Burma-Siam Railway – Outcome of a harrowing story

It was a fabled railway that was the issue of desperation and fanaticism, made as much of myth and unreality as it was to be of wood and iron and the thousands upon thousands of lives that were to be laid down over the next year to build it. But what reality was ever made by realists? (The Narrow Road to the Deep North)

Burma-Siam railway, known as death railway in popular culture, where ghosts of darker ages loom around, is in Kanchanaburi provisional town in Central Thailand. It is also the backdrop of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a book by Richard Flanagan which won the 2014 Man Booker, and The Bridge on the River Kwai, the 1957 movie that won the Oscar for Best Picture.

A little bit of history

It all began in June 1942. Japanese Empire had lost yet another naval battle, Battle of Midway, dubbed to be a turning point in the Pacific War, and was cut off receiving supplies and troops by sea needed in Burma. The solution to this came in the form of a railway between Burma and Siam (present day Thailand), an endeavour that had been previously sought by the British government, only to be soon dropped by them after considering the difficulties. Japanese Empire, as desperate they may have been, regarded construction of the 415km long railway to be a feasible option, and ordered Prisoners of War (POWs) and Southeast Asian workers to complete it by December 1943. Quite impressively, in spite of the staggering number of deaths and harsh environment, the workers accomplished the completion of the railway by October 1943, ahead of schedule.

What remains today

In the middle of stunning Thai rural landscape over the river lies the Death Railway Bridge which was the target of frequent Allied bombing raids during WWII, before it’s center was destroyed in 1945. After the WWII, the bridge was reconstructed, however the original outer curved spans that survived the bombs are still there. Visitors are allowed to walk on the bridge, but be mindful of the incoming trains.

Located opposite of Burma-Siam Railway Center, Kanchanaburi War Cemetery – or, locally known as the Don-Rak War Cemetery – is the final resting place of 5,084 Commonwealth and 1,896 Dutch PWOs who lost their lives working as forced labour on the construction of Burma-Siam Railway. Today, considered as a key site of commemoration, the cemetery remains appealing to visitors of all nationalities and when you get in among the headstones, it doesn’t fail to evoke an emotional response in you, seeing the personal messages from families which some of them carry.

Entrance fee: None

How to get there: If you are traveling to Kanchanaburi from Bangkok, taking a taxi is not recommended as it is approximately 128kms away (also taxi drivers tend to charge exorbitant amounts from tourists).  However, you can catch a train to Kanchanaburi from Bangkok Thonburi station. 

Tip: Most of the travel agencies offer day trips to Kanchanaburi which include hotel pickup from Bangkok and Death Valley train ride at reasonable rates. (Unfortunately, we weren't able to take the train ride, but reviews boast of the picturesque topography with meadows and valleys, and marvel at the railway construction, despite its heart-rending history. Now it's on the bucket list for the next time!) 🙂

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