Photo of the week: the Death Railway (Thailand)

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The Thai-Burma Railway.

In the history of Thailand there is one tragic episode that is known to many people worldwide. During WWII the Japanese occupied Burma (nowadays called ‘Myanmar’). They needed to bring troops and supplies over to their just conquered country. The route via sea was hazardous, so they decided to prolong the existing railways to achieve a railway that went all the way from Bangkok, Thailand to Rangoon (these days: Yangon) in Burma. The new part of the railway they built was 415 km (258 miles). They called the railway ‘Thailand-Myanmar-Link-Railway’, but these days this railway is better known as the Death Railway.

You can imagine that in time of war in another country not many people would volunteer to help with this project. Still 11,200 Japanese soldiers and 800 Korean soldiers worked here as engineers, guards and supervisors. They needed the guards and supervisors, because they let 61,000 Allied prisoners of war preform forced labor. An additional 200,000 or more people from South-East Asia were forced to help complete this project. It was a disastrous project. Over 150,000 people died during its realization, hence the name Death Railway.

How long would this train journey last?

As you can read in my story about Kanchanaburi you can visit several sites that are associated with this railway, like cemeteries, the Bridge over the River Kwai and several museums. It is also possible to take a train journey over part of the actual Death Railway. When we booked our excursions through a friend we also included such a train ride. Little did we know about the length of this ride. We also had no clue how many stations it would include and how many minutes, hours this train ride would last.

We already had quite a day behind us, including elephants and drinking tea on a floating hotel. So we already were a bit tired by the time our bus company dropped us off at a small train station. When we asked how long this train journey would last, they said they didn’t know. They only knew that the other ‘farang’ (a word that Thai use to point out white tourists) that went on the train only stayed on for a short time. Just one stop. To us they kept repeating that we had to get off at the final stop: Kanchanaburi. It did not sound promising, but we had no other choice.

The train ride.

Usually I like traveling by train but this was a bit different. It was hot, outside but also inside the train. The windows were all open, so that the movement of the train would create fresh air. The wooden benches looked small and very uncomfortable. However, we were the lucky ones. We were given the seats that are normally reserved for monks. They seemed all right, but we had no clue how long we had to sit on them.

The train started moving and soon we – and the other farang – were enjoying the scenery. There is one passage called ‘hellfire pass’, where many people lost their lives during the construction of the Railway. Most people just went on to see this pass and left the train at the next stop. We paid for the full journey, so we stayed on. And on. And on.

This photo.

After a long time the train stopped moving. We stood still for about 10 minutes until I saw someone coming through our compartment. Luckily the lady spoke English, but we were not happy with her explanation. The train had stopped, because we would get a different engine. Apparently this was normal and no one seemed to be too fussed about it. Just a small detail no one had told us about and no one thought it was important enough to mention it to us. The new engine had to come all the way from Bangkok and even the lady had no idea how long it would take to arrive where we were.

By that time most people went out of the train and started walking around. It turned out we had stopped at some sort of station, but there was nothing around. No houses, no shops, nothing. Just fields and the track. It was then that I took this photo of my husband. I don’t think I have to explain in words how he felt. The look on his face says it all.

After I don’t know how long the engine finally arrived and everyone got back on the train. By the time we got to the infamous bridge in Kanchanaburi it was already late. This train journey had taken hours. An experience we will never forget. We can now laugh about it. But back then….

Also on

I previously wrote another story about Kanchanaburi. If you like to read it, click here.

A story about what to do when you are in Kanchanaburi,Thailand. Also a recommendation of On’s Thai Issan vegetarian cooking school.

If you like to see more photos of the Death Railway, click here.

You can visit part of the Burma Death Railway, built by the Japanese in WWII, near Kanchanaburi. Highlights: Bridge on the river Kwai & viaduct Tham Krasae.

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