Riding a train from 8 in the morning till almost 8 at night with a couple of hours break in the middle would not be everyone’s idea of a good day. However when that same train takes you on the historic Death Railway, over the bridge on the River Kwai and past the Wampo Viaduct it takes on a completely different feeling and meaning.
If you are interested in doing any train journey anywhere in the world the best resource I have found is “The Man in Seat 61.” You can find a wealth of information on his site about train journeys around the world and more too about this particular train route. Here is his introduction about the Death Railway:
“During World War 2 the Japanese used Allied Prisoners of war to build a railway from Thailand to Burma so they could supply their army without the dangers of sending their supplies by sea. Many prisoners died under appalling conditions during it’s construction, and the line became known as the “Death Railway”. It was immortalised in David Lean’s 1957 film “The Bridge on the River Kwai” which centers on one of the lines main engineering feats, the bridge across the Kwai Yau River just north of Kanchanburi. Although the film was shot in Sri Lanka, the bridge on the River Kwai really exists, and still carries regular passenger trains from Bangkok as far as Nam Tok. For anyone interested in 20th century history, a visit to Kanchanburi and the infamous Death Railway is a must.”
There are only two trains a day that leave from Bangkok’s Thonburi Station that go to the River Kwai, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. (the weekend schedule is slightly different.) We barely made our morning train despite getting to the lobby in plenty of time. Turns out Thonburi is a very small station and no one in the lobby knew where it was. Thankfully one of the cab drivers knew the way and quickly took us there the best he could weaving in and out of busy morning traffic. If we missed our train it wasn’t going to happen. Luckily the train was still at the station as we hopped out to buy our tickets and we got on just before it pulled out of the station. Had it left on time we would have missed it by about 10 minutes so glad for the delay on departure!
Once on the train we settled in and watched the changing scenery. As the train stopped at stations along the way various vendors would get on with beautifully presented fruit, leaf wrapped rice parcels and drinks, get off at the next stop and a new set of vendors would get on. Below is the train leaving the last station before crossing the river.
Before our trip I re-watched “The Bridge on the River Kwai Movie” as a reminder. Just after our trip “The Railway Man” was released and we watched that together which helped bring even more meaning to the experience. Ideally we would have allowed 2-3 days for this trip to get off at Kanchanburi and visit the Allied War Graves and some of the museums. There are tours from Bangkok available where you can visit the main areas by bus or van in a day trip, but we chose to ride the train and experience it that way.
Here we are about to cross the river. you could feel the excitement and anticipation on the train.
Of course crossing the bridge on the train, you don’t get to see the bridge span the river, but you do know you are on it. You can also walk across the bridge and there are standby areas for pedestrians when a train goes by.
Taking in the scenery as we leave the river area.
Another bonus of riding the train is we would make stops at small stations along the way, but also get a glimpse of villages and a feel for the local way of life.
Approaching the Wampo Viaduct.
Everyone is looking out the train windows.
We got off at the station directly after the viaduct. We had some time here before the next train. There were some vendors, a restaurant overlooking the river where a lot of tour groups eat, and this view of the viaduct. You could also walk back on the tracks or visit the Buddha cave built in the rocks.
There are floating bungalows that you can stay in on the water which also would have given us more time to visit Hellfire Pass. Hellfire Pass (Kanyu Cutting) is further beyond the end of the train line. There is a museum and about 7 km of old railway path cleared by the Australian government as a memorial to the 13,000 Allied prisoners and 80,000 laborers who died building the railway. The Wampo viaduct below was also built by prisoners of war allowing just a narrow passage for the trains.
Back on the train headed for Bangkok.
On the journey back we made friends with this sweet little Thai boy riding the train with his dad. We took turns drawing pictures and looking out the window.
The only trouble we had was once we got back to the station in Bangkok. Since the protests had begun in we couldn’t get a taxi that wanted to take us to the other side of the river where out hotel was. We were about to panic when 5 taxis turned us down but finally we found one to get us back with no problems.
A very memorable day and one we think of often where the journey was the destination and getting there was the experience.