We only knew about Kanchanaburi province from the Burma Railway; the construction of which cost so many lives. But after having visited The Bridge over the River Kwai, the Thailand-Burma Railway Museum, the War Cemetery and Hellfire Pass, Kanchanaburi has come to mean something else to us: a place where more than 100,000 people lost their lives building a railway that wasn’t theirs.
History: Japan and the Burma Railway
December 1941, Japan starts its advance through Southeast Asia. After heavy fighting the Japanese defeat the British and seize Singapore in 1942. The Japanese now needed a safer supply route between Burma (Myanmar) and Siam (Thailand), which is why in June 1942 they started construction on a railway line of 258 miles (415 kilometers) connecting both countries: the Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway.
Besides a supply line, the construction of the Railway would also establish a strategically important link to India. The British had been toying with the idea of this railway for decades, but construction was never realized due to the rough, mountainous terrain and the tropical climate. The Japanese decided to use prisoners of war and civilians to carry out the construction of this vast project.
Prisoners of War
330,000 people worked on building the railway, including 250,000 Asian laborers and 61,000 prisoners of war (POWs). These POWs, day after day, have their bodies pushed to extremes in an effort to complete the construction of the railway. The working conditions were appalling.
Its estimated that 90,000 of the laborers and about 16,000 prisoners lost their lives building the Burma Railway, either through disease, malnutrition, exhaustion or abuse. The breakneck speed with which the construction was completed wasn’t thought possible by anybody beforehand.
As mentioned before, the terrain was mountainous, which meant that 99% of all the hard labor had to be done manually.
Hellfire Pass was a mountain range along the Burma Railway track that had to be excavated. The POWs sometimes worked 18 hours a day and had to keep working until deep in the night, when diesel soaked torches and oil lamps would have to be lit. The shadows of the Japanese and the POWs that became visible on the rock face were said to resemble a scene from hell, which is where the name comes from.
And hell it surely was. 96 men were bludgeoned to death by the Japanese guards. Hundreds of men died from cholera, infections, injuries, exhaustion and other diseases. Only 300 of the 1,000 men employed survived this merciless regimen. You only have to look at the excavated rocks to get a sense of the desperation and madness.
These days, that part of the Burma Railway has fallen into disuse. Visitors can walk along the old railway track through Hellfire Pass. There’s also a museum where many more stories and information are available.
Thailand-Burma Railway Centre Museum in Kanchanaburi
The museums, the history, the Burma Railway, the images and the objects left a deep impression on us. What took place in those days is unconscionable.
After visiting the museum in Kanchanaburi, we went to the Don Rak memorial cemetery across from the museum. Keeping in mind what we had just learned, we strolled quietly along the enormous and impeccably maintained cemetery, the burial site of 6,982 POWs, mostly Australian, British, and Dutch.
The messages left by the families of the dead are deeply moving. They probably never got the chance to visit the grave of their sons, brothers, fathers, sons-in-law or sweethearts. Men, around 20 years old, were forced to give up their lives for the construction of a railway line that wasn’t theirs. Standing underneath a burning Thai sun, it was a mournful sight, leaving room only for reflective silence…
The Bridge over the River Kwai is still in use
The world famous Bridge over the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi, renowned from books and films (“The Railway Man” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai”), really symbolizes the Burma Railway.
What a lot of people don’t know is that not one, but two bridges were built here in 1943. One made of steel and the other of wood. These bridges formed the link between Thailand and Burma.
The bridges were destroyed by Allied bombs in 1945. The steel bridge was later restored and until this day is used by local trains. You can take a walk over it and take photos at your own leisure. When a train approaches someone will blow a whistle and start waving a red flag, meaning you have to move to an inlet, after which the train will pass by at a slow pace.
Getting to Kanchanaburi and the Burma Railway
You can easily get to Kanchanaburi from Bangkok by taking the local bus. From the northern bus station of Bangkok (Moh Chit) you pay 110 Thai Baht per person for a two hour trip to Kanchanaburi. From Thonburi train station, in Bangkok, the train to Kanchanaburi leaves several times a day. It’s a 3 hour journey and will cost you about 100 Thai Baht.
The Bridge over the River Kwai
This bridge is located five kilometers from the bus station and three kilometers from the train station in Kanchanaburi. It’s easily accessible by (bike)taxi, by motorbike or while on a tour. Entrance to the bridge is free.
Thailand-Burma Railway Centre Museum
The museum is located 3 kilometers from the bus station and is within walking distance of the train station. The entrance fee for the museum is 120 Thai Baht per person for adults and 60 Thai Baht for children.
This part of the old Burma Railway lies at a distance of about 80 kilometers from Kanchanaburi and is easily accessible by public transport. There’s a local bus that leaves from the bus station every hour. It will take about an hour and a half to get you there and a return ticket costs 100 Thai Baht. The bus stops within 100 meters of the museum. The walk to Hellfire Pass will take around 40 minutes. Walks of around 3 hours are also possible. The signage along the walking routes is excellent. Bring good shoes and enough water! Entrance to the museum and Hellfire Pass are free.
You can book organized tours combining all of the aforementioned activities all over town. These will also include the Erawan Falls. Still, our advice is to organize your own trip. Rent a motorbike, go by taxi or take the bus so that you can decide yourself how much time you want to spend at each of Kanchanaburi’s sights.