Spotlight on: the Death Railway, Thailand

Are you looking for a different side of Thailand to the famous Full Moon parties and beaches? I was too, and highly recommend taking the time to travel a section of the 258 mile long Burma Railway, more often known as the ‘Death Railway’.

My partner and I travelled on the Bangkok – Kanchanaburi – River Kwai – Nam Tok railway line when we visited Thailand, and found it to be a genuine Thai travel experience. It felt right to take the train to reach Kanchanaburi on the Death Railway itself as this has come to define the area for the rest of the world due to the acts that happened there more than half a century ago.

During World War 2, the Japanese used Allied prisoners of war to help build a railway that ran from Thailand to Burma to move army supplies overland.  The prisoners suffered in appalling conditions during the construction of what would become known as the ‘Death Railway’ due to the death of more than 16,000 Allied POWs, as well as 90,000 Asian labourers. You may have heard of it via the famous 1950’s film ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ which focused on one of the main feats of the railway – the building of a bridge over the River Kwai just outside the town of Kanchanaburi.

The weekday train to Kanchanaburi departs from the smaller, less well-known Thonburi (pronounced with a silent ‘h’)  station on the west side of the river in Bangkok – our taxi driver didn’t even know how to get there , and had to stop and ask for directions half way!The trains on this line are third class only, but great value. We travelled for the grand sum of 100 baht each way, which was roughly £2 at the time. For this you did get fairly comfortable bench seats, and the carriages were not overcrowded. Do remember that these are not air conditioned so it can get fairly hot (the over-head fans didn’t seem to do much!). However, sitting next to an open window whilst clickety-clacking through the Thai countryside was a very pleasant way to pass the eight hours we spent on the train. Just watch your head when leaving Bangkok as the train barely squeezes between buildings and trees. My partner stuck his head out of the window only to come a hairs-breadth from losing it!

The River Kwai bridge
The River Kwai bridge

The journey itself is fantastic as you get to see the ‘real’ Thailand: fields, livestock, local people and tiny villages. Vendors get on and off every few stops to try and sell you home made snacks, fruit and drinks so you don’t have to worry too much about food, although I would advise taking a large bottle of water just in case.

Once you reach the River Kwai the first thing you notice is the bridge itself. Still in use by three trains each way every day, you can also walk along the bridge – you just need to step out of the way when you see the train coming. Don’t worry as they don’t travel at high speed like they do in the UK; there is a 10 km/hr speed restriction for trains across the bridge, and they sound their horns like mad to warn you they are coming! The curved steel bridge spans are original, while the two straight-sided spans come from Japan (note the manufacturer plaques), and were installed after the war to replace spans destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945.

The Bridge over the River Kwai
The Bridge over the River Kwai

My partner and I although staying in Kanchanaburi overnight, decided to carry on the line over Wampo Viaduct to Nam Tok. This means you cross over the River Kwai bridge on the train itself, but also get to see some fantastic scenery. The Wampo Viaduct, also built by prisoners of war, in particular offers great views, and consists of wooden trestles alongside the river hugging the cliff.

We wanted to take some time to see Hellfire Pass not far from Nam Tok, but unfortunately our train was running late and we barely had time to buy a return ticket before heading back to Kanchanaburi. Next time maybe…

The Wampo Viaduct
The Wampo Viaduct

All in all, this was by far the most authentic experience of our time in Thailand. Not only did we while away a day travelling through stunning countryside surrounded by local people, we learned so much about the history of the country, as well as the way it is today outside of big urban centres such as Bangkok or beach resorts found further south. I cannot recommend it enough.

Top tips:

  • You could take a few days to visit this part of Thailand as there is as there is a lot to see.. We took the regular week day train, but there is also a special tourist service that runs at weekends and calls at various attractions along the way.
  • On our particular train at least, there were no toilets so make sure you go before hand
  • If you are looking for accommodation in the area, we stayed at Xanadu 2008 in Kanchanburi. This is slightly outside of the town itself, but offered a small group of bungalows set in lush gardens with a pool. We ate delicious home cooked food and fresh home-grown pineapple on a terrace right by the edge of the River Kwai where we watched the sun come down – magic.  And watch out for the geckos everywhere!
  • A word of warning: our clothes, bags and personal belongings all ended up coated in a red dust that came off the earth that just would not come out as hard as we tried ,so don’t wear your favourite clothing!
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