A day tour to the sleepy town of Kanchanaburi, Thailand was more than just a touristy trip for us and Chris’s visiting parents and grandparents. We took a step into the past and spent a day paying remembrance to the horrific history of the Death Railway.
A Short History on the Death Railway
The Death Railway is, in short, a horrendous part of Thailand’s history that was created by the blood and sweat of WWII prisoners of war and Asian slave laborers.
During WWII, the Imperial Japanese Army had taken over South East Asia and accumulated tens of thousands of skilled and healthy prisoners of war, which were later used as laborers to support their war effort.
One of the major projects that these POWs were funneled to work for was constructing a railway. These men, along with many other Asian laborers simply looking for work, were assigned to build the railway. It originated in Thailand and cut across to the Burmese war front to aid in the Japanese invasion of India.
Originally called the Thailand-Burma Railway, it earned the nickname “Death Railway” because over one hundred thousand laborers died during its 16 month construction between 1942 and 1943. Once completed, it stretched 250 miles from Ban Pong, Thailand to Thanbuyuzayat, Burma. Many more died while remaining in the POW camps until 1945.
Miserable heat and monsoons plagued the laborers. The lack of hygiene, inadequate medical supplies, and regular beatings from Japanese and Korean guards made for abysmal working conditions. Most died from exhaustion, dysentery, infection, and malnutrition.
Approximately 80% of all deaths were Asian slave laborers consisting of Burmese, Malay, and Tamil citizens. The remaining 20% were mostly split among Americans, Australians, British, Dutch, and Indians.
POWs were eventually saved when Allied forces successfully raided the camps. The original plan commanded by the Japanese was to kill all Allied POWs in case of a raid, but the men were successfully rescued before any executions could take place.
Preparing for the Death Railway Tour
The night before we left for our Death Railway tour, we purchased a copy of the recently released movie, “The Railway Man”, from the streets of Bangkok. It helped set the tone for our next day’s expedition and introduced us to the history of the railway.
Because we had never been to Kanchanaburi before (and this was not a time to experiment with navigating Thailand’s country side with parents and grandparents in tow), we opted for the convenience and comfort of a private tour through Your Thai Guide. A few emails after our first contact with Natt, the lead tour guide, we had a customized itinerary featuring the major attractions of the Death Railway.
Natt guided our family of six to the Bridge on the River Kwai, the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, the Death Railway Museum, a river overlook at Tham Kra Sae railway station, and the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum and Walking Trail.
Bridge on the River Kwai
Our tour began at the Bridge on the River Kwai (แม่น้ำแดว) (pronounced “quail” but without the “l”). This picturesque bridge spans a now beautiful and serene area of the countryside.
The Bridge on the River Kwai is a popular tourist destination complete with food and souvenir stalls, but is a beautiful landmark nonetheless.
The iron bridge has been modified to include a walkway and several side platforms. We used these as viewpoints to overlook several restaurants on the river’s edge and a nearby temple.
The bridge also has a small train catering to tourists that slowly ran back and forth along the tracks.
The best views are on the other side of the river. Here there ample shady trees and much fewer tourists.
Kanchanaburi War Cemetery
Just up the street from the Bridge on the River Kwai is the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery.
This cemetery is the resting place for nearly 7,000 Australian, English, and Dutch POWs who died during the construction of the Death Railway. The remains of American POWs have since been returned to the US. These men were originally buried at the POW camp grounds stationed along the railway, but years later, their remains were found, identified, and laid to rest in this memorial cemetery.
The sacred grounds were perfectly manicured and serene. As we walked down the aisles, we took notice of the men who died so young. Some were just 18 years old, while many of the graves markers we looked at were in their very early twenties.
Although nothing can make up for the suffering these men went through, this is a peaceful way to remember their sacrifices.
Death Railway Museum and Research Center
Beside the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery is the Death Railway Museum. We easily spent an hour exploring the various exhibits of the Thailand-Burma Railway.
The museum’s founder, Rod Beattie, did a phenomenal job presenting the railway’s history. He did so through hundreds of black and white photographs of the railway and the skeletal men who built it, displays of artifacts (both tools and memorabilia of the Allied prisoners and Japanese guards), and models of the landscape, bridges, and railway path.
One can only begin to understand the level of intensity demanded by the railway’s construction and the barbarity and suffering that tens of thousands of men endured.
We respectfully followed the request of the museum and did not take photographs of what was inside.
Address: 73 Jaokannun Road, BanNua, Amphoe Muang, Kanchanaburi 71000
Phone: (034) 512-721
Hours: 9:00am to 5:00pm every day (except certain Thai holidays)
Cost: 120 baht for adults, 60 baht for children
Tham Kra Sae Overlook
The Tham Kra Sae train stop and restaurant feature a scenic overlook on the now peaceful River Kwai. Situated on a river bend that cuts through the mountainside, we rested and ate lunch while we watched not just one but two trains round the mountain side on the wooden trestle bridges. The train itself is said to look the same as it did since the decades ago when it first passed through these mountains along the cliff-hugging tracks.
Lunch was a simple buffet featuring popular Thai dishes toned down for visiting foreigners. It included pad Thai, fried rice, Massaman curry, fried chicken, stir fried vegetables, and fried bananas. The buffet was 200 baht per person. Drinks, including water, soda, and beer, were extra.
We could have taken a train ride from River Kwai Bridge to Nom Tok (near the Hellfire Pass museum) that passes through this spot, but we opted out because it was running late.
However, others have taken this ride on the old-style train, which is complete with wooden benches and open windows for a breeze. Although it will get hot and crowded at times, you’ll see beautiful views of rice fields, the river, and rugged forests and mountainside while passing through old POW camps.
We’ve had an experience on a similarly conditioned third-class train, and we recommend bringing ice water and some refreshing towels to stay comfortable.
Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum and Walking Trail
The last stop and most sobering reminder of what the laborers endured during the construction of the Death Railway is the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum and Walking Trail.
The sheer rock was cut away by hand with basic picks, hammers, shovels, and dynamite – without the assistance of heavy machinery. Prisoners were made to work around the clock. At night, the pass was illuminated by flickering flames of candles and small fires casting eerie shadows on their gaunt bodies.
Today, there are only a few tracks left during this stretch as proof of that the Death Railway once passed through this chiseled rock passageway. The pass is hauntingly beautiful, through a forest of bamboo overlooking the mountain countryside.
The Australian government maintains this museum and grounds along the Hellfire Pass. Included with the tour are headsets with 20 tracks of audio recordings that we listened to as we walked the trail. Survivors of the Death Railway describe their hardships during this audio and share their personal experiences of working through this section of the mountain, which added a personal touch to the site.
A memorial was built to remember these men and is located just a short walk from the bottom of the stairs, but the entire walking trail goes on for roughly 4 km. Some level of fitness is required to make the descent to the memorial and return climb.
Website: Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum & Walking Trail, Thailand
Phone: (034) 531-347
Hours: 9am to 4pm (except certain Thai holidays and Christmas)
Death Railway Tour by Your Thai Guide
There are many ways from getting from Bangkok to the various attractions of the Death Railway in Kanchanaburi. This includes by car, bus, or boat. There are even third-class train rides along a restored section of the line from Nong Pladuk to the Nom Tok for 100 baht. Keep in mind that this is a full day event ranging from eight to twelve hours to make the trip from Bangkok.
With all the options available to us, we were grateful to have chosen a private tour through Your Thai Guide. It was timely, comfortable, and took the stress out of traveling with a family of six.
Our tour guide, Natt, organized everything without a hitch and was accommodating both before and during the tour. We loved that she was flexible, skillfully balancing between leading our group and allowing us to sight see at our own pace. To top it off, she has a great sense of humor!
- Air-conditioned leather seated bus with cold water and refreshing towels
- Bathroom breaks at clean rest stops with Amazon Café coffee shops
- Additional insights about trip and sites we were passing by
After reading reviews by others who had done this trek on their own, we were happy to have had an excellent guided tour that was personalized and well planned. It made a huge difference in our eyes!
Your Thai Guide is capable of giving tours in much of the Central region of Thailand, including Ayutthaya, Bangkok, Pattaya, Inner West, Kanchanaburi, and Hua Hin. There are also several guides to choose from, and each have their own profile listed on the site’s page to help you decide who your best fit is. For more information, check out their site:
Phone: (087) 686-9967