The province of Kanchanaburi to the west of Bangkok is home to some of the most beautiful scenery in Thailand, but it’s also a region with a tragic wartime history; a history that should never be forgotten. An estimated 60,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) and 180,000 Asian labourers were forced to work on the construction of the Thailand to Burma railway. Conditions were so harsh and treatment so brutal, that tens of thousands lost their lives during the construction of what would become known as the ‘Death Railway’. The figures are staggering. The construction of the railway claimed the lives of at least 106,000 men; 16,000 Allied POWs and 90,000 Asian men that were used as forced labour. For each wooden sleeper laid on the track, one man died.
During World War II, Japan wanted to build a supply line linking Singapore to Burma. With an existing rail line from Singapore through the Malay peninsula to Bangkok, the Japanese forces decided to build a route that could branch off and cut through the west of Thailand to supply the Japanese troops in Burma. The route ran for 415km from Nong Pladuk in Thailand (50km south-east of Kanchanaburi) to Thanbuyazat in Burma. Construction began at both ends of the railway in June 1942 and was completed just over a year later.
After the war ended, the railway line was repaired and restored. Although the line no longer runs all the way to Burma, it is still a functioning railway with daily passenger services terminating at Nam Tok to the north of Kanchanaburi. Some sections north of Nam Tok, including the infamous Hellfire Pass, have been reclaimed from the jungle and can be visited as part of a tour for those interested in the history of the railway and the part it played in the Second World War.
A journey on the railway will take you over the Bridge on the River Kwai (although this is not the original bridge) and through some stunning countryside. The train journey north of Kanchanaburi town also takes passengers over the incredible Wang Po viaduct. This series of wooden trestles was built by POWS and forced labour who paid the ultimate price to complete the job. Almost every man who worked on this particular section of track died.
Hellfire Pass and Memorial Museum
Approximately 20 minutes’ drive further on from the end of the line at Nam Tok is the disused railway cutting at Konyu. This is better known as Hellfire Pass, a name which was given because of the fires that were lit to enable round the clock construction to be carried out. The POWs forced to work on this section of track had to hack out a series of openings and embankments through dense jungle and solid rock. Hellfire Pass was the longest of those cuttings and today forms part of an emotional memorial walk with an excellent museum at the entrance. In September 2014, the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum was named as the top museum in Thailand and the fifth best museum in Asia in listings compiled by TripAdvisor. Opened in 1998, the museum is dedicated to the Allied prisoners of war and Asian labourers who suffered and died at Hellfire Pass and elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region during World War II.
Kanchanaburi Tours and More Information:
The outstanding natural beauty of the Kanchanaburi region combined with its tragic past leaves a lasting impact on many visitors. Kanchanaburi can be reached as a day-trip from Bangkok, but to make the most of the area try to spend at least three or four days here. Click the links below for more information on tours in Kanchanaburi:
Kanchanaburi destination guide
River Kwai tours
Jungle rafts, River Kwai tour
Explore Hintok River Camp and Floathouse River Kwai