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Riding the Death Railway in Kanchanaburi

Thailand is best known for its beaches, islands and hill tribes but the "Land of Smiles" is full of fascinating history which, alongside centuries-old ruins like Ayutthaya, include vivid World War Two relics.

The most poignant of these is the Death Railway. Built between 1942 and 1943 under Japanese command, around 100,000 prisoners of war and Asian labourers worked on the line, laying 415km of track in 15 months. During the railway's constriction, an estimated 60,000 men died.

Discovering the Death Railway

Built as a cargo route for the Japanese army, the railway forged through Kanchanaburi in western Thailand – a breathtaking province of dense jungle, wild mountains, raging rivers and sheer cliffs.

Discovering the Death Railway

Although the railway was closed in 1947, the track between Nong Pla Duk and Nam Tok was reopened in 1957. Today, this restored section is a fantastic way to discover the region's dramatic beauty and harrowing history. I visited last October to experience it for myself.

A daytrip from Bangkok

Kanchanaburi – the name of both the province and its capital city – is a couple of hours' drive west of Bangkok. Visiting on a daytrip, I travelled by car with a driver and guide. This is the easiest option if you're short of time but you can also travel by bus, train or tour group, and stay overnight in a riverside hotel or floating raft house.

View from train over the river

On the morning of my trip, my tour guide, Ohm, met me outside my Bangkok hotel at 08:00am.

"Morning Lucy. You can take a nap."

He beamed and smiled, as I climbed into the air-conditioned car.

"We'll arrive at around 10 o'clock."

The JEATH War Museum

Two hours later we pulled up on a quiet backstreet near to Kanchanaburi city.

"This is a simple museum but it tells an important story."

Ohm told me as we walked over to the JEATH War Museum.

"J.E.A.T.H. stands for the five main nationalities involved in the railway's construction: Japanese, English, Australian, American, Thai and Holland."

He explained.

Kanchanaburi war cemetary

The exhibits here are housed in long bamboo "tents," which are replicas of the huts that the prisoners lived in. Inside each one is a long sleeping shelf, while photographs and artefacts tell the stories of those who worked on the line.

Kanchanaburi war cemetary

As I looked at the exhibits, I learnt that many prisoners had been captured in Singapore and transported to Thailand in rice trucks. By the time they arrived, most were too sick to work – but they had no choice.

JEATH Museum sleeping platform

With some wearing little more than loincloths, they were made to clear the jungle, build bridges and lay the tracks using basic tools and their bare hands.

Artist's impression of teh men in their bamboo hut living quarters

Starved and dehydrated, they died of everything from tropical diseases and malnutrition, to accidents, beatings and torture. Nearby, at Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, 7,000 headstones commemorate some of those who died.

Bridge over the River Kwai

Lucy on bridge over river Kwai

Our next stop was the "Bridge over the River Kwai" where the restored line journeys into the jungle. A crucial element in the railway's construction, this bridge allowed construction materials to be carried across the river.

Lucy waiting on the platform in Kanchanaburi province

Made famous by David Lean's 1957 film (The Bridge over the River Kwai) Ohm told me how the river was originally called the "Mae Klong."

"They got it wrong in the film, so people now call it the Kwai Yai River instead."

Ohm explained.

Lucy on the train

A popular tourist spot, this section of the line is fringed with cafes, shops and stalls. Here, you can walk along the tracks and cross the bridge, or hop on a train to ride the restored railway.

Bridge over the River Kwai

When a train arrived at the station with a screech of brakes, Ohm and I got on and took a seat in one of the booths. Setting off, we rolled across the bridge and into the forest, opening the windows to let the breeze and jungle smells waft in. As we chugged through the green, I imagined the men sawing and slicing at the forest to clear a pathway for the tracks.

Teetering trestle bridges

Lucy on bridge over river Kwai

Further along the line, we tracked high above the river on a teetering bridge. Of the Lucy Riding the death railway in Kanchanaburi688 bridges built along the line, almost all were made from green jungle timber and held together with spikes and dowel. Some were up to 30 metres high and more than 200 metres long. During their construction, many men fell to their deaths.

Lucy Riding the death railway in  Kanchanaburi

Today, the reconstructed bridges are strong and safe, with stunning views over forests, mountains and rivers that give Kanchanaburi's natural beauty the recognition it deserves.

Hell Fire Pass

Artist's impression (Murray Griffin) on workers in Hell Fire Pass

We disembarked the train at Wang Pho station and ate lunch in a beautiful restaurant, hidden in the forest. If you have longer, you can stay on the train and ride it all the way to Nam Tok.

Lucy in Banboo jungle at Hell Fire Pass

After lunch, we drove to our final site of the day: Hell Fire Pass. Due to a lack of machinery, the Japanese abandoned their original plan to construct tunnels along the line and, instead, made huge cuttings through the rock. The deepest, longest and most notorious of these was Konyu Cutting.

Artist's impression (Murray Griffin) on workers in Hell Fire Pass

Here, men worked through the night under Japan's "speedo" regime. Fears of British attack meant that the railway's completion deadline was brought forward, so the men were forced to work 15-18 hour shifts. This was dangerous work and, when the Monsoon rains arrived, death rates soared with the outbreak of cholera.

Hell Fire Pass - Konyu cutting

Working at night, the flames of their bamboo-torches cast eerie shadows of the men's gaunt bodies across the rock face. It looked like a scene from hell, so they nicknamed it "Hell Fire Pass."

Walking through history

Original tracks at Hell Fire Pass site

The railway line hasn't been restored at Hell Fire Pass, so you can walk through the cutting on the same route as the workers did.

Memorials at Hell Fire Pass

Taking an audio-guide from the visitor centre, I followed the route through the bamboo forest, stopping at memorials and information points, and tripping on pieces of track that jutted out of the original railbed.

Memorials at Hell Fire Pass

To blast through the rock and create the pass, holes had to be drilled for explosives and, today, the remains of broken drill bits can still be seen in the cliff.

Memorials at Hell Fire Pass

At the Hell Fire Pass visitor centre, a museum explains more about what life was like here, and tells the story of the railway's final days: completed in October 1943, it fulfilled its role as a supply channel and, when the Japanese were finally defeated, it was used as an escape route.

Deeper insights and new depths

Discovering both the beauty of Kanchanaburi and the history of the Death Railway is a moving experience. I could easily have stayed longer here but, if you're short on time, even one day is enough to give you a deeper insight into Thailand's history, a better understanding of its diversity, and add a whole new layer to the "Land of Smiles."

Lucy Grewcock

Lucy Grewcock

Lucy Grewcock

The Escape Artist

One-off experiences, action-filled adventures and eye-popping cultural encounters: my kind of travel...

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