The Second World War (1939-1945) is well known for many reasons. Perhaps something less well known is the part Thailand played during this time. The Burma Railway, AKA: the Death Railway or the Burma–Siam Railway was a 415-kilometre (258 mile) railway between Ban Pong, Thailand, and Thanbyuzayat, Burma. It was built by the Empire of Japan in 1943 to support its forces in the Burma campaign of World War Two.
This railway completed the railroad link between Bangkok, Thailand, and Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon). The line was closed in 1947 and, along the Siam-Burma border, a section of track not already destroyed by bombing was torn up in an effort to ensure the railway could not be used again.
Forced labour was used in the railway’s construction. More than 180,000 Asian civilian labourers (Romusha) and 60,000 Allied Prisoners of War (POW’s) worked on the railway. Estimates of Romusha deaths are little more than guesses, but probably about 90,000 died. 12,621 Allied POW’s died during the railway’s construction.
The dead POW’s included 6,904 British personnel, 2,802 Australians, 2,782 Dutch, and 133 Americans. The construction of the railway through forced labour lead to barbaric conditions and suffering that were inflicted upon the workers who built it.
Kanchanaburi and the Bridge on the River Kwai
The Death Railway earned its name from the sheer number of lives lost during its construction. Railway bridge number 277 allowed the track to cross what is known today as the Khwae Noi River and what is now recognised worldwide as the Bridge on the River Kwai.
Today, the bridge in Kanchanaburi is a tourist attraction, as well as a functioning railway bridge, over which daily trains pass. Although the railway has never again reached the Myanmar border, a shorter stretch was reopened between 1949 and 1958, with trains on this modern-day line crossing the Bridge on the River Kwai.
It’s possible to ride this famous line from Nong Pla Duk, the Death Railway’s original starting point, all the way to Nam Tok Sai Yok Noi station, around a 2km-walk from Sai Yok Noi Waterfall. Nam Tok Sai Yok Noi is as far west to the Myanmar border as it’s possible to get by train.
At Nong Pla Duk, the line connects with Thailand’s main southern line, allowing you to ride all the way from Bangkok’s Thonburi station to Nam Tok, a 4.5 hour trip. Two third-class local trains make the journey daily. You can also board the train at Kanchanaburi or Saphan Kwae Yai (Bridge on the River Kwai) station for the final, especially scenic, part of the route.
Originally part of the Death Railway but off the train tracks today is Hellfire Pass. As it involved cutting through sheer mountain face, this was one of the most demanding tasks for the forced labourers, with large numbers perishing here. They were forced to work late into the night, using flaming torches as light to work by. The site is now a memorial museum and 4km-long walking trail.
We walked a section of the pass but didn’t walk the entire length. It has sections of track and memorial plaques, as well as tributes to remember those who died during the railway’s construction. Each year, the site hosts the ANZAC Day dawn memorial service.
It was a sobering experience, learning what awful conditions they worked in. The exhibition hall has information boards and a documentary video on repeat, in which you see pictures of these men, forced to work so hard and given so little. Working upwards of 16 hours a day in blistering heat, they had no protection from the elements and many had no footwear.
For their painstaking hard work, they were given nothing more than a minimal amount of water and a bowl of rice with salted vegetables, hardly enough to sustain a person in normal circumstances. Needless to say, disease, rapid weight loss and fatigue were rife. Anyone caught slacking or falling down on the job (quite literally in most cases) was subjected to beatings and torture. Very little medical treatment was provided. Perhaps now, the statistics I mentioned earlier are of no surprise.
War Cemeteries and Museums in Kanchanaburi
In Kanchanaburi itself there is the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, in the town centre, and, a little further afield, the Chungkai War Cemetery; both are looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
The JEATH War Museum and the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre are also worth a visit, museums that offer the chance to learn more about the Death Railway and the context of events at that time.
Since visiting this place, it has given me a much greater understanding of what went on in other parts of the globe throughout World War Two. Whilst travelling, I have learnt many things about myself, cultures, people and history as well. Travelling broadens the mind, leading to a greater understanding of the world around us, what is happening and what has happened.
Kanchanaburi offers much in terms of sites related to the Second World War, as well as numerous other attractions and activities. It makes a great base for a couple of days, with plenty of decent places to stay and eat, some of which lie right beside the River Kwai.
Heading north from Kanchanaburi? Click to read our post about the Highlights of Northern Thailand!