Remembering the Victims of the Death Railway
The sleepy Kanchanaburi province, just a couple hours west of Bangkok, is a popular getaway thanks to its mountains, waterfalls, and a pleasant provincial capital. Dotted throughout the province, however, are signs of one of the atrocities committed during World War II. The Death Railway had 60,000 allied prisoners of war and many more Asian laborers working in horrible conditions under the Japanese.
The link between Burma and Thailand was crucial to the occupying forces of Japan for supplies, as the journey by sea was too risky. The train track totaled 415 miles and cut through some of the worst terrain in the region.
The cost to life was appalling. Tourists – including myself – moan about the heat when having to go out for the day. Now imagine performing backbreaking labor for 16 hours a day while battling malnutrition, brutal beatings from the occupying Japanese and a slew of horrible diseases. All told, 60,000 Asian laborers were killed. More than 12,000 Allied soldiers died. They were mostly British, Dutch and Australian. Of the total casualties, 133 were Americans.
Now, there are several landmarks in the area that provide a glimpse into what life was like while honoring those who were killed. Here are a few of the best ones to visit.
Kanchanaburi War Cemetery
Cemeteries aren’t really common in predominantly Buddhist Thailand, which makes the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery stand out. This beautifully maintained plot of land along the main road in town has nearly 7,000 victims buried here. Most of the headstones have heartbreaking inscriptions written by friends and family. It’s a somber place despite people taking selfies here.
If there’s one place worth seeing to learn more about the Death Railway, this is it. Hellfire Pass gets its name from one of the worst stretches of the railway that had to be constructed. The forced laborers carved the mountain out by hand using rudimentary tools.
Today, Hellfire Pass houses a modern museum and annual remembrance ceremonies are hosted here. The pass is a 5-kilometer walking trail and some of the wooden ties are still in place, although no trains run here. Back in the museum, be sure to pick up one of the audio tour devices. It’s one of the best ones I’ve ever listened and sounds like something out of a Ken Burns documentary with its many interviews.
Don’t be put off by the 90-kilometer drive to visit Hellfire Pass (organized tours also go out here). It’s worth the journey.
Bridge On the River Khwae
This bridge in downtown Kanchanaburi was immortalized by the book and film, but those were works of fiction. The bridge was destroyed twice during World War II and what’s there now was rebuilt after the war. A small part of the track still works today and is mostly used by tourists, as it’s a scenic 81 miles rode from Kanchanaburi to the end of the line in Namtok. Pedestrians walk on the bridge when there are no trains coming, and the entrance is lined with vendors peddling stuff to tourists.
Every now and then, there’s talk of rebuilding the railway to connect Thailand and Myanmar once more. This has upset some of the veterans and the victims’ families, who are pushing back against these plans. The latest development is an ambitious one, as Thailand and Japan are cooperating on possibly bringing a high-speed rail through Kanchanaburi.
I'm an American freelance writer who spent a couple years living in Cambodia. Now I'm on the move again and traveling all over the place. I'm willing to try any bizarre liquor that's presented to me. Any recommendations?