A travel guide by Window Seater
About this trip
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.
How to take the Death Railway (Thai-Burma Railway)
Regular scheduled trains still run from Bangkok along the Thai-Burma Railway up to Nam Tok, via Kanchanaburi (home of the Bridge on the River Kwai), and Nakhon Pathom).
It is not possible to go further than Nam Tok on train, and you will face some significant challenges on foot (part of the original railway line is underwater now, and crossing into Myanmar along the original line is illegal and ill-advised).
IMPORTANT: There are two types of scheduled trains, with two different departure points, depending on the day of the week.
The weekend tourist trains depart very early on Saturday or Sunday from Hua Lumpong station. Hua Lumphong will soon be replaced as the railhead by Bang Sue station, a new transport mega-hub a few kilometres away on the Northern side of Bangkok. The weekend trains make lengthy stops at Nakhon Pathom to give passengers time to see Phra Pathom Chedi, and twice at Kanchanaburi to allow passengers to visit the Kanchanaburi Commonwealth War Memorial and the Bridge on the River Kwai, before heading to Nam Tok via the Whampo Viaduct (which it crosses slowly but doesn’t stop at).
The regular weekday commuter train currently departs from Thonburi Station (or Bangkok Noi Station) which is on the Western bank of the Chao Phraya river, quite a distance from Hua Lumphong or Bang Sue. It’s rolling stock is, more or less, the same as the weekend tourist train, but without a first class train. It doesn’t do a long stops at Nakhon Pathom or Kanchanaburi. If you’ve made the mistake of arriving at Hua Lumphong, you
Does the Eastern & Orient Express travel on the Thai-Burma (Death) Railway?
Yes. The E&OE is a luxury train operated by the Belmond Group, and also travels along the line to Nam Tok along the Death Railway from time to time, but probably doesn’t allow travellers to only go on the Death Railway.
How do you get a ticket for the Thai-Burma (Death) Railway?
If you can, the easiest way is to get a ticket is at a ticketing kiosk at a State Railways of Thailand station (generally, you can get tickets for anywhere in the SRT network from any SRT station). You will need to show identification.
However, the weekend trains often get booked out in advanced. This is particularly the case in peak tourist seasons, but it’s a popular trip for locals too, so expect to have difficulties getting tickets around Thai holidays.
Only 3rd party services offer advanced online booking. 12Go.Asia is a trustworthy provider of train (and other transport) ticketing in Thailand and across Asia, but when last we checked, the Thai-Burma railway tickets were not available on their platform. The other downside is that you will need to collect your tickets from 12Go.asia in advance, or arrange to have them sent to you. Regardless, if you do need to book in advance, best check 12Go.asia, call them if you can’t find a way to book it, or go with another online tour service provider.
How long does it take to take the Thai-Burma (Death) Railway?
It takes about 3 hours from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi, and another hour or so to Nam Tok after The Bridge. You can get out to Nam Tok and back in a day, but the regular commuter trains won’t make it easy to stop at all the great sites along the way unless you stayed at least a night. The tourist train does take the time to make the stops, and so it is a bit longer – leaving before sunrise and coming back after sunset.
How comfortable is the train on the Thai-Burma (Death) Railway?
Not very comfortable! The carriages aren’t air-conditioned, and the 90-degree angled vinyl seats can get very sticky and uncomfortable, especially in the hot season. Be sure to wear some loose-fitting clothing and try to get a position out of the sunshine and with a bit of breeze from the windows or fan. Hydrate!
There seems to be a luxury carriage attached to the weekend train, but we so far haven’t figured out how to get onto it!
Is food and drink available on the Thai-Burma (Death) Railway?
Food and drinks are frequently sold on the train by vendors that jump on and off at stations. Be sure not to buy bottles of water that have had their seals cracked. The food choices can be hit-and-miss, but is always cheap enough to just experiment.
If you’re departing from Hua Lumphong, there is a strangely overlooked canteen on the Eastern side of the main hall. There are also convenience stores and basic restaurants in and around the station.
If you’re departing from Thonburi (Bangkok Noi) Station, there is a large wet market right near the station which can offer some fresh fruits and vegetables.
On the tourist train, the stop at Nakhon Pathom is a great time and place to discover some street foods, and the city is renowned for its fruits.
Is it safe to take the Thai-Burma (Death) Railway?
Yes. Although train accidents have occurred in Thailand, it isn’t especially common. Personal safety is helped by the presence of a uniformed conductor. Still, the usual precautions should be followed – don’t leave valuables unattended, don’t stick bits of your body out the window, and be very careful around tracks and moving trains. The areas nearby the train stations can be somewhat dark and seedy places at night too.
In this trip
Bangkok is a force. Its the centre of the Thai universe, and is the sort of city that takes a lifetime to really know. Unfortunately, visitors walk into and out of this rich and vibrant city with the wrong ideas.
For a small town, Salaya has plenty going on.
There's a strange little museum tucked away out here, but I think it deserves a mention.
Buddhist Temples are everywhere in Thailand. There's a lot to learn about them. And this one in particular is quite peculiar.
Thailand is a country of water, particularly in its floodplains. Canals and bridges have been a major engineering feat.
Nakhon Pathom is a surprise. We really recommend you explore it - particularly the Pra Pathomachedi
Nong Pladuck Junction is the crossroads where the Japanese began to lay tracks West.
As we pass an industrial zone on the outskirts of Bangkok, lets talk about Thailand's economy.
The 76 administrative provinces of Thailand often date back to times of chiefdoms and city-states.
For quite a while on the Death Railway before you reach The Bridge, you might be able to see a river to the South and West - this is the infamous River Kwai... but at the same time, it kind of isn't.
On the Death Railway, you'll be in the floodplain of the Mae Klong, in the greater Chao Phraya floodplain, which is where most of Thailand lives for better or worse.
As you reach the end of the central Thai floodplains, you will be meeting the Tennasserim hills.
In Kanchanaburi Town, you'll find the Allied War Cemetary, and a number of museums.
The Bridge on the River Kwai has become a tourist mecca. Although its a central focus in the famous movie, its just one of many bridges built by the Japanese, and bombed by the allies.
The Japanese took a short-cut to Burma through this valley, which used to run all the way over the Tennaserim range, but the Thai government has since put a dam in it.
The Wampo Viaduct is around 200m long, sits 9 metres high, and is actually the original structure that was built by the POWs, Southeast Asian labourers, and Japanese soldiers.
Embankments were the most common type of engineering task along the railway, and took the most amount of work.
As you start nearing the end of the Death Railway, we should wrap up the story and say our goodbyes.
Nam Tok is where the train stops to go back to Bangkok. Jump off here to explore Hellfire Pass, Erawan National Park, and Sai Yok Nai waterfall.
Welcome to Hua Lumphong Station - the beginning or end of all great Thai rail journeys.
Bangkok can seem like a messy city. Tangles of cables, tight squeezes, and dirty canals.
Bangkok is a not-so-ancient seat of the Thai Royal court, and you may be passing a surprising and important palace.
Its not a thrilling sight, but Bang Sue junction is about to become rather important place for Thai rail travel, and its an interesting case study on how Thai's like to build things.
The train lines diverge between North and South here. The Northern and Eastern Lines go up to Ayutthaya before separating. The Southern and Western (the infamous "Death Railway") head West to Nakhon Pathom before separating. Singapore is a couple of days reach of here by rail for the price of a cheap hotel room, or there's a luxury option taking 3 days.
Chao Phraya translates to "the Chief", such is the importance of this River to the Thai nation.
Tailing Chan is where the Thonburi branch merges, is a new BTS hub, and a sight of a nasty train crash!