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Kanchanaburi’s Railway of Death

  • Written by Anonymous
  • June 4th, 2007
  • 5 min read


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Thailand’s Kanchanaburi today is very different from the one in 1942 in which trainloads of British and other POWs arrived from occupied Singapore. Where tourists now enjoy jungle tours, hundreds of thousands of labourers suffered 16 months of hell that is now recounted as the town’s number one tourist attraction. Imagine being an administrator or soldier out in the balmy tropics when all of sudden you find yourself in a steamy cauldron of disease, hard manual labour and constant death.

It sounds very unreal, but for 60,000 WWII POWs from Australia, Britain, USA, and the Netherlands it was a living nightmare that took place in the unbearable hot jungle of Kanchanaburi province in Thailand and 12,000 didn’t survive. These unfortunate men were joined by almost 100,000 Asians labourers who perished as the Japanese military attempted the almost impossible in creating a 415km rail connection from Thailand to Burma. Six years it would take, they said, but under severe pressure to supply their soldiers in Rangoon, they realised it in only 16 months.

Today, Kanchanburi is a tranquil, lush and favourite destination for both locals and foreigners, most of the visitors here were born after WWII and little appreciate the loss and sacrifices that Kanchanaburi has come to symbolise on the majority of the tourist maps. These men may not have lost their lives in combat or defending the nation of Thailand, but the two years lasting drama has left so many painful memories that has transformed the area they must have hated so much into a well-oiled tourist industry machine for several generations since.

Kanchanaburi is situated about a two hour drive West of the Thai capital, and there are several good reasons to visit the area even if cemeteries and sombre memorials aren’t your thing. There is the scenic peaceful river upon which disco boats ply their business on weekend nights, and the pleasurable adventure of trekking in beautiful national parks with spectacular waterfalls. Here you can discover caves and even make a photo with tamed tigers. But you simply can’t ignore the tale of a bridge and railway which on the silver screen immortalised the River Kwai. This is Kanchanaburi’s real story. Guide on what to do in Kanchanaburi.

In 1942 the building of a rail plan began that previously had been surveyed by the English but they believed it was logistically too challenging. A formidable range of low hills lies to the West of the town, and for hundreds of years this was the border between Burma and Siam. With Japanese forces occupying Burma and Thailand, their next plan was to invade British India, but their important Bay of Bengal’s supply route was cut off, so labour begun on the rail connection in ernest. The Americans were wining in the Pacific and the pressure on the Japanese made them decide to complete this route faster than planned. As a result life became unbearable for the POWs. At the end of 1943, the two parts, one started in Burma’s Thanbyuzayat and another in Thailand’s Nong Pladuk, met not far away from the Three Pagodas Pass. It stayed intact only 20 months before the bridge over the river Kwai was destructed when the War was nearly over. This narrow gauge railway’s entire section was never used again.

In or near Kanchanaburi you can find several museums, telling the Death Railway’s moving story. Parts of the railway are still intact, and it is possible to walk lengths of it. But the most impressing reminder here is the number of cemeteries, found in the area. There is even one cemetery in the core of the town’s tourist area, having several thousand meticulously arranged plaques to Dutch and British soldiers who died from disease, overwork, and injury. The Allied War Cemetery is the most accessible and visited, and on the other side of it is the outstanding Thailand Burma Railway Center, which excellently explains the entire horrific story. Thai history and museums.

A few kilometres outside of town you can find the quieter Chung Kai War Cemetery. The JEATH is another museum which is situated on the riverside more near to the new town but this facility can not really compete with the other large budget foreign museums. Probably the most visited sight in Kanchanaburi province is the renowned Bridge over the River Kwai, and a Hollywood feature made this attraction famous all over the world. This remarkable steel built bridge was one of two that functioned, including a temporary bridge made from wood further north, and Allied airplanes eventually bombed the bridges in 1945. After WWII it was reconstructed and trains, mostly filled with tourists, follow a route across the bridge leading to Nam Tok, with the most exciting part being a thrilling section over an authentic wooden cliffside support following its way along the river.

If you’ve come especially to trace this dramatic part of modern Southeast Asian history, you definitely must make the trip to Hellfire Pass, which includes some of the most horrific memories. This impressive cutting is the deepest of the many sections along the track that kept many camps occupied. In 1998 the Thai-Australian Chamber of Commerce opened an outstanding memorial museum here for tourists and relatives. With informative headphone commentary, people are taken on a moving tour of the times and life of the souls who suffered at this spot. The cutting is more than 20 meters deep and 50 meters long, all cut with very limited machinery. The lost of lives here was particularly high – nearly 70 percent of the workers died – and each year a ceremony is held on ANZAC day. Some of the things you learn about include their harsh living conditions, their relationship with their cruel commanders and the terrible diseases related to the constant wet climate.

Visitors to Kanchanaburi today can’t avoid this legacy. It’s what keeps the town alive and it’s difficult to leave without feeling a deep and sombre sense of the injustices and suffering that took place here 60 years ago, long before tourists arrived.

Stickman's thoughts:

Just got home from work and it is well after 9 PM…so please forgive the lack of comments today.