Operated only on weekends and holidays, the rail trip to the historic Bridge on the River Kwai, Kanchanaburi, is entertaining and provides sobering lessons in some of the darker history of World War II.
The train leaves Bangkok's Hualamphong Station at 6.30am, returns around 8.00pm and costs only 200 baht air-con and 100 baht for a car with open windows and a fan. Although air-con is more comfortable, viewing and photography is easier in the cars with open windows.
There are guides on the train offering commentary in Thai, but they often stopped at our seat to explain things in English. Once off the train, people fend for themselves, but this didn’t present any problem as we simply followed the crowd to the various sights. It is a good idea, however, to bring your favourite guidebook along to help fill in details.
Don't make our mistake of not having breakfast before arriving at the station. Hualamphong’s food vendors don’t open for business until after the train departs! Also be sure to purchase your ticket a couple of days in advance as seats often sell out before departure.
Our first stop was Nakhon Pathom, one of Thailand's oldest cities and home of the world's tallest Buddhist monument, the Phra Pathom Chedi. Looming dramatically over the entire city, the 127-metre orange-glazed spire glittered in the early morning sun as we scrambled off the train. The time allotted for the stop was just 30 minutes, so we only had time to reach the base of the monument, snap a few pictures and grab some of Nakhon Pathom's famous khao laam – sticky rice and coconut steamed in a segment of bamboo – before rushing back to the waiting train. Nakhon Pathom and its colossal chedi deserve more time, but this visit was enough to whet our appetite and ensure that we would return for a more extensive visit.
Death Railway Bridge
For those expecting a wooden bridge like the one in the famous movie Bridge on the River Kwai, the present bridge spanning the Mae Nam Khwae Yai is quite different. The first bridge - completed in February, 1943 - really was constructed of wood, but was replaced by a second bridge made of steel shipped in from Java by the Imperial Japanese Army a couple of months later. In 1945, after 20 months of use, the bridge was destroyed by Allied bombs, but rebuilt after the war using much of the steel from the original structure. Today, to maintain historical accuracy, the bridge is most often referred to as the 'Death Railway Bridge'.
The tourist train stopped at the station adjacent to the bridge andwhere we were able to walk out onto the famous structure. Although there was a festive air and loads of group pictures taken with the bridge in the background, for many it was a time for serious reflection. An estimated 90,000 to 100,000 conscripted labourers from Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia and Indonesia and 16,000 Allied Prisoners of War (POWs) died constructing the bridge and the 415 km 'Death Railway', a tragic reality commemorated by the current bridge.
Along the Mae Nam Khwae Noi
After leaving the bridge and Kanchanaburi town, the railway moves into the mountains and is cut into the side of limestone cliffs overlooking the Mae Nam Khwae Noi. The narrow roadbed was made by blasting and hammers and chisels wielded by prisoners and conscripts. The toll in human lives making this section of the railway was incredible, but today this is often forgotten as people concentrate on the remarkable scenery. The best views are found in the cars with fans and open windows. Passengers in the air-con cars are invited to move into the fan cars for a better view.
Nam Tok Sai Yok Noi
Stomachs screeching for food, we arrived at the end of the railway shortly before noon. Nam Tok Sai Yok Noi is a charming little place with a cascading waterfall and a pool at the base of the falls. If you have a bathing suit or a change of clothes, jump in the water with the locals. It's a great way to beat the heat! Thankfully, there were numerous places to eat around the little train station, with barbecued chicken being a speciality. We found the dining spots across the road, below the station, to have better quality eats at lower prices. Many Thais bring their own food and eat in the area below the falls. The waterfall is in a national park and there are numerous well-marked trails leading away from the falls, taking hikers to additional falls, limestone caves, the remains of a Death Railway bridge and streams fed by springs that bubble up out of the ground. Remember to leave yourself time to return to the train as it departs at 3.00pm
Allied War Cemeteries
Our last stop, on the way back to Bangkok, was at Kanchanaburi town to visit the Kanchanaburi Allied War Cemetery. There were pick-up truck taxis at the station to take us to the cemetery for 10 baht, but they really weren’t necessary as the cemetery was only a short walk away. The well tended cemetery is the final resting place for hundreds of Australian, Dutch, French and British soldiers who died building the Death Railway. The seemingly endless rows of graves are topped with plaques containing the names, nationality, age, military insignia and a short epitaph for the soldier interned below. Among other things, virtually everyone who visits the cemetery expresses shock at the youth of the men who lost their lives. Most were in their early twenties.
During the journey back to Bangkok, the train stopped at Bang Sue Junction before continuing on to Hualamphong Station. This is a convenient stop for many as Bang Sue is located at the terminus of the MRT subway line.
The exact itinerary of this trip varies with the seasons and what happens to be open, but it always includes Nakhon Pathom, the Death Railway Bridge and a visit to the Allied War Cemeteries. If you are looking for an interesting and informative escape from Bangkok, this is an excellent way to spend a day away from the city.