A travel guide by Window Seater
About this trip
If a line of people laid down from head to toe along the 415km of the original Thai-Burma Railway, or “Death Railway”, then that would roughly represent how many people were enslaved to build it. Those laying along the 120km stretch that still operates today would represent those who didn’t survive the ordeal.
We offer this confronting image only to give weight to the tragedy of the Death Railway’s story. But having taken this trip a few times while testing the Window Seater app, we have found that there’s a lot more to it. If you think you know this story from the popular movies and books about it, be prepared to reconsider everything.
Also, there are some fascinating surprises on the way that are not about the tragedy at all. The line from Bangkok cuts past ancient towns, some quirky places, and through transitions in Thailand’s geology and modern society.
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How to travel
At the time of writing, there’s no direct way to book directly with the State Railways of Thailand except in person at a station. The tourist train (see below) books out particularly early, so secure your ticket at least a week in advance, and I’m afraid that it probably means going to the station early for it. For the weekday trains, we recommend booking with our partner 12Go.
For more detail on when and where to travel from, head to our blog post How to book tickets for The Death Railway.
In this trip
Bangkok is a force. Its the centre of the Thai universe, and is the sort of city that takes a lifetime to really know. Unfortunately, visitors walk into and out of this rich and vibrant city with the wrong ideas.
For a small town, Salaya has plenty going on.
There's a strange little museum tucked away out here, but I think it deserves a mention.
Buddhist Temples are everywhere in Thailand. There's a lot to learn about them. And this one in particular is quite peculiar.
Thailand is a country of water, particularly in its floodplains. Canals and bridges have been a major engineering feat.
Nakhon Pathom is a surprise. We really recommend you explore it - particularly the Pra Pathomachedi
Nong Pladuck Junction is the crossroads where the Japanese began to lay tracks West.
To the North of the Death Railway next to the River Kwai is a large industrial cluster, which is as good a time as any to talk about the Thai economy.
The 76 administrative provinces of Thailand often date back to times of chiefdoms and city-states.
For quite a while on the Death Railway before you reach The Bridge, you might be able to see a river to the South and West - this is the infamous River Kwai... but at the same time, it kind of isn't.
On the Death Railway, you'll be in the floodplain of the Mae Klong, in the greater Chao Phraya floodplain, which is where most of Thailand lives for better or worse.
As you reach the end of the central Thai floodplains, you will be meeting the Tennasserim hills.
In Kanchanaburi Town, you'll find the Allied War Cemetary, and a number of museums.
The Bridge on the River Kwai has become a tourist mecca. Although its a central focus in the famous movie, its just one of many bridges built by the Japanese, and bombed by the allies.
The Japanese took a short-cut to Burma through this valley, which used to run all the way over the Tennaserim range, but the Thai government has since put a dam in it.
The Wampo Viaduct is around 200m long, sits 9 metres high, and is actually the original structure that was built by the POWs, Southeast Asian labourers, and Japanese soldiers.
Embankments were the most common type of engineering task along the railway, and took the most amount of work.
As you start nearing the end of the Death Railway, we should wrap up the story and say our goodbyes.
Nam Tok is where the train stops to go back to Bangkok. Jump off here to explore Hellfire Pass, Erawan National Park, and Sai Yok Nai waterfall.
Welcome to Hua Lumphong Station - the beginning or end of all great Thai rail journeys.
Hellfire Pass was named because of the fire lights that burned all night while prisoners undertook the gruelling and dangerous work of its construction. Today there is a memorial and museum maintained by the Australian Government. There is also a moving tribute to Weary Dunlop not too far.
Bangkok can seem like a messy city. Tangles of cables, tight squeezes, and dirty canals.
Bangkok is a not-so-ancient seat of the Thai Royal court, and you may be passing a surprising and important palace.
Its not a thrilling sight, but Bang Sue junction is about to become rather important place for Thai rail travel, and its an interesting case study on how Thai's like to build things.
The train lines diverge between North and South here. The Northern and Eastern Lines go up to Ayutthaya before separating. The Southern and Western (the infamous "Death Railway") head West to Nakhon Pathom before separating. Singapore is a couple of days reach of here by rail for the price of a cheap hotel room, or there's a luxury option taking 3 days.
Chao Phraya translates to "the Chief", such is the importance of this River to the Thai nation.
Tailing Chan is where the Thonburi branch merges, is a new BTS hub, and a sight of a nasty train crash!