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The “Death Railway” by train

A WindowSeater Summary

· Train,travel,Railway,Thailand,WindowSeater

A sad yet uplifting train trip. Here we tell you how to get the most out of the journey.

Lets start with a little exercise: I want you to imagine a long line of people laying down, from head to toe. 1 in every 10 people is an Allied soldier. The other 9 in every 10 people you pass is a civilian from Southeast Asia or the Subcontinent. Zoom out. You see this line of people stretches all the way over the horizon — for 415km in fact, which is the distance from Ban Pong to Thanbyuzayat shown on the map below.

That immense line of people roughly represents the number that were enslaved to build the Thai-Burma Railway, also referred to as the Death Railway. The 120km portion of the railway that still operates today — from Ban Pong to Nam Tok (near Konyu on the map) — would represent roughly those who died.

What a horrid thought to start this trip guide with. Sorry about that. But in these WindowSeater trip summaries — and the WindowSeater trip guide — we try to tell you what you need to know to get the most out of the trip. And the confronting and staggering tragedy of the Death Railway is important part of it’s narrative. But we also came across stories of people fighting to survive, looking out for each other, and even sometimes overcoming the horror to enjoy moments of camaraderie. So its also uplifting.

However, if you’re coming from Bangkok — which would be the majority of those of you who plan on taking this train — there are a few nice surprises along the way that are entirely unrelated to the Death Railway, and which come before it starts in Ban Pong. So lets say we lighten the mood and start with that:

Bangkok <> Ban Pong:

You will start at either Hua Lumphong or Thonburi stations (see a note at the bottom about departure stations):

Hua Lumphong is a great example of Italian-influenced Thai architecture, with art-deco trimmings, a grand hall, and lots of glass, all of which was considered adventurous at the time of its construction in 1916. Its nicely air-conditioned these days, and taking a coffee overlooking the main hall is a decent way to wait for a train. The portrait of King Chulalongkorn — the father of Thailand’s railways — greets you as you enter through to the platforms. Queen Victoria reportedly gave him a toy train set when he was an infant, which was supposed to seed an idea of linking her British colonial territories of Myanmar and Malaysia by rail. Although he did develop a love of trains, he concentrated instead on building links within his own empire. It was the Japanese Imperial Army that made the link Queen Victoria wanted, which was used instead to invade the British Empire.

Entrance Hall of Hua Lumphong Station. The rail head will soon be moved a few kilometres North to a shiny new transport super-hub in Ban Sue, and Hua Lumphong will be repurposed.

As the start or end of most Thai rail journeys, Hua Lumphong sets the tone of the quaint, nostalgic, and rusting State Railways of Thailand.

Thonburi station, on the other hand, is unfortunate — it was glued together on the cheap when the station was moved from a proper station of a similar vintage as Hua Lumphong about 800 metres beyond the current railhead towards the river. It was converted into an interesting medical museum, which you might like to visit if you have a long wait there. There’s also a large wet market next to the new station, which can come in handy for collecting snacks before the journey if it’s open (but its plain creepy if its not).

The growth of Bangkok — one of Asia’s true mega-cities — has been so fast that its spilling into the countryside more like a high wave than a seeping tide. For the first 30 minutes to an hour, depending on which station you take the train from/to, your eye-line is obstructed with concrete and correlated iron, over-dressed power-lines, roads and occasional canals. The train will sometimes go slow enough to see some adjacent points of interest, but you’re otherwise staring at flickers of Bangkok’s dead spaces.

Then suddenly, it opens up: a negligible stretch of ‘peri-urban’ before you’re amidst paddy and plantations, and country roads. It kind of feels like you’ve been shot out of the barrel of a gun in slow motion.

One of the many rail bridges, but not yet “The Bridge”

Welcome to Thailand! #nofilter #notourists #freeofcharge. Train travel in Thailand is one of the last glimpses a common tourist can take of authenticity. Here your views are unobstructed enough to peer into people’s backyards, see how they live, what they do for a buck, how they choose to get around and organise their environment. And this is why I feel that Bangkok <> Ban Pong is a really enjoyable stretch.

Then there are some treats. If you’re paying attention, you might do a double take around the town of Salaya when a giant Buddha walks past you in the opposite direction. Its the world’s largest bronze casting of a standing or walking buddha, and you should get a glimpse of it if you’re looking to the left (South).

A bit further on, you will arrive at a town you probably have never heard of – Nakhon Pathom – which is actually one of Thailand’s most ancient, and has one of the oldest and largest pagoda’s in Southeast Asia, which you should be able to get a glimpse of on the left (South).

Phra Pathommachedi was built around 200 BC at the request of the great King Ashoka of India when he was promoting the territorial expansion of the Buddhist faith into the area. At a time, it was build on the coast, but since then the Chao Phraya river has deposited 50km worth of land. The town was deserted as it lost its coast and its reason to be — as a trading port — was lost. It was swallowed by jungle for a millennia, but was later rediscovered and revived by a modern king who saw the religious significance of the sight. The King built a royal residence here to stay at when the royal family came to visit, which you can’t see from the train, but is well worth getting off to visit for its own rich and strange history.

The dozen odd Blips WindowSeater has for you between Bangkok and Ban Pong are generally surprises — they certainly were for us.

Ban Pong <> The Bridge:

At Ban Pong, the start of the Death Railway is marked only by a mall carved stone sitting beside the track.

You skirt around the outskirts of Ban Po, and from there the track follows the River Kwai — made famous by The Bridge, then the book about The Bridge, then the movie of the book.

The Bridge on the River Kwai, looking back towards Kanchanaburi

As great a book and movie as “The Bridge On The River Kwai” was, it was somewhere along this stretch from Ban Po to The Bridge that an arguably even more significant moment in cinema took place: the Russian Roulette scene in “The Dear Hunter”. Its a chilling scene, featuring a young Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken who are forced with the threat of being shot, and by being repeatedly slapped, to play Russian Roulette with each other. Walken actually won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of a man mentally traumatised by the events depicted in this scene. The performances were made more convincing by having Walken and De Niro actually slapped, very hard, by the Thai supporting actors. All the Thai actors in the scene were locals from around here. Apparently, the producers had some difficulty finding someone who would be happy to do all the slapping — eventually they found someone with a dislike of Americans.

 

There are only a few opportunities to glimpse the river along this stretch, and it is here that the mountain range begins to take shape — the one dividing Thailand and the Chao Phraya basin from Myanmar and the Irrawaddy basin. Otherwise, this stretch is actually a good time to get some shut-eye.

 

You get plenty of fair warning for “The Bridge” (On The River Kwai). The train stops first at Kanchanaburi — the tourist town surrounding the bridge. This stop before the bridge is the right place to get off if you first want to visit the Commonwealth War Grave, some museums, and some hotels that are in Kanchanaburi itself. However, the train will then curve around and stop for a prolongued time at the River Kwai Bridge Station, which is just before the bridge itself.

 

If you’re expecting it to be a wooden bridge, spanning a brown river in a steep jungly valley, you must have seen the movie a few times. The movie set was actually in Sri Lanka, and the bridge was built specifically for the movie. The film-makers felt that backdrop of the real bridge lacked a certain dramatic appeal.

Scene from the Bridge on the River Kwai — filmed near Kitugala, Sri Lanka

*SPOILER ALERT*: Apparently, the final dramatic scene of the movie, when the bridge explodes just before the train crosses it, was not the best pyrotechnical work: The bridge’s explosives failed to detonate, and the train passed across it just fine. But being a fake bridge, the tracks went straight into a wall in the opposite bank. The train smashed into the wall, and did fall into the river very dramatically, but it couldn’t be incorporated into the storyline. The whole scene needed to be redone with a new train. The nearby Sri Lankan town was thoroughly entertained for weeks.

Sorry to let you down a little more, but the real bridge was not actually built over the River Kwai, as the book and movie suggests. Rather, at the time it was built, the River Kwai started a few kilometres downstream. But the mercurial local authorities identified the importance of this pop culture reference to visitors, and renamed the river under the bridge accordingly.

The first version of The Bridge was built out of wood, such as what you see in the movie and in the picture below, as a short-term measure before a more durable version could be constructed. It was bombed and rebuilt a few times throughout ebb and flow of Imperial Japan’s advances into the subcontinent, but always by air — the squad of brave commandos and/or British PoWs in the story was for dramatic effect. Also, rather than being blown up just before the first train passed over it, the Bridge(s) and the whole Death Railway got two years of good use by the Japanese Imperial Army. It helped them to move a supplies and people between its operations in Southeast Asia and Burma.

As seen in the above photo, some curved spans (on the left) survived the bombing, and are still there today. The part that needed to be rebuilt can be distinguished by more angular spans. It is old, and is inundated with tourists pedestrians, so the train moves across it at a very cautious pace.

The Bridge was just one of the 9 major bridges built in the Thai-Burma Railway by the Imperial Japanese and their captives, with most made out of steel and concrete. So in some ways, its fame is purely an accident of popular culture. The result has been a reliable flow of visitors has left an indelible mark on the surrounding economy, and with some unfortunate consequences. Yet, the bridge has also become a place of pilgrimage for those people who have a connection to the story of the Death Railway, but I feel that those tourists would be more contented with what can be found further down the line.

Tip: If you’re planning on staying in Kanchanaburi for the night, you should get off at the Bridge. You won’t find another convenient opportunity to get off afterwards.

The Bridge <>Nam Tok:

As soon as you cross the River Kwai, the scenery immediately becomes the feature as you go through a green tunnel of leaves. Then you’re train rounds a bend and for the rest of the way to Nam Tok will be squeezing between the River Kwai on the left, and steep hills to the right.

The Whampo Viaduct, looking downstream towards Kanchanaburi

The space between the river and the hills runs out at the Whampo Viaduct. Its essentially a long bridge hugging alongside a cliff-face on a rickety bridge made of massive wooden sleepers. It too was built by the Imperial Japanese and its captives, and is still — more or less — in its original state. The fact that it still stands today, after almost 70 years, and it was built in only 17 days (by 2000 men) in trying war-time conditions, I think is a credit to its engineers. (The argument about whether this engineering should be credited to the Japanese, Allied PoWs, or the Southeast Asian migrant workers, is a heated one).

You can get out just before the Whampo Viaduct to walk along its 365m length, but its still a few kilometres to Nam Tok. The tourist train that departs on the weekend will stop for you, but the weekday train will not.

The terminal station of Nam Tok is as far as you’re going to get by train, but is not a feature in and of itself. If you’re taking a later afternoon train, and you want to hang out there a while before taking the train back, you might be able to get a room in one of the resorts between the station and the river. There are further accommodation options further upstream, some of which include some floating and “glamping” options.

Past Nam Tok:

If your travel schedule permits, there are a few places to visit past Nam Tok. Of course, the Death Railway continued on — all the way into Myanmar — and the rails still sit in some places.

 

Particularly, Hellfire Pass has become the final point of pilgrimage and remembrance supported by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission with a well-kept and informative museum, which is supported also by the Royal Thai Armed Forces.

Hellfire Pass

Instead of cutting a tunnel — which could only be worked on with limited numbers of workers from either end — the engineers thought it more time-efficient to use a larger number of labourers to cut down to create the largest rock cutaway of the railway line. It was especially gruelling work, often completed at night under firelight, apparently creating a scene that resembled and felt literally like hell. In the 6 weeks taken to complete it, 69 men were beaten to death, and more succumbed to disease, starvation and exhaustion. You can walk along the cutaway, and dawn remembrance services are held every year on ANZAC Day (25 April).

If you need a refreshing change from solemnity, the Sai Yok Noi Waterfall is also found past Nam Tok. Its swimmable, but is visited mainly by Thai families so best cover up a bit more than you might otherwise. Nearby the waterfall, there are a couple of caves: Krasae Cave, and Dawadung Cave, which include some stalactite/stalactite formations. If you have more time, and are willing and able to travel further afield, you’ll find yourself at the South-Western border of Erawan National Park, which is a gem. It also has Erawan Falls, which are reportedly larger and more impressive.

Note on Departure Stations:

At the time of writing, this train departs from different stations depending on the day.

 

On the weekend: Departure is from the main Hua Lumphong Station on the weekends at 6.30am. This is a tourist train which includes stops at Nakhon Pathom, the Bridge on the River Kwai, the Whampo Viaduct and its adjacent Kra-sair cave, and takes you to the Sai Yok Noi Waterfall. It departs from Nam Tok at 2.25pm, and arrives at 7.25pm back in Bangkok. It costs about 120 baht per person, but sells out quickly.

 

On the weekdays: Departure is from Thonburi Station, on the Western side of the Chao Phraya river. Getting there can be tricky: Either you take a connecting train from Hua Lumphong to connect to the Thonburi line at Tailing Chan station (leave at least an hour for the ride, as trains can be slow through the city, then more to make the connection, and be sure to confirm the scheduling in advance); or its around a 200 THB taxi ride, which one wouldn’t want to do if pressed for time (I’d leave 45 mins for it +/- Bangkok traffic).

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