Kanchanburi Death Railway

  • Kanchanburi Death Railway
  • Kanchanburi Death Railway
  • River Kwai
  • River Kwai
  • Walking along the railway of death
  • A current train on the line
  • Taking a rest on the death railway line

Kanchanburi Province is located approximately 120 kilometers West of Bangkok and shares a border along the complete length of its western edge with Myanmar (Burma). Kanchanburi town is a very quaint and friendly place with hospitable and amenable people who take pride in their picturesque location. The town has its fair share of inspiring Buddhist temples, lush landscapes, and breathtaking waterfalls alongside captivating mountain scenery. However, Kanchanburi is made more famous (or infamous) by the Kanchanburi Death Railway which is located close by.

Kanchanburi Death Railway

Kanchanburi Death Railway

The Burma Railway – its official name – is a 415 km railway between Bangkok, Thailand and Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar), built during World War II by the Imperial Japanese Army to support its Japanese forces in the Burma campaign. The railway, designed by S.O. No, was estimated to be built and finished in five years. This time frame was not acceptable to the Imperial army, so Prisoners Of War and Asian workers were press-ganged into the construction. It is believed that up to 250,000 in total worked on the construction of the railway line, with 100,000 losing their lives over it. In 1942, Japanese forces invaded Burma from Thailand and seized the colony from British control. To maintain their forces in Burma, the Japanese were required to bring supplies and troops to Burma by sea, through the Strait of Malacca and the Andaman Sea. This route was vulnerable to attack by Allied submarines, and a different means of transport was needed. The obvious alternative was a railway.

A current train on the line

A current train on the line

The Japanese forces started the project in June 1942. They intended to connect Ban Pong in Thailand with Thanbyuzayat in Burma through the Three Pagodas Pass. Construction began at the Thai end on the 22nd of June 1942 and in Burma at roughly the same date. Most of the construction materials, including tracks and sleepers, were brought from dismantled branches of the Federated Malay States Railway network and from the Netherlands East Indies. On 17 October 1943, the two sections of the line met about 18 km (11 miles) south of the Three Pagodas Pass at Konkuita (Kaeng Khoi Tha, Sangkhla Buri district, Kanchanburi Province). Most of the P.O.W.s were then transported to Japan. Those left to maintain the line still suffered from appalling living conditions as well as increasing Allied air raids. The most famous portion of the railway is Bridge 277, ‘the bridge over the River Kwai’, which was built over a stretch of river which was then known as part of the Mae Klong. The association with the ‘River Kwai’ came from the fact that the greater part of the Thai part of the route followed the valley of the Khwae Noi.

Walking along the railway of death

Walking along the railway of death

In 1960, because of a discrepancy between fact and fiction, the part of the Mae Klong that passes under the famous bridge was renamed as the Khwae Yai. This bridge was immortalized by Pierre Boulle in his book and the film based on it, The Bridge on the River Kwai. However, there are many who claim that the movie is utterly unrealistic and does not show what the conditions and treatment of prisoners was actually like. The first wooden bridge over the Khwae Yai was finished in February 1943, followed by a concrete and steel bridge in June 1943. After the war, the railway was in inadequate state to be used for the civil Thai railway system, and needed heavy reconstruction. On 24 June 1949, the first part from Kanchanburi to Nong Pladuk was finished; on 1 April 1952, the next section up to Wang Pho (Wangpo); and finally on 1 July 1958, up to waterfalls. The portion of the railway still in use measures about 130 km (80 miles). Beyond the waterfalls, the line has been abandoned. Steel rails have been removed for reuse in expanding railway yards, reinforcing and rehabilitating railway tracks, and constructing new branch lines. Parts of it have been converted into a walking trail.

Taking a rest on the death railway line

Taking a rest on the death railway line

Since the 1990s various proposals have been made to rebuild the complete railway, but these plans have not yet come to fruition. Since a large part of the original Death Railway line is now submerged under a hydroelectric dam, and the surrounding terrain is mountainous, it would take extensive tunneling to reconnect Thailand with Burma by rail. There are several museums dedicated to those who lost their lives constructing the Kanchanburi Death Railway, the largest of which is at Hellfire Pass (north of the current terminus at Nam Tok), a cutting where the greatest number of lives was lost. There is also an Australian memorial at Hellfire Pass. Two other museums are in Kanchanburi, the Thailand-Burma Railway Museum (opened in March 2003), and the JEATH War Museum. At the Khwae Bridge there is a memorial plaque and a historic locomotive is on display.

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About the author

Thomas has a university background in the UK and in Latin America, with studies in Languages and Humanities, Culture, Literature and Economics. He started his Asian experience as a publisher in Krabi in 2005. Thomas has been editing local newspapers and magazines in England, Spain and Thailand for more then fifteen years. He is currently working on several projects in Thailand and abroad. Apart from Thailand, Thomas has lived in Italy, England, Venezuela, Cuba, Spain and Bali. He spends most of his time in Asia. During the years Thomas has developed a great understanding of several Asian cultures and people. He is also working freelance, writing short travel stories and articles for travel magazines. Follow Thomas on www.asianitinerary.com

View all articles by Thomas Gennaro