What is the Death Railway?

The Death Railway, or the Thai-Burma Railway, is a train made infamous by a horrific wartime atrocity upon prisoners of war, and then famous by a brilliant (albeit semi-fictional) book and movie – The Bridge on the River Kwai.

The train still operates as a regular Thailand regional train, and also for tourists and survivors to get to the museums and memorials in Kanchanaburi and Hellfire Pass, the River Kwai Bridge, and the nearby Erawan National Park.

Why is it called the Death Railway?

If a line of people laid down from head to toe along the 415km of the original Thai-Burma Railway, or “Death Railway”, that would represent how many were enslaved to build it.

Those laying along the 120km stretch that still operates today would represent those who didn’t survive the ordeal. Given this incredible scale of tragedy, the term “The Death Railway” is fitting.

But there’s a lot more to this story than what is told in the Bridge on the River Kwai. And, with the train from Bangkok cutting past ancient towns, quirky places, and transitions in Thailand’s geology and modern society, there are surprises along the way that are not tragic at all.

How many people died building the Death Railway?

We don’t know exactly, but the most accepted estimate is around 100,000 people died building the Thai Burma Railway.

Of these, about 12,000 were allied Prisoners of War, but the vast majority were civilian labourers recruited by force to work under the same horrific and deadly conditions.

Is the Thai-Burma Railway still in use?

Yes. Although the original tracks laid down by the Japanese Imperial Army and their prisoners were taken as scrap metal at the end of the war, new tracks were re-laid by the Thailand’s railways over the same route from Non Pladuk Junction (near Ban Pong), including the use of some of the original POW-built infrastructure such as the River Kwai Bridge, the Whampo Viaduct, and the many embankments and other minor bridges they built.

Is Bridge over River Kwai a true story?

Yes and no. It is based on the true story of the Death Railway, and the real people that were part of this human tragedy. However, some parts are fictionalised and dramatised for the book and movie.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is a wonderful Academy Award winning film released in 1957 starring Sir Alec Guiness. It is based on a book name The Bridge Over the River Kwai by a French writer Pierre Boulle.

Boulle was trained in Avignon as an enginneer, which taught him a lot about how to construct bridges. In 1935 he travelled to Malaya to be a rubber planter and when the Japanese came, he was trained as a sabateur, which taught him how to blow up bridges.

He was also imprisoned, not by the Japanese, but by the Vichy French in Hanoi, which taught him a lot about being a prisoner of war. So Boulle had a lot of first hand experience which led to him writing such a compelling story.

However, he had never been on the Thailand-Burma railway. The novel, and especially the later screenplay, was an amalgamation of his experiences, and the stories he and others heard from Malayan rubber plantation workers that did experience the ordeal first hand.

So we can forgive Boulle for making the slight blunder of geography in the naming of the film. The bridge that the movie is about was actually built on the Mae Klong.

The Kwai Noi – meaning Little Tributary in Thai – spills into the Mae Klong about 4km downstream from the Bridge. If you were to take the train, you will see plenty of the River Kwai Noi as the train line runs alongside it. But never does the rail cross it.

However, in the 1960s, due no doubt in small part to the success of the film, the upper part of the Mae Klong – above where the Kwai Noi joins – was renamed the River Kwai Yai or Big Tributary.

The River Kwai, or the Mae Klong, is also in a famous scene from another Academy Award winning film – the Deer Hunter.

The bank of the River Kwai Yai that the first Russian Roulette scene was filmed with Robert Deniero and Christopher Walken. The Thai actor who played the vicious Viet Cong gamemaster was actually recruited from the local Thai village, and was the second choice. The brutal slaps the two hollywood stars endured from the Gamemaster in the scene had to be real, but the first actor couldn’t bring himself to do it.

Luckily, they found a man who thought he would enjoy it, and the brutal scene still gives me goosebumps.

Why did Japan build the Burma railway?

Shortly after Pearl Harbour the Japanese forces found that British Burma was becoming a liability to its conquest of the Eastern Hemisphere.

Burma was one of the Allies’ last sources of rubber, an increasingly important wartime commodity, and it was also a back-door to supply the anti-Japanese resistance in China.

So, in early 1942, Imperial Japan invaded Burma from the sea and by land over the Tenasserim Range that we’re now heading towards. They installed a puppet regime, and continued North-West to dig into British India.

But at its peak, the Allied Forces’ Burma Campaign saw around 1 million troops come from across the British Empire to head off the Armies of Imperial Japan and its puppet regimes.

For Imperial Japan, fighting on this front, and keeping control of Burma meant supplying an equally formidable war effort from the East. However, the Tenasserim Range that divides Thailand from Burma, with its hilly topography, rivers, dense jungles and monsoonal climate, made for a terrible supply route.

The alternative sea-route via Singapore and the Malacca Strait was long, and made for easy pickings by the Allied Navy. Linking the Thai rail network to the British-built rail network in on the other side of the hills was the only solution.

If successful, Japanese-held Burma would turn from a strategic over-reach into a strategic stronghold – one from which to dig further into British India.

What is Hellfire Pass?

The Hellfire Pass is a rock cutting along the Thai-Burma railway route. It is no longer reached by the train that still runs today, but it is within a few minutes drive from the terminal station, Nam Tok.

The official name of the feature is the “Konyu Cutting,” but it was called the “Hellfire Pass” by those who worked here around the clock for 12 weeks, illuminated by small fires throughout the night.

It was likely the most physically demanding section of the railway – the sheer rock was cut away by hand without the assistance of heavy machinery.

~ For the travellers ~