The Thailand – Burma Death Railway

Bridge on the River Kwai

The movie The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) starring William Holden, Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins won seven Oscars and is symbolic in most peoples minds at the mention of the Thailand – Burma Death Railway but very few know the history behind the railroad itself. Construction of the infamous railway running from Nong Pladuk to Thanbyuzayat in Burma was started during World War II in April 1942 and completed in November 1943, it took such little time but so many lives were taken.

Thai-Burma railway,Wang PhoThe idea of a railway supply link between Thailand (then Siam) and Burma (now Myanmar) was first considered in the early 1900’s by the ruling British government in Burma. In 1912 the planned railway was abandoned due to concerns over the difficult terrain, jungle diseases and the regions long monsoon season.In 1942 the Japanese Imperial Army decided that nothing would stand in their way of completing the 415 kilometres of one metre gauge railway track.

Wonderful Wi and I started our journey on the railway at Wang Pho station having first visited the small market there. The market had plenty of trinkets and souvenirs on display but I only paid out 40 baht on a small can of Beer Chang…… 40 baht, I must of looked greener than the water of the River Kwai Noi. I didn’t argue, Wang Pho and its past history didn’t seem the place to do so.

In December 1941 Japanese forces invaded Thailand through three entry points. Don Muang airfield, by amphibious landings along the Gulf of Thailand and armed forces by land from the Cambodia border. Fierce fighting followed but against overwhelming odds Siam’s Prime Minister  Field Marshal Phibun Songkhram was forced to order a ceasefire and within two weeks a treaty of alliance had been signed with Japan against the wishes of the majority of Thai people.

The Japanese sought Thailand as a base to further make in roads to Asia. Within months the Japanese Imperial Army had successfully invaded and captured both Malaya, Singapore and Burma. They had taken vast amounts of land and many prisoners of war.

Over 60,000 allied prisoners and 200,000 Asian slave labourers were to be deployed along the Death Railway. Starvation, disease and inhumane conditions awaited them, death was the other side of the coin. Nearly one in four allied prisoners died on the route of the Death Railway.

Wang Pho Cave

There was a good half hour before the train pulled up at Wang Pho station, we decided to follow many of the other tourists and walk the track. We peered down to the River Kwai Noi flowing freely with a likeness to a watery pea green soup, to our left we sighted a cave on slightly higher ground.

1252009_101221 PMDuring the construction of the railway the cave had been used as a hospital storeroom, nowadays it was a Buddhist shrine. Wilai knelt before the Buddha statue and offered her thoughts and hopes.

Days later Wilai’s hopes and lottery tickets lay crumpled in our hotel room and less said the better of her dream of a tall, blond, blue eyed man. I looked more alcoholic than teutonic but life’s a lottery I guess.

Japan’s failure to gain superiority in the Pacific waters hastened the need to connect a supply line from Singapore to Burma which the Japanese army had now occupied. The Siam-Burma Death Railway was the missing link.

The railway would provide the supplies to assist the Japanese advancement into India. The plan started with the transportation of thousands of allied prisoners and Asian labourers by train from Singapore to Ban Pong near Nong Pladuk.

Over 16,000 allied prisoners died building the railway and the estimates are that over 100,000 civilian Asian workers perished too. Malaria, dysentary and cholera claimed the lives of many, malnutrition and overwork accounted for thousands of other deaths too. Food rations were meagre. Poor quality rice and rotten vegetables did little to replenish bodies racked by vitamin deficiency, many simply starved to death.

Our journey was short, just a four station ride following the tracks cut through the mountains with the River Kwai Noi going about its business below. The carriages were packed and as the train pulled us along at great speed at times, eyes widened, voices heightened and cameras buzzed and clicked. From Wang Pho to Thakilen, click, click, click, click.

River Kwai Noi

At each of the stations we stopped at more passengers boarded the already crowded train. I wondered if invisible gaunt featured travellers dressed in soiled tattered clothing had boarded too. We left the train and it continued its journey to Kanchanaburi city and the bridge on the River Kwai Yai.

War cemeteries at Chungkai, Kanchanaburi and Thanbyuzayhat hold the remains of 12,849 former allied prisoners of war. If you happen to visit the one in Kanchanaburi city then don’t be surprised if there’s more souls there than meet the eye. Perhaps the journey along the Thailand – Burma Death Railway to the bridge on the River Kwai Yai, leaves some lonely spirits with just a modest walk to the war cemetery and a chance to visit old friends. Who knows.

Wang Pho Railway lineRailway passengersBridge over the River Kwai Yai


I'm a sixty-year-old Englishman living in the town of Swindon in rural Wiltshire and I have a real deep desire to retire in Thailand one day. If you don't have a dream then you won't have a dream come true.

22 Responses

  1. Mike says:

    Martyn I will be off to visit Wing 53 air base this week at Ao Manoa, one of the places the Japanese landed on the day after Pearl Harbour. Coincidentally 68 years ago today.

    The base put on a display so I hope to share some photos soon.

    I love the area around Kanchanaburi which is beautiful, so sad that the history is so dark. Clearly you and I have trod in the same footsteps judging by where you took the photographs.
    .-= Mike´s last blog ..Canon Captures =-.

  2. malcolm says:

    Martyn, sooooo glad you enjoyed your visit to our next of the woods , I hope on your next visit to Kanchanabui that you haver a little longer to stay and don’t be soo shy and private , and give me and Ciejay a call , we have the truck and there are sooo many places to see that tour trips never get to see , just a thought . we love it here and I have been here 5 years now and almost every week someone will ask me “have you ever seen ——. “? and then it’s one more place to visit near our town. we don’t have to go far to see a lot of good sights . Take care and thanks for the history lesson, we all need to be reminded of the sacrifice and lives many paid for so dearly , for the ride on the Death Railroad we get to enjoy and remember to this day , and did you remember that yesterday, December the 7th, was Pearl Harbour day in the USA and Hawaii? Another reminder of the horrors and tragedys of WAR. Ships laying at the bottom of the ocean as graves and no head stones, just a watery grave, I have a Uncle there, and just like the folks that come from all over to visit the graves of loved ones , in the Kanchanaburi cemeteries, we will never forget, only forgive. Malcolm
    .-= malcolm´s last blog ..WHEN IS A HAIRCUT MORE THAN JUST A HAIRCUT???? =-.

  3. Catherine says:

    What a well-woven post.

    Senseless death is awful of course, but I feel it more so on the Death RR. And Martyn, I can certainly feel the sadness coming from you via your words.

    I recently stayed at the River Felix (right on the big river), but I didn’t have much time for the bridge at all (too many cats to see). I made time for the war cemetery though. Even if it was a quick slamming on of the breaks to peer over the wall on tiptoe.

    But as for forgetting and forgiving, I’m not ready to forgive the cruelty. Not just yet.

    It is just too big. Too recent. Too there.
    .-= Catherine´s last blog ..An Easy Way to Learn Foreign Languages: Part Two =-.

  4. Camille says:

    Hi Martyn,

    Have been to both Kanchanaburi and Ao manao and was impressed by both of them When my soon to be wife and me visited Kanchanaburi we were really lucky, it was during the yearly week when they have a big show next to the bridge with explosion sin the water, sound systems and the actual train crossing the bridge. Got lucky there!

    Being Dutch, it’s also a well known place in the Netherlands since many Dutch soldiers lost their lives there during WWII.

    An informative and well written blog post, thanks!
    .-= Camille´s last blog ..8th December, 2009 =-.

  5. Lawrence says:

    Martyn, thanks for all this information and just the right amount of your signature humour in a post that otherwise tugs the heartstrings. I’ve been to the Kanchanaburi cemetery several times and it never fails to leave me feeling very emotional. So many of the names there belonged to such young men.
    I’m always impressed, too, by the immaculate way the graves are tended.

    Malcolm doesn’t mention the museum and walk run by the Australians at Hellfire Pass, where you can walk along a bit of the track beyond where the railway runs now. It’s a cutting that was blasted out of solid rock and great cost in life. Maybe that’s another place for him to visit.
    .-= Lawrence´s last blog ..Scorpion Invasion =-.

  6. Hoo Don says:

    Mike I’m honoured to have trod the same footsteps as such a keen photographer as yourself, perhaps there’s a budding David Bailey in me trying to break out. I didn’t realize that Ao Manoa and the Japanese invasion happened so close to your home.

    Malcolm I really won’t ever forget the wonderful people and attractions of Kanchanaburi. Last time it was a case of hitting the ground running. We crammed one hell of a lot into our three and a half days stay.

    I’ll admit I am quite a private kind of animal but our next stay will be longer and I will DEFINITELY arrange a meet. I know Wilai wants that as well. Trust me buddy I was a little tormented by having to make the decision. As far as Wang Pho went we didn’t know where we would be boarding the train from and it was a surprise when our tour party headed for the elephant camp. If I had known in advance then the decision would have been different.

    I hope you understand and thanks for another great comment. Much appreciated.

  7. Hoo Don says:

    Catherine I should give you 100 lines but I managed to cover up the incident….say no more. I really did enjoy the railway ride and yes it was sad but somewhat exhilarating as well. Days later I bought a book on the subject and it was then that I understood the true meaning of it all. Don’t ask me why but it took a long time to figure out the cats bit of your comment. Cats….what does she mean by cats. I must be getting old.

  8. Hoo Don says:

    Camille I think the Kanchanaburi week you refer to has just ended today the 8th of December. Mike at My Thai Friend wrote about it last week and that inspired me to get this post done as I’ve been meaning to cover it for a couple of months now. The Dutch have 1,896 ex prisoners of war who worked on the railway now resting in the Kanchanaburi war cemetery. There are also 313 at Chungkai and 622 in Thanbyuzayat.

    Lawrence I have put your blog into my sidebar as I find it a great and educational read as I’m sure others will do too. The graves are kept in first class condition and the whole cemetery is a credit to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I have read about the Hellfire Pass but our short trip didn’t cover it although I do recall Malcolm posting about it a good while back.

  9. Catherine says:

    Martyn, Great to hear that you bought a book about the Death RR. There are many out there, which one did you get?

    The last one I purchased was about the real person behind the character played by Alec. Colonel Nicholson in real life was Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey. And the reality is totally different.

    Google: ‘The Man Behind the Bridge: Colonel Toosey and the River Kwai by Peter N. Davies’

    I am also glad that you saved my butt. Ta muchly 😀

  10. Hoo Don says:

    Catherine the story behind my book purchase is this. Myself and Wilai went to visit the famous bridge again so I could take some more pictures and generally have a look around the area. There were a couple of women (Wi guessed from Myanmar) walking around selling books on the Death Railway, I politely refused many times. One kept pestering me. I relented and just to get shot of her I bought a book.

    The book is written in really bad English, terrible in fact but that kind of thing fascinates me in some strange way. Anyway when I was at our village home I sat in the garden one afternoon with a few beers and read it. The story was all there, just the words were a little jumbled and some missing. I really enjoyed the read and learned a lot from it. There is lots of old grainy photos in it as well.

    As far as the author goes, no one has had the cheek to put their name to it. Do you remember Les Dawson when he used to play the piano out of key, it reads a lot like that. A quite enthralling read.

  11. Adullamite says:

    Thirty or so years ago I read Ernest Gordons ‘Miracle on the River Kwai,’ the story of one man coming back from near death there. Fantastic story!
    I don’t think he thought much of the film, and neither do I. I regard it as an insult to those who were there.

    Gordon also wrote, ‘To End All Wars: A True Story About the Will to Survive and the Courage to Forgive,’ a book I have yet to read. This comes from his time on the railway as a prisoner.

    Good post, one of your best yet!
    .-= Adullamite´s last blog Deals of the Day and Special Offers =-.

  12. Catherine says:

    Yes, I can imagine what you are talking about with Les Dawson (and a great descriptor it is 😀 When I first started learning Thai, I thought I would save money by buying books printed in Thailand for the English language learning market as they had both Thai and English. Oh my.

    I picked Colonel Toosey up at the museum in Kanchanaburi (the one by the river). So if you do get that way again, it should still be there.

  13. Hoo Don says:

    Thanks Graham but I’ve got to admit I’m not to clued up on history, I had to do a fair bit of research on this one to add to what I could remember. I know if you ever make it to Thailand then this is one place that’s going to be high on your agenda.

  14. Hoo Don says:

    Catherine – Good old Les Dawson, I really used to like him. A very funny man.

    I did visit the museum and had a look at the books but I thought they were a little pricey, by Thai standards anyhow. As I have commented to Graham (Adullamite) I’m not big on history and the book I got hit the spot. Though I must say whilst I’m never going to be a historian the train ride was a wonderful experience.

  15. Jungle Girl says:

    Martyn, Great post – sounds like a fascinating trip. As always super informative, and really educational, the Thailand-Burma death railway is a profoundly moving story which goes so much deeper than the movie. Thanks for such an informative historical background.

  16. Hoo Don says:

    Jungle Girl thanks for a lovely comment. The death railway is worth a ride if you find yourself down Kanchanaburi way. There’s also the railway museum and the war cemetery in the city itself. Kanchanaburi has so many other attractions too.

  17. Mr Samui says:

    Kanchananburi itself is an extremely beautiful province of Thailand, although constantly shadowed by its dark past. The war cemetery and museum are ‘must-sees’ in order to fully appreciate the density of despair during those times. I remembered being profoundly affected by the images of ‘Pack of Cards’ bridge, having seen sketches made by Ronald Searle and POW Jack Chalker. These days, it looks to me like the black gates of Mordor!

    To commemorate those who died there is a yearly Sound and Light festival where it showcases the story of the bridge. I believe this happens around Loy Kratong.

  18. Hoo Don says:

    Mr Samui thanks for your comment and your views on Kanchanaburi’s must see attractions. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the province.

  19. avogadro says:

    we just studied WWII in my history class but I had never heard about this. What a terrible way to die.

  20. Hoo Don says:

    avogadro – Thanks for your comment. There certainly are easier ways to meet your maker. Enjoy your studies.

  21. michael brown says:

    i really don’t have an idea of this. i want to go to this beautiful place and to know about the dark past.

  22. building supplies bradford says:

    Hi Martyn, another great blog post. Not sure about that bridge, it really doesn’t look too sturdy to me but I bet it’s solid as a rock! I would love to see Thailand, always wanted to go but your posts have made me want to visit it even more! Never seen a buddha that huge, it looks totally majestic.

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