchanaburi covers the 16 months between 1942 and 1943 of the hardships that the POWs and Asian labourers working on the railway faced. Many of the stories are gut-wrenching and humbling. The JEATH museum at the riverside is also popular although is dated and the small funding is telling in its lack of upkeep.

The Allied War Cemetery lies in the centre of Kanchanaburi and is the main one. It lies opposite the Thailand Burma Railway Centre and features thousands of crosses - mostly British – and busloads of tourists. A few kilometres outside town is the quieter Chung Kai War Cemetery.

Bridge over the River Kwai

The most visited sight along the Death Railway is the Bridge over the River Kwai. It featured in the Hollywood movie of the same name with Sir Alec Guinness and lies just outside town. The steel bridge has been redone and beefed up since it was bombed, with the inclusion of standard gauge railway tracks. The original narrow gauge tracks remain inside.

Tourist trains today run across the bridge and up to Nam Tok for Sai Yok National Park. The most thrilling part of the ride is the wooden section over a cliff at Kra Sae. Back at the Kwai Bridge, tourists are permitted to walk across but need to be very careful as there are open sections between the bridge supports.

Hellfire Pass

This is the deepest and most visually stunning part of Kanchanaburi’s Death Railway. It is located far north of Kanchanaburi deep in the jungle, although is easy to access from the main road. There is an excellent memorial museum in the car park here, set up by the Thai–Australian Chamber of Commerce in 1998.

The iconic (rebuilt) bridge over the River Kwai

The iconic (rebuilt) bridge over the River Kwai

The museum is very well done and has fine views over the landscape. After seeing the museum, visitors may take a walk to the cutting via a thought-provoking loop through the jungle. The first view of the pass is breathtaking, lying 20m below and stretching for 50m. The work was mainly done by hand and as many as 70 per cent of workers perished.

Other Kanchanaburi attractions

Kanchanaburi is also located amid beautiful landscape with thick vegetation and large waterfalls, and there is plenty to see besides the Death Railway. The town of Kanchanaburi itself is good to kick back in for a few days and there are many guest houses located along the river. Farther afield is the controversial Tiger Temple, along with the stunning Erawan Falls and Sai Yok National Park.

Getting to the Kanchanaburi’s Death Railway

From Bangkok, Kanchanaburi is just a two-hour drive to the west by highway, and buses and trains also run here. You can also get to the Kanchanaburi Death Railway from Ayuthaya.

Bus travel is the fastest and easiest way to get to Kanchanaburi from Bangkok, with standard services running every 15 minutes from the Southern Bus Terminal in Thon Buri. VIP buses run every 30 minutes, while buses from the northern Mochit Bus Terminal can also be caught.

Minibuses targeting backpackers run from Khao San Road in west Bangkok and you can generally book through guest houses and agents. Minibus service to Kanchanaburi is less frequent during the low season.

Travelling by train takes a leisurely three hours and is a far nicer experience than rushing there by bus. Only third class cars are available, however, which is reflected in the ticket price. In addition, there are only two trains per day from Bangkok’s Noi Station, also in Thon Buri. Trains run at 07:35 and 13:45 from Bangkok and at 07:26 and 14:50 from Kanchanaburi.

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