Take the slow train from Bangkok Thonburi station and travel west into scenic Kanchanaburi province and a date with history. The first part of the journey offers another perspective on the Thai capital as you travel through the western suburbs before reaching Nong Pladuk junction in Ratchaburi province. And it is here, around 50 miles to the west of Bangkok, where the branch line heads north-west to Kanchanaburi and your journey on the historic Death Railway begins.
Construction of the Thailand-Burma Railway
During World War II, the Japanese army occupied territories that ran from Singapore up to Burma. To supply their forces in Burma and prepare for an attack on the British troops in India, the Japanese army wanted to establish an overland route which would avoid the alternative sea routes where Allied ships were active. With the rail line already in place between Singapore and Bangkok, the Japanese decided to build an additional branch line to the west of Bangkok that would then run north to Burma. The Thailand-Burma railway was constructed in 1942-43 between Nong Pladuk (Thailand) and Thanbuyazat (Burma), a distance of approximately 260 miles.
It’s estimated that 240,000 men were forced to work on the Thailand-Burma railway. More than 60,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) started the project and in the rush to complete the line, a further 180,000 men were drafted in as forced labour from Asian countries including Burma, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. With inadequate food and medical supplies and forced to work long hours in savage conditions, thousands died from cholera, dysentery, malaria, starvation or exhaustion. The exact number of deaths isn’t known, but historians from the ANZAC Portal estimate at least 90,000 labourers and more than 12,000 POWs were killed. The grim statistics – which equate to one man dying for every sleeper that was laid on the track – led to the line being dubbed the ‘Death Railway’.
Riding the Death Railway
After the war, much of the line was repaired and to this day is still used for local passenger services between Bangkok and the end of the line at Nam Tok. Although the railway beyond Nam Tok is no longer in service, sections such as the infamous Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting) have been reclaimed and preserved as part of the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum. Making a journey on the Death Railway can be an emotional experience as you cross the Bridge on the River Kwai and the incredible Wang Po Viaduct.
Bridge on the River Kwai
One of the main tourist attractions in Kanchanaburi, the Bridge on the River Kwai, has a fascinating history. The bridge became famous across the world when it was featured in David Lean’s classic 1957 film, the Bridge on the River Kwai. Although the multi-award winning movie, shot mostly in Sri Lanka, was loosely based on real-life characters who worked on the Death Railway, it isn’t a faithful representation of history. The fame of the movie and the subsequent rise in tourism to the Kanchanaburi area created a predicament for the Thai authorities because there was no river called ‘Kwai’.
When tourists first started to arrive in Kanchanaburi, the river where the bridge is located was actually called Mae Khlong. In the 1960s, the Thai authorities came up with a creative solution and renamed the river where the bridge is located to ‘Khwae Yai’ because there are two tributary rivers, Khwae Yai and Khwae Noi, that feed into the Mae Khlong. But because of the different ways Thai is transliterated into English, ‘Kwai’ was used in some translations and for many non-Thai people, this is the name and pronunciation that has stuck.
During the war, two bridges were built at Kanchanaburi. At the beginning of 1943, construction of a temporary wooden bridge was completed. A few months later the concrete and steel bridge was finished. However, Allied bombs damaged the bridge and repairs were carried out after the war and spans with straight-lines were installed. The curved steel bridge spans seen today are the original ones that the Japanese transported from Java.
If you visit Kanchanaburi in November, look out for the annual River Kwai Bridge Festival and Red Cross Fair. The event is usually held in late November through until early December with a light and sound show illuminating the bridge.
Wang Po Viaduct and Tham Krasae
An incredible stretch of track awaits passengers as the train travels out of Kanchanaburi town and on towards Tham Krasae. With the Khwae Noi River on one side and a cliff face and thick jungle on the other, the railway is elevated on a series of wooden trestles that form the Wang Po Viaduct.
This breathtaking section of track was originally built by POWs forced to work in unimaginable conditions using only basic tools. The majority of men who worked on this section of track died. Today, this is a stunningly beautiful location with sweeping river views and a lush backdrop of green hills. But when you cross on the train or simply walk along the tracks, it’s a poignant reminder of the horrors that took place here.
Passengers can alight the train at Tham Krasae station and admire the spectacular views and ponder the tragic history of the railway. Before the train arrives back at Tham Krasae for the return journey to Kanchanaburi and Bangkok, there is time to walk along the single track to the cave that was once a shelter for the POWs working on this section of the railway. A gold-coloured Buddha image sits in the cave which is now a peaceful area of contemplation.
The passenger line finishes at Nam Tok, but originally the railway continued to Hellfire Pass and on up to Burma.
Make the journey by road to the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum to appreciate more of the history of this area and the harsh reality of life working on the Thailand-Burma railway. The section of track at Konyu Cutting became known as Hellfire Pass. This was one of the toughest sections of track to lay with POWs and Asian labourers needing to cut through thick jungle and solid rock. A series of embankments were built with the deepest of these cuttings at Konyu. Work here was around the clock and at night oil lamps and bamboo fires were lit. The flames, the noise from drilling and the sight of malnourished men forced to work in appalling conditions was a living hell and led to Konyu Cutting becoming better known as Hellfire Pass.
In the aftermath of the war, the railway line here was reclaimed by the jungle. It was as recently as the 1980s when the site was rediscovered thanks to the efforts of a determined group of former Australian POWs who returned to Thailand. With subsequent help from the Australian government and the blessing of Thai authorities, Hellfire Pass was developed as a commemorative site to honour those who lost their lives here and to also acknowledge the Thai people who risked their lives to supply the prisoners with medicine and food.
Built and maintained by the government of Australia, the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum and walking trail opened in 1998. Refurbished in 2018, the site is dedicated to the Allied POWs and Asian labourers who suffered and died at Hellfire Pass and elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region during World War II.
Kanchanaburi memorial services
To honour the fallen, the Royal British Legion hold an annual Remembrance Sunday service at Kanchanaburi War Cemetery (Don Rak). The same venue hosts a remembrance service on Anzac Day (April 25). A special dawn service also takes place on Anzac Day at the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum. Buddhist ceremonies are also held to pay tribute to the prisoners and workers who died during the construction of the Thailand-Burma railway.
How to visit the Death Railway
A visit to Kanchanaburi and the Death Railway is a popular day trip from Bangkok and can also be arranged from Hua Hin. Although you can visit on a group tour, a private tour will give you more time and flexibility. If your itinerary allows, try to spend a few days in Kanchanaburi to really appreciate all the region has to offer. Hotels and tour agents in Kanchanaburi can arrange tours of the wartime locations as can the helpful staff at the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre.
If you’d prefer to travel independently, you can take the train from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi and travel along the Death Railway. Trains depart from Bangkok Thonburi station (also known as Bangkok Noi). The trains on this route are classed by the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) as ‘ordinary’ trains. The 3rd class carriages are basic, but make for an enjoyable experience as you make the leisurely 2½ hour journey from the Thai capital to Kanchanaburi. Tickets for ordinary trains can’t be purchased in advance, so simply turn up and buy your ticket at the station (fare in 2019 was 100 Baht). On train #257 and #258 there is also the option of travelling in the tourist carriage (fare in 2019 was 300 Baht) where you’ll have the benefit of a cushion for the wooden seat, a snack box, bottle of water and a commemorative certificate. An additional tourist service between Bangkok and Kanchanaburi is usually operated by SRT on weekends and public holidays.
If you decide to stay in Kanchanaburi, you can catch the train from either the main Kanchanaburi station or the stop close to the Bridge on the River Kwai. Railway enthusiasts should look out for the old locomotives that are in position outside both stations. The train travels over the bridge and then on over Wang Po Viaduct before heading on to the end of the line at Nam Tok. If you take the morning train and get off at Tham Krasae station, you have plenty of time (almost 2 hours) to take photos, walk along the track to the cave and have lunch before catching the return train back to the centre of Kanchanaburi. Or you can travel onwards by road to Hellfire Pass.
Train times from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi
|STATION||TRAIN #257||TRAIN #259|
|Khwae Yai Bridge|
(Bridge on River Kwai)
|Tham Krasae Bridge|
(Wang Po Viaduct)
TRAIN TIMES FROM KANCHANABURI to BANGKOK
|STATION||TRAIN #260||TRAIN #258|
|Tham Krasae Bridge|
(Wang Po Viaduct)
|Khwae Yai Bridge|
(Bridge on River Kwai)
Eastern & Oriental Express
For a once in a lifetime travel experience, make the journey from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi on board the luxurious Eastern and Oriental Express. Admire the views and enjoy a gourmet dining experience on this classic railway voyage.