Kanchanaburi: Bridge on the River Kwai, Death Railway, Hellfire Pass


Bridge on the River Kwai

David and I rewatched the 1957 movie classic “Bridge on the River Kwai” before coming to Kanchanaburi to help with the mood change from beautiful, tranquil Tup Kaek Beach to the infamous “Death Railway.” The movie, like the novel it’s based on, is fiction, but it’s based on a real bridge (or bridges) and a real railway constructed at great misery and cost of life by POW’s and conscripted civilians forced into labor by the Japanese during World War II. Over 100,000 people died building the 250 miles of railway, also known as the Thailand-Burma Railway which connected Bangkok to Rangoon. Most of the dead were Asian civilians (“romusha”) and roughly 16,000 were Allied prisoners of war, the majority of whom were Australian, British and Dutch.

Conditions were much worse than depicted in the movie for the POW’s and even worse for the romusha who had no medical personnel among them. The Japanese deliberately underfed and overworked their prisoners, even hording Red Cross rations rather than distributing them or using them themselves. The result was widespread disease. Other prisoners died of beatings, torture and executions. Many of the camp commanders were convicted of war crimes after the war.

Today, a train makes several runs on Saturdays and Sundays along the historic railway. At one section, the train runs along a wooden viaduct that clings to the face of a 30m deep “cutting” or man-made cliff/gorge, a stretch where nearly every man who worked on it died. It’s a peaceful area now, with a nearby resort and floating bungalows available to rent. I was struck, as I was in Auschwitz and other places of past horror, by how a place where great evil was done can be beautiful and peaceful years later. Some people claim to feel a lingering malevolence in such places, but I don’t don’t feel it; just a sadness for those who suffered and that humanity can lower itself to such cruelty. It doesn’t seem to me that the birds that sing in such places now or the natural beauty that has reasserted itself are tainted by what people did there long ago, but I believe it’s important not to avoid such places, to remember and mark evil events in hope that they are never repeated.

The train starts in Kanchanaburi and runs to Nam Tok, some two hours away. (Actually, you can take a train from Bangkok, too, but I had no interest in that. Too hot and too long for me.) The train is old and rattling and un-air-conditioned and everything I’d read said the real views and interesting part happened just after the rural train stop at Tha Kilen. If we started our train ride there, we’d shorten the trip by an hour and miss the initial, hot ride that many described as “boring.” By car, the distance to Tha Kilen is only 30 minutes…and in private, air-conditioned comfort. Our decision was made!

There’s frustratingly little info on how to start your trip anywhere other than at the main Kanchanaburi station or the nearby Bridge on the River Kwai station. The internet yielded no details. We tried asking at our hotel, but they just wanted to sell us a tour (as did any number or tour touts on every block of Kanchanaburi) and tried to discourage us from driving on our own. So, we got up early and drove the five minutes to the main Kanchanaburi station to see if we could buy a ticket from Tha Kilen there. No, we were told in no uncertain terms that we had to buy the ticket at Tha Kilen. They were friendly about it, though, and showed us the schedule which indicated that the train would stop in Tha Kilen at 11:30am. This train had the added benefit of being the only train of the day with a “special carriage” where we were guaranteed a seat. I didn’t feel like standing up for an hour in a hot, crowded train and it was only 150 baht, one-way for the “special carriage” (50 baht more than the 3rd class fare). We could buy a ticket at Tha Kilen 30 minutes before departure or 11am. We had a plan.

Tha Kilen had the extra enticement of Khmer ruins in the nearby Muang Sing Historical Park. I was worried that the train might be full as I read that sometimes it is packed, so wanted to get to Tha Kilen early on the chance that someone might be there to sell us a ticket before 11am, with ticket safely in hand, we could go check out Muang Sing until it was time to catch the train. We arrived at 9:30am to find a few people around the Tha Kilen station, but we were told again that we could buy a ticket at 11am. Alrighty then, it was Muang Sing for us.

Tha Kilen Station

Muang Sing turned out to be a very nicely set-up historical park. Very few people were at the park at this hour and we were able to visit most of the ruins in peace before a tour bus showed up. Even at that hour, the heat was oppressive. The ruins are partially rebuilt and worth a look (especially if you’re killing time until you can catch the train), but it’s a relatively minor site and not a big loss if you miss it.

Ruins at Muang Sing

Back at the Tha Kilen station, things were starting to pick up. Vendors laid out food for lunch and we bought sticky rice and pork wrapped in banana leaves, salty banana chips and sour-sweet karonda (or corunda) berries with chili powder. Other people started to arrive, but still the ticket seller was not open for business. I watched him through the open door and window of his office as he worked ancient-looking brass machines which clanged as he turned a shining handle. This apparently had something to do with incoming trains. A regular train came through and the station master handed off a lunch to the engineer as he went by. At exactly 11am, the station master took his seat behind the sales window and we were able to buy our tickets (which had the departure time printed on them as 11:45, not 11:30). We pointed to the sign about the “special carriage” and got the correct tickets. Our request for the left side (best view going towards Nam Tok), met with a nod of his head, but we had no faith that he understood us. [Note: There’s a red sign next to the ticket window stating that you have to show your passport to get a ticket. This is not true and no one asked for a passport. Since we weren’t crossing a border, I have no idea why the sign is there unless maybe some trains are going on to Burma/Myanmar.]

Food vendors setting up at the Tha Kilen station

With a little time before the train was due to arrive, I bought food from the vendors: sticky rice with pork wrapped in banana leaves, salty banana chips and sour-sweet pink karonda berries with chili salt for dipping. We dug into the chips on the spot, but saved the rest for the train.

Unwrapped banana leaf packet of sticky rice and pork. Yum!
Carunda berries

Some tour groups and individuals began to arrive and at 11:45am, the train pulled in. Since our tickets showed no specific seat assignment, we asked a guide we overheard speaking English. She told us the green cars were the “special carriages” that we had tickets for and asked the station master about our seats and said he said he’d show us to our seats. He made no move though, so we’re not sure where the translation went wrong. Not wanting to miss the train, we climbed onto one of the two front green cars and I staked out a left-hand seat. A uniformed attendant approached and said he’d lead us to our seat, then proceeded to lead us to another car and direct us to a right-hand seat. When I stated our preference for the left-hand seat (relying mostly on gestures), he took us back to the seat I’d originally claimed. Oh well.

The “Death Train” arrives; the 2 green cars in the front are the “special carriages”

The special carriages are “special” because you get a guaranteed seat plus a cushion on the wooden bench that comprises that seat, a sealed plastic cup of water and a cold moist towelette to start the journey, and your choice of a tea or coffee. Pretty swank, huh? We were grateful for the water and the cool cloth, but wanted no part of hot tea or coffee in the tropical weather. All the windows on the car were open and the train made a nice breeze as we chugged and clanked along.

Inside a “special car”; the ticket is 150 baht each way.

Shortly out of Tha Kilen, we came to the most dramatic scenery of the trip, the portion along the 30m “cutting” where so many died. Now, though, a resort and floating bungalow hotel rooms occupy the first portion of opposite bank. Tourists clustered along the way taking photos of our train as we passed. People on the train leaned out, taking photos of the resort and the people photographing them. Just beyond, the opposite bank peels away, opening up a lovely vista with the mountains beyond. Throughout this stretch, the sheer rock wall of the man-made cliff is all you can see our the right-hand windows…save for a flash of a Buddha statue in its cave at Kraesae.

Looking back on the floating bungalows we’d just passed
The River Kwai with mountains in the background

The view was beautiful, but both David and I were a little underwhelmed by this stretch, only because the descriptions we’d read tended towards the hyperbolic. We didn’t really have the sense of clinging to some precarious perch on a cliff. No doubt we were, but you don’t get that perspective much from the train itself because you’re so close to the cliff on the right (nothing but rock just outside the window) and there’s a lot of vegetation hiding much of the drop to the left.

When we arrived at the Nam Tok terminus, a swarm of songtaew, cars and buses awaited. An old lady near a songtaew with its modified pick-up bed crammed full of passengers approached me. David was aghast that I’d even consider joining that throng, but the lady was offering us a ride up front in the air-conditioning, for a premium, of course. She borrowed a laminated sign from a neighboring driver indicating the charge would be 800 baht ($22.86) for a round-trip ride. This is a fortune around these parts, but it was a 20+-minute ride to Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum, a total 2-hour commitment for her since she had to wait on us, and we didn’t have time to waste since we needed to be back to catch the last train back to Tha Kilen which left Nam Tok at 3:15pm. We made the deal. David rode in front with our lady driver while I sat in the rear seat of the club cab with her middle school-age grandson. A couple kilometers away, we dropped off the throng in the rear of the songtaew at the local Tok Sai Yok waterfall/swimming hole before going on to the museum.

We had to pass through a military checkpoint to enter the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum grounds. The museum itself is small, but very well done and modern. It’s also free, but donations are encouraged. It didn’t take long to walk through and watch the 5-minute movie of prisoner recollections that runs regularly.

Entrance to the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum with the ramp just below the name on the building leading down to the walkway to the pass

Stepping out the back of the museum, there’s an overlook with a “peace vessel” created by an Australian former prisoner and a view over the path to Hellfire Pass, the deepest of the many prisoner-made cuttings through the mountains.

“Peace Vessel” at the museum overlook
Looking down on the wooden walkway that descends to the bottom of Hellfire Pass

The entrance to the Hellfire Pass walkway is just outside the front doors of the museum, to the left as you exit. At the base of the initial descent, you can choose to walk left down a wooden walkway or right. The lady at the Information Desk inside had suggested we go left, then return along the other path to make a full loop, so that’s what we did. It’s not a bad walk, but not for the mobility challenged. It’s a lot of walking and a lot of stairs going both directions. It’s hot, but much less so that we’d feared given the elevation and the shade.

The scale and magnitude of the work done here under such horrible conditions is really brought home as you walk along the base. You can’t help but be impressed by what the prisoners accomplished in this rocky jungle with basic tools and dynamite, especially while in such weakened physical states. Makeshift memorials along the way bring home the human suffering and loss.

Makeshift memorials in Hellfire Pass
Poignant memorial
The scale of the cutting here is brought home as you walk along the old railroad ties along the bottom.

At the far end of the pass by a permanent veterans’ memorial, I was stopped by a group of Thai students wanting to interview me. Their questions had to do with where I was from, whether I liked Thailand and would want to return and why I chose to come to Hellfire Pass. As always in southeast Asia, “United States” was met with puzzled looks which brightened to understanding when I amended to “America.” Their English was pretty functional, though, and I enjoyed the lightness their young enthusiasm brought after the solemnity of my walk through Hellfire Pass. They insisted on photos together after the interview, so I got David to snap a couple for us, too.

Mimicking the cheerful “thumbs-up” of my lead interviewer
Veteran’s memorial at the end of Hellfire Pass with stylized railroad ties in the foreground and railroad ties of the actual railroad visible on the continuing path beyond.

The return path to the museum through humid jungle proved to be longer and a bit more arduous (and hot and mosquito-y) than the wooden path and steps on the descent. Mid-way through, I was wondering if we wouldn’t have been better off retracing our steps through the pass and back up the wooden walkway. [It’s also usually possible to hike much more of the railway line than the 40-minute loop Hellfire Pass loop that we walked. However, segments were closed when we were there. We felt we’d seen enough, though, and weren’t interested in hiking hours more anyway.] We made it back ten minutes earlier than we’d estimated to our driver, but she was waiting and we headed off back to the Nam Tok train station.

Once again, no tickets were available until 30 minutes prior to departure. This seems to be a hard and fast rule. So, we ordered a couple of Chang beers at an open-air restaurant across the dirt parking area. The train was ready to go early, but we were delayed a warm ten minutes as they waited for a tour bus full of German tourists. I think we understand now why the train is notoriously late. Ten minutes wasn’t bad, but I could see it compounding over the length of the journey to Kanchanaburi.

Red flag until the German tour bus showed up

There were no “special carriages” on this train, so we got to try out 3rd class. The main difference was no cushion on the seat (and of course no drinks and cool cloth). Fans mounted on the ceiling and the open windows made for a nice breeze, though, and David and I spent most of the return trip hanging out the window, always careful to ease out and dodge any plants or rocks too close to the track. The lowering sun now on the right side of the train made it hot whenever we stopped at a way-station, but that was nothing new to our SE Asia experience.

Inside a 3rd class train car

More passengers boarded as we went along so that most seats were filled by the time we reached Tha Kilen where we’d left the car. It was a shock to see the parking area at the Tha Kilen station filled with motor coaches and cars. We sprinted off the train and to our car to beat that mob scene and were soon rolling through the countryside back to Kanchanaburi.

Tapioca fields by the road to Kanchanaburi

We got back into Kanchanaburi late in the afternoon with enough time for a visit to the famous Bridge on the River Kwai. There were two bridges in the area during World War II, a concrete and steel one that the present one replaces and a wooden bridge built by prisoners. Both of the original bridges were destroyed by Allied bombing. The present bridge, pictured in the top photo above, was built shortly after the war.


Driving from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi

Suburban Bangkok traffic

We took our final AirAsia fight of this trip from Krabi to Don Muang International Airport in Bangkok. Don Muang is Bangkok’s old international airport, now replaced by Suvarnabhumi as the city’s main international airport. Don Muang–the oldest operating airport in Asia and one of the oldest in the world, for that matter–is now primarily a regional and low-cost carrier hub. Most flights from Krabi go to Don Muang and that suited our purposes perfectly, given the airport’s location on the north side of the city. Our next destination was Kanchanaburi of Bridge on the River Kwai fame, WNW of Bangkok. I researched various ways to get to Kanchanaburi and decided a rental car would be ideal…if David was willing to do the driving.

I’ve done my share of driving in foreign countries, on both sides of the road, but one of the luxuries of my late-in-life marriage to David is leaving the driving to him. He actually loves challenging driving (and is fine with wrong-side stick shifts) and I’m a pretty darn good navigator, so we make a great team.

Nerves of steel!

Bangkok, though, has a reputation of being a driving nightmare and there’s that always-present worry about accidents or police shakedowns in a third world country. Still, a car would be ideal and online research led me to believe it wouldn’t be that bad given the location of Don Muang. (Had we flown into Suvarnabhumi Airport to the south of the city, we’d have had to drive across Bangkok to get to Kanchanaburi. No way!) I showed David what I’d found and he was game for the drive, so I booked a rent car with Sixt…but made it cancelable in case on-the-ground experience in Thailand changed our minds. After two weeks in Thailand, David felt more confident than ever, so we made the drive.

Sixt provided us with a nice mid-size sedan with automatic transmission(!), Google Maps was up and working on my phone via my Thai SIM card, so all was good as we pulled away. Don Muang is a long airport whose length runs along a major highway. To get out of the airport, we had to drive through parking lots and drop-off lanes to reach a U-turn bridge to get us going north on the highway; no big deal.

Yes, I know. The sign spells “Don Muang” differently. The airport spells it the way I have. Mostly. Thai spelling is a very changeable thing.

Traffic, as expected, was heavy on the highway with scooters and motorbikes weaving in and out among cars and trucks. We encountered our first problem when we tried to make our first exit. Massive construction of an overhead road was going on along the length of the highway and the exit was blocked. Thank God for Google Maps! We just kept trying to head west and after a series of Google re-routes that resulted in a lot of backtracking as we made long parallel straightaways and squared-off U-turns, we finally got onto the right road. Google Maps predicted 2h25 to go 142 kilometers (88 miles).

Traffic was insane in the early part of the drive as we made our way through Bangkok suburbs. [See lead pic.] Cars and passenger trucks mixed with tuk tuks, songtaews, motorbikes and brightly-painted big rigs. Major town signs usually had English, but not always. Most road signs were in indecipherable Thai squiggles and swirls. Worse yet, Google Maps would often show road signs and directions in Thai, not English. The robot lady still talked in English, but her “turn right’s” and “turn left’s” often came at the wrong time and I’d have to zoom into our little moving icon then tell David, “No! Not here!” more often than I would have liked. It required a lot of attention on both of our parts. Meanwhile, cars and motorbikes cut in and out around us. Traffic would occasionally come to a stop on a major median-divided road, to allow a stream of cars from the other side to U-turn. We could figure no pattern to that, and when I got the chance to research it, I found an expat message board where someone attributed it to “telepathy,” like us finding no rhyme nor reason to when cars would yield.


Trucks sported all sorts of decoration.

Things got better as we moved into the countryside. The roads, all along, were in good shape, not much different from what we’d see at home (if you don’t count the temples, rice fields, loose cows and other signs that we weren’t in Kansas any more).

Not unlike home, except for the Buddha

Thais protect themselves from the sun and it’s common to see people, especially on motorbikes, with their heads fully covered by cloth with only eye holes. It’s vaguely alarming-looking, like a bunch of bank robbers on the loose.

Roadside vendor avoiding the sun

Getting hungry, we started looking for somewhere to grab a quick lunch. By now, we were used to and fond of Thai street food, so a local open-air market looked promising and we pulled in. A songtaew overloaded with locals pulled in beside us. This crowd headed to tables and vendors at the front of the market, but David bee-lined for a cloud of smoke emanating from the very rear of the big space, far from the other vendors. An old lady with a bandaged food greeted us eagerly while a man tended skewers on the grill. When we asked the price, she replied “5 baht,” about 14 cents. Sure we must have misheard, David asked her again, but got the same answer. Um. OK. She got out a plastic bag and quickly added several skewers. When we asked if it was chicken, “gai,” she nodded and repeated “gai.” Inspecting the skewers, I spotted a heart and some other odd bits. We asked her what part of the chicken those were. She waved her hand around her stomach. Intestines. That’s what I thought. The skewers were split down the middle then wired shut around the meat. Some of the skewers held flattened, unidentifiable meat with small bones visible. It looked like chicken back. Maybe. David tried pointing to his leg and chest, asking for more familiar cuts, but she just nodded and added another skewer, bringing our total to five. When she mentioned sticky rice, for 3 baht, we happily bought 2 plastic pouches for a grand total of 30 baht or about 86 cents. She’d moved her crutch aside for us to sit down, but I told David we should eat in the car, both for a/c and so we could spit out anything we wanted without offending her.

Inedible barbecue with strange beaky bit on the right

Back in the car, we inspected our lunch. We tried nibbling on the flattened, bony meat, but could only get the tiniest bit of food. Were you supposed to just crunch through bone?! Giving up, we moved on to the tripe. Curling my lips back, I tried a bite…but couldn’t get through. An odd beaky looking bit was equally impervious to my teeth. Hmm. The barbecue sauce wasn’t bad, though. We quickly wolfed down our sticky rice and tossed the rest of our “lunch,” afraid to feed it to the two dogs wandering the front of the market for fear of choking them. Oh well, back on the road.

We arrived at our Kanchanaburi hotel without incident. The drive, while a little frazzling in some places (for me anyway–David has nerves of steel), wasn’t bad. It was nice to have the car, for privacy, comfort and just to be free to follow our own whims and timetable or lack thereof. For about $30/day, it wasn’t a bad deal either. It also turned out to be a great way to escape the myriad tours being touted in Kanchanaburi. More on that later.

Great roads in the countryside (This is between Kanchanaburi and Tha Kilen the day we did the Death Railroad.)

Two-and-a-half months in Asia!

So we leave tomorrow on the trip that inspired me to start this blog: a 77-night ramble through Asia. This trip runs the gamut of lodging, transportation methods, and weather. It’s been a challenge to plan (and a challenge to pack for). We’re excited!

In a (large) nutshell, this trip includes:

  • Our first trans-Pacific cruise [the Aleutians, northern Japan, Yokohama/Tokyo]
  • 2 weeks in Japan [Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima island (where we’ll stay in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn), Fukuoka]
  • a ferry to South Korea [Busan, a Buddhist temple stay, Seoul, the DMZ]
  • a cruise from Shanghai to Singapore [Okinawa, Hong Kong, Chan May/Hoi An and Phu My/Ho Chin Mihn City, Vietnam]
  • Singapore and Kuala Lumpur
  • Siem Reap, Cambodia, to see Angkor Wat
  • Luang Prabang, Laos
  • a 2-day open-boat trip up the Mekong with a stop at some to-be-determined-when-we-get-there guesthouse in tiny Pakbeng, Laos
  • 2.5 weeks in Thailand: Chiang Khong, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai (a day with elephants and a Thai cooking school), Krabi (scuba diving the Phi Phi islands), the Bridge on the River Kwai at Kanchanaburi, Bangkok
  • a 1st class mega-flight on Korean Air from Bangkok to Seoul to Dallas (courtesy of airline miles and credit card points, a favorite game of ours)

I’ve tried to anticipate the trickier bits and done an incredible amount of research, but I know there will be things I overlooked or had no way of knowing. There are liable to be things that don’t pan out as we’d hoped (or maybe don’t even pan out at all). It’s the nature of travel, and also part of what makes it exciting and interesting. And besides, I don’t want to plan every moment anyway. I intend to focus on experiencing the trip rather than documenting it, but I’ll blog about it when I can. Hopefully, there will be fun as well as useful info to share…and, no doubt, our portion of clueless-fools-in-a-strange-land moments. Wish us luck!

[We’ll be incommunicado for most of the 16-day Pacific crossing, so other than a possible post in the Aleutians 5 days out, we’ll be in Japan before I do any posting. I know going off-grid is a weird way to start a blog, but that’s the plan.]

– Tamara

August 31, 2016