Death Railway: History of the Bridge on The River Kwai

A local Thai train passes over the Bridge on the River Kwai
A local Thai train passes over the Bridge on the River Kwai | © Maxim B. / Flickr

A couple of hours from Bangkok in western Thailand, Kanchanaburi province holds a more sombre message than most Thai tourist destinations. While nowadays it boasts a thriving backpacker scene, Kanchanaburi town is steeped in the gruelling history of the Death Railway, and is home to the Bridge on the River Kwai.

Thailand: never colonised, but certainly occupied

It’s a frequently touched upon matter of pride for Thais, and the Thai state, that Thailand has never been fully colonised. Indeed, credit for this accomplishment is often given to King Chulalongkorn, who Thais are taught, brought a wave of modernisation to the country. This included measures such the abolition of slavery, the strengthening of freedom of religion, introduction of a postal service and the first railway, and the streamlining of central government and local administration across the country.

All this, together with proactively seeking amicable ties with the West, is said to have sufficiently ‘westernised’ what was then Siam so as to deter the colonial powers from identifying a need to stake a claim on the nation, as they had with its southeast Asian neighbours. Yet, while Thailand may indeed never have been colonised, it has at various times been occupied by foreign powers, including by the Japanese during World War Two.

Thailand’s part in World War Two

For the duration of the Second World War, Thailand was still known as Siam and, until Japan invaded Siam in December 1941, the country had been officially neutral. The invasion meant Japanese troops could – with Siam’s cooperation rather than an entirely forced hand, it has to be said – pass through the country en route to invade Malaya (modern-day Malaysia and Singapore) and Burma (now Myanmar), both British colonies.

Tourists walking across the Bridge on the River Kwai

Kanchanaburi and the Bridge on the River Kwai

Of all the remnants of war history in Thailand today, those in Kanchanaburi – less than a three-hour drive west of Bangkok – are probably the most well-known, significant and poignant. Subsequent to their invasion, with unfettered access to and the use of Siam’s infrastructure, Japan sought to create a transport route through Siam into Burma, which it also occupied between 1942 and 1944, in order to reduce its reliance on sea transport and facilitate onward moves into India.

This took the form of the now infamous Death Railway, constructed by the Japanese using the forced labour of hundreds of thousands of civilians from southeast Asia and prisoners of war from the Allies’ forces. These soldiers – relocated from camps in Singapore and elsewhere – were principally from the UK and its colony in India, the Netherlands and its Dutch East Indies colony (today Indonesia), Australia, and the United States.

A local Thai train passes over the Bridge on the River Kwai

The Death Railway earned its name from the sheer number of lives lost during its construction, including that of railway bridge number 277 in June 1943, allowing the track to cross what is today known as the Khwae Noi River, and which has become recognised worldwide as the Bridge on the River Kwai. Estimates vary but, of more than 60,000 prisoners of war enslaved on the Death Railway, almost 13,000 are believed to have died, in addition to as many as 90,000 southeast Asian civilian forced labourers.

Even those who overcame the odds had to endure abysmal living and working conditions, including a humid, monsoon-plagued climate ripe for spreading diseases, food shortages, an absence of medical care, and the mammoth task of construction on unforgiveable terrain and with primitive equipment. That’s not to mention the incredible violence and torture inflicted by the Japanese and Korean soldiers supervising the construction.

The Death Railway during and after WW2

At indescribable human cost, Japan’s Death Railway – in fact the most famous of a total of four that the Japanese used forced labour to build around this time – was completed in October 1943. For a time it was operational, although damage caused by British and American air raids rendered it unusable in June 1945. Following the railway’s completion, many of the prisoners of war who worked on it were taken to Japan. Others, including those retained to carry out maintenance work in even riskier conditions before and during the Allied bombings towards the end of the war, were transferred to nearby camps, although large numbers still perished even there.

It wasn’t until the war’s end in 1945 that Allied forces liberated the Death Railway’s remaining prisoners. The railway itself was fully closed in 1947 and, along the Siam-Burma border, a section of track not already destroyed by bombing was ripped up in an effort to put the railway irreversibly beyond use.

Remembering the past in modern-day Kanchanaburi

The Bridge on the River Kwai escaped planned bombing, and remains in place in Kanchanaburi as a tourist attraction and functioning railway bridge over which trains pass daily. The majority of its smaller components are originals, while a few are post-war replacements. Although the Death Railway has never again reached the Myanmar border, a shorter stretch was reopened by Thailand’s railway authorities between 1949 and 1958, and trains on this modern-day line cross the infamous Bridge on the River Kwai.

Tourists walking along a stretch of track on the Death Railway

That makes the Bridge on the River Kwai one of Kanchanaburi’s most popular war-related attractions – there are always crowds trudging across it and snapping photos – but it is actually something of a misnomer. When the bridge was built, the water beneath it was actually the Mae Klong River, although it did join the Khwae Noi River elsewhere. As the bridge became famous, it was referred to using a not only incorrect but also mispronounced name, soon becoming known as the River Kwai (which means ‘buffalo river’). To make life easier, the waterway was renamed the Khwae Yai, which at least comes closer to what tourists now know it as.

Riding the Death Railway today

Today, the surviving railway line reaches Nam Tok Sai Yok Noi station, one of the area’s other famous war-related attractions. It is around a two-kilometre (1.24-mile) walk from the pleasant Sai Yok Noi waterfalls, and as far west to the Myanmar border as it’s possible to get by rail. Trains from here trace their way back over the Bridge on the River Kwai (a station in its own right as Saphan Kwae Yai), before heading through the provincial capital’s Kanchanaburi station one stop southeast, all the way to the Death Railway’s original start point at Nong Pla Duk in neighbouring Ratchaburi.

There, the track connects with Thailand’s main southern line from Bangkok, allowing trains to continue to the Thai capital’s old Thonburi station. Two daily third-class local trains run all the way from Thonburi, Bangkok to Nam Tok – a four-and-a-half-hour trip. Alternatively, take a weekend excursion train that runs from Bangkok’s main Hualamphong station. You can also simply hop on a train at Kanchanaburi or Saphan Kwae Yai (Bridge on the River Kwai) station for the especially picturesque final part of the journey up to Nam Tok. The train also passes along the Wang Pho viaduct, where views both from and of the train are particularly stunning and photo-worthy.

Beyond the Bridge on the River Kwai: Hellfire Pass, cemeteries, and museums

An even more significant war-related site, located off the train tracks today but originally part of the Death Railway’s construction, is Hellfire Pass. Since it involved cutting through sheer mountain face, this was – hence its name – among the most demanding parts for the forced labourers, and large numbers perished here. The site has been preserved as a memorial museum and walking trail, and it is a sobering but worthwhile destination – it also plays host to the annual ANZAC Day dawn memorial service.

Hellfire Pass memorial museum and walking trail on the original construction site of the Death Railway

In Kanchanaburi itself, the town centre’s Kanchanaburi (or Donrak) War Cemetery and, further afield, Chungkai War Cemetery – both spotlessly cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission – are the places to pay respects to the fallen. Museums also offer the opportunity to learn more about the Death Railway, including the JEATH War Museum and the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre.

One thing is for sure: even setting aside Kanchanaburi’s numerous other attractions and activities that have nothing to do with the Second World War, you won’t find yourself short of ways to explore and discover the important history of the Death Railway.

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