From 1942-1943, during World War II, 60,000 American, Australian, British and Dutch Allied Prisoners of War and an estimated 100,000 Asian civilians were subjected to slave labour in constructing the Thai-Burma Railway by the Japanese forces who occupied Thailand. It was a 415-kilometre rail line between Thailand and Burma, at the neck of the shared peninsula, whose tracks were torturously gouged through jungle terrain and rock cuttings by hand, to procure a transport route for weapons, troops and supplies.
The Hell Fire Pass is the largest rock cutting excavation site on the Death Railway, named because of the scene of flickering torchlight and the fires that burned as prisoners worked long into the night during the ‘Speedo’ construction period.
History of the Death Railway in Kanchanaburi, Thailand
On the other side of Nam Tok Train Station from Erawan is Sai Yok National Park – another scenic waterfall spot. Here the Sai Yok Noi Waterfall (Khao Phang Waterfall) cascades over golden limestone rock, reaching 15m high into the jungle foliage.
The bus between Kanchanaburi and Erawan National Park is hourly.
The Death Railway in Kanchanaburi, Thailand – A Scenic Journey Into a Dark Past
Those who died in the toil of the railway build were buried in unmarked graves alongside it, and the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery was one of three final resting places established after the war in honour of those who lost their lives. The two other war cemeteries are located in Thanbyuzayat in Myanmar (the final terminus) and Chong Kai, close to Kanchanaburi.
Kanchanaburi Death Railway Today
This park, filled with hiking trails and caves beyond the star water attraction, is named after the three-headed elephant Hindu god, Erawan, with the highest waterfall said to resemble the deity.
You’ll find tiered chlorine blue and neon turquoise pools within the verdant jungle green of the Erawan National Park. It’s the typical last stop on this journey that invites you to get within the depths of Kanchanaburi’s pristine nature after joyously passing its fringes from the rail carriage.
Scenic and Historic Things to See in Kanchanaburi
The first bridge, constructed in 1943, was wooden and later replaced by the steel bridge that stands today. Walkways on either side of the rails have viewing platforms overlooking the river. It is a poignant reminder of how and why it came into being as visitors wander its tracks between the two daily train journeys that cross it.
Travelling from Bangkok, many visitors are unknowingly already on the railway’s path before they reach Kanchanaburi, where the lesson of the region’s dark history poignantly begins.
Kanchanaburi War Cemetery
In the last third of the journey, you will pass Tham Krasae Station, another outpost of the Death Railway, whose wooden viaduct trestle bridge that curves around the rock wall and stretches over the river embankment was also built by the Prisoners of War.
- Open every day 08:30 am to 4 pm.
The area is also the 400 metres long and 27 metres high Hintock Bridge site, whose collapse and subsequent rebuild three times came to be known as The Pack of Cards Bridge.
Disclaimer: This post was created in collaboration with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) when we can travel again. For further Thailand travel advice, find insider guides and features on the Fan Club Thailand website – the official online tourism portal.
Hell Fire Pass memorial site. Image: © Tourism Authority of Thailand.
- Open every day from 08:30 am to 6 pm.
- The entrance fee is 50 THB per person.
Thailand-Burma Railway Centre
- Open every dayfrom 9:00am to 4:00pm.
- The entrance fee is 150 THB per person (70 THB for children).
Visit the Bridge On the River Kwai
I’ve travelled extensively in Thailand, and you can find more stories on taking a Bangkok bike tour to see a different side to the urban city, riding the 762 road curves from Chiang Mai to Pai, or find out what it’s like to try Muay Thai Training in Thailand.
The higher tier waterfalls require more stamina and time since it’s a bit of a hike on worn trails with wooden ladders. A 1.5km marked trail gets you to the highest waterfall in around 30 minutes and is one of the best for bathing, but the first three waterfalls are the most accessible.
Today, a 130km stretch of the railway track remains only in Thailand, re-opened by The State Railway of Thailand in 1957. It’s a route that keeps its origins in Ban Pong’s town, wedged almost centrally between Bangkok in the east and Kanchanaburi to the northwest, and ends at Nam Tok – the present-day terminus of the Death Railway on the fringes of Erawan National Park.
Death Railway Trip
You can visit Kanchanaburi on a day trip from Bangkok, whether self-planned or on a small group tour. However, the rise of eco-lodges and floating river cabins draws in those looking to stay overnight and enjoy the town’s nature reserves.
The historic Bridge on the River Kwai
- Only three trains run this route between Kanchanaburi station and Nam Dok daily – a journey across 19 stops.
- Foreigners are charged 100 THB for a one way, single ticket. Tours include the train ticket.
- If not being picked up at the final stop – the Erawan waterfalls – you will need to purchase your return ticket at Nam Dok, leaving yourself plenty of time (at least 30 minutes) to purchase and board.
- The left side of the train is the most scenic for the riverside views.
Hell Fire Pass Interpretive Centre and Memorial Walking Trail
A tour booking includes transportation to and from Kanchanaburi, and pick up from Bangkok can start as early as 7 or 8 am. All tours typically include a local lunch, museum and Erawan entrance fees. Your driver will meet you at the Erawan Waterfalls (your last stop) to travel back to Bangkok.
The 1943 ‘Speedo’ period saw a rapid acceleration in demand for completion that increased the torturous conditions. In its overall construction, around 13,000 POW’s and 90,000 civilians from Thailand, Burma and Malaysia died from brutality, disease and malnutrition, giving it the name of the Death Railway.
The limestone rock passage is a 2.5km memorial walking path, honouring those who suffered here, drilling holes by hand for explosives used to blast the rocks, then cleared by hand. An interpretive centre is a place for reflection and learning before entering the cutting below.
- Open every day from 09:00 am to 4 pm.
- It would help if you had proper footwear when visiting the sites due to rocky climbs and stairways.
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From the River Kwai Bridge station in Kanchanaburi, a scenic 17-stop drift cuts through mountains cliffs and bamboo forests and past evergreen riverbed valleys towards the serenity of the seven-tier waterfalls.
Further discussion points on responsible tourism in Thailand:
- The Erawan National Park is open from 8 am to 4:30 pm.
- The entrance fee is 300 THB / 100 THB for locals.
- If you plan on hiking to all the waterfalls, bring appropriate footwear to walk on the rocks, ladders and jungle trails and swimwear to enjoy the pools.
Sai Yok Noi Waterfalls
A minibus service runs daily every 20-30 minutes, between 5 am and 11 pm and leaves from Mochit station in Bangkok.
Overlooking the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre is a recent curation similar to JEATH. It includes film achieves and interactive displays chronicling the railway’s construction.
Death Railway Tours and Tickets
The railway was in operation until June 1945; the border tracks destroyed in 1946 on the British Empire’s orders, protecting their interests in occupied Burma.
Alongside artefacts donated by survivors, a Japanese transportation train, and photographic displays, the museum presents reconstructions to bring to light the horrific circumstances that the POWs faced. From Bamboo huts where prisoners lived, train carriages where they were held prisoner, to models of the crippling working conditions, JEATH aims to show the brutal realities of war.
How to Get to Kanchanaburi from Bangkok
The oldest of the Death Railway museums having opened in 1977, the JEATH War Museum is dedicated to the victims of the River Kwai Bridge and the Death railway construction. JEATH meaning: Japan, England, Australia, America, Thailand, Holland.
The cast-iron bridge over the River Kwai and its accompanying two-hour cliff winding, countryside-strewn train journey are what remains of Thailand’s Death Railway. Stark reminders of a devastating history that soberly looms in the tropical jungle swaths of Kanchanaburi – considered by locals as one of the most beautiful areas of the country.
This two-day, one night trip is a slow travel exploration of the sites and includes a stay at an eco-friendly bamboo hotel floating. With a private pickup and drop off from Bangkok, you’ll head to the River Kwai and Erawan National park tour with a licensed guide. This extended trip also allows time to take the railway journey at your leisure.
- The journey to Kanchanaburi takes two hours.
- A one-way ticket costs 110 THB per person.
Between Kanchanaburi to Erawan National Park
Often, the act of travel goes beyond seeking the beauty in your surroundings but taking an essential journey into a country’s history in recognising and understanding how to reconcile the present’s peace with a devastating past.
- The last bus from Nam Dok leaves at 4 pm or 5 pm but check the daily schedule.
- A one-way bus ticket costs 50 THB.
A full-day tour in Kanchanaburi includes stops at the River Kwai bridge, JEATH Museum, Tham Krasae Station, and Tiger Cave Temple. The tour starts in Kanchanaburi, so you will have to make your way there from Bangkok.
It wasn’t only the rail tracks built with slave labour. With a route crossing many valley rivers, bridges were also constructed by hand. The Bridge on the River Kwai is the most well known of them all, made famous by the 1957 film that dramatised the Thailand-Burma Railway history. As you stand within the manicured lawns lined with row upon row of graves with inscribed bronze plaques, it’s a sad realisation of the human cost of the railway you will soon travel.