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  • Writer's pictureChris Wright

Tears, Track and Tourism on the Death Railway

A large industry exists around the site of the Thailand-Burma Death Railway, where thousands were worked to death in World War Two. It varies from the moving to the gaudy.

Think of this. You are a doctor, a prisoner of war on the Burma-Thailand railway in the middle of 1943, and your Japanese captors, intent on completing the railway as the tide of the war begins to turn, have implemented speedo, an added intensity to an already intolerable work rate.

Up on Hellfire Pass, where prisoners are working with the most basic tools – no drills, no wheelbarrows, no shoes – to hack a cutting through solid rock in the jungle, the guards have called for a dozen of the sick from your most spartan of medical camps to be enlisted to join the shifts today.

So you, as doctor, must make a terrible call: is the man stricken with malaria in a worse state than the man with a foot ulcer so extreme that you can see his bones? Which one will you send to work a 16-hour shift in which the slightest pause will lead to being beaten mercilessly? But you must choose, for that is the only choice available to you today and every other day, and if you decline to make it, they will take both. Malnourished and stricken yourself, this is on you, and if the people you choose die today, you will carry that burden forever. And they probably will.

The impossible plight of prisoner doctors on the Death Railway, as it will forever be known, is just one of several miniature hells within the broader inferno. The forced construction of the railway across 415km from Nong Pladuk in Thailand to Thanbyuzayat in Burma (now Myanmar) between 1942 and 1943 took about 12,500 lives of prisoners of war, and far, far more among local indentured labour, where 100,000 may have been worked to death. They died from beatings, they died from cholera, they died from starvation, they died from beri-beri, they died from exhaustion and they died from malaria. It takes a lot, within the endless sorrow and brutality of the Second World War, to be an event remembered particularly for its cruelty and loss. But that is the railway.


Today, the railway is a major tourist attraction, visited on day-trips in coaches from Bangkok a couple of hours to the east. But when I visit with my parents we decide that this is a journey that should only be undertaken by rail. My mum’s uncle, Joe, survived being a forced labourer on the railway during his time as a prisoner of war. We will be travelling on track he toiled to build.

Early one morning we arrive at tiny Thonburi railway station in the Bangkok Noi area of the city and board third-class carriages that toward Kanchanaburi, which has become the centre of the industry around the railway because it hosts the notorious bridge over the River Kwai (actually the Khwae, and originally something else again, but that’s another story). Though the seats are rustic and the facilities non-existent barring people wandering the carriages selling bottled water, pomelo fruits and suspicious-looking fried chicken from a tub, it is a pleasant journey: the windows are wide open because there is no glass in them, and the movement of the train brings a welcome breeze as we potter through the outskirts of Bangkok into paddy fields and the country’s green interior, stopping at colourful and well-maintained little stations along the way where guards in proud uniforms stand in front of portraits of the Crown Prince.

Sunrise over Bangkok

Bangkok Noi Station (Thonburi)

Two and a half hours (in theory; more like three in truth) bring us to Kanchanaburi, now a major town filled with all the trappings of Thailand backpacker life: bars with happy hours and the English Premier League on televisions, massage places and 7-11s. We drop our bags at the hotel and then procure a taxi to drive us for an hour up into hillier country to Hellfire Pass.

Nobody trying to understand the railway should do so without coming here. The Allied prisoners were all forced to work on the sections through the jungle mountains, and in one of the most arduous stretches of them all, the Australians have funded a memorial gallery where one can walk on a stretch of it, long since stripped of its rails. The visitor centre focuses very much on the Australian experience – about 2,800 of its soldiers died here, alongside 6,300 British and 2,500 Dutch – with recorded testimony from survivors and harrowing exhibits, entered through a hallway with the names of the dead crammed busily into the walls above an image of rails. The most striking is a mighty slab of rock, far taller than the people observing it; next to it is a tiny bowl with what looks like some leftovers at the end of a meal. The rock, three cubic metres, represents the amount of rock each man was expected to move each day. The bowl is the daily ration: 370 grammes of rice.

Entrance to the Hellfire Pass Memorial. The words on the walls are names of soldiers who died

The amount each prisoner was expected to move each day. The little bowl shows the ration of rice they were given in order to do so

An image of conditions in Hellfire Pass

Beneath the gallery, you are issued with an audio headset, and a radio for safety, lest you should need help because of the heat and terrain. From there you descend to the old trackbed, through the cutting of Hellfire Pass. There are sobering reminders of what happened here – part of a metal spike still embedded in the rock where it must have snapped, occasional rusted tools – and within the cutting you are dwarfed by the idea of starving, fevered men having had to pound their way through this unforgiving terrain. They used to be forced to work through the night – one man recalls a 33-hour shift – and when they did so it was in the light of bonfires, the shadows of drooped prisoners and stalking guards flickering in the modest glare, and it is this image that gave it the Hellfire name.

Beyond, there is a memorial, and further still, an area that is less maintained that you can follow for four kilometres, clambouring up and down steps and over tree roots, as far as the old House of Cards bridge, named because it was built so swiftly it collapsed three times, each time taking prisoners with it. Visitors who attempt the walk come back sweating and exhausted – hence the radios – but embarrassed too at their discomfort in light of what people went through to make it in the first place. The chilled bottles of 100 Plus back at the visitor centre come with a very guilty aftertaste.

Inside the Hellfire Pass cutting. The rails have been long since removed but you can still see some of the sleepers

Tools from Hellfire Pass

From there we are driven back to Nam Tok station, which today is the terminus of the line: the British and later Thais removed all the track from here to the border, initially out of security concerns.

It takes two hours on the train back along the river to Kanchanaburi, and this is truly the experience of the Death Railway. It would be a remarkable feat of engineering in the best of circumstances. But these were the worst. At one stage, at Wam Pho, the train descends along a viaduct built from wood high above the bank of the river, incongruously beautiful in the circumstances.

On the Wam Pho Viaduct

The River Khwae from the railway

The River Khwae; Wam Pho wooden viaduct in the background

Finally you cross the bridge, the famous bridge. As the train clanks over its steel-arched span, people stand in little bays either side of the track along the bridge with their iPhones out, filming you as you film them. The station on the river is a circus, with crowds milling at the end of the track right in front of the travelling train, trying to be the last to step out of the way. You don’t have to listen hard or long to hear the Hitler Has Only Got One Ball whistle coming from somewhere.

Crossing the bridge on the train

The bridge over the River Khwae

Tourists waiting for the train over the river

The train crosses the bridge

Bridge selfies

There is a lot about Kanchanaburi that doesn’t sit well. In our fine hotel there is a railway restaurant, with a dinky little railway set going round in circles around your heads. Hundreds make their living selling memorabilia. They’re not to be blamed for that: you earn your living as best you can and the history belongs to them as much as it does to the prisoners. But in my hotel the framed “Authentic Spike from the Thai/Burma Death Railway” on sale for 450 baht, which climbs to Bt850 when two spikes are combined into a cross and embossed with a “lest we forget” poppy, leaves you uneasy.

There are, though, places you should certainly see in Kanchanaburi, none more so than the war cemetery. It is immaculate, peaceful and sad. Several thousand fallen troops are buried here, their headstones spotless amid trimmed grass with beautiful plants among them and the occasional shade of generous green tree canopies. The headstones, a striking proportion of them Dutch, all feature the ages of the fallen: 24, 21, 20, 23, 20, 26.

Next to it, the Death Railway Museum and Research Centre has been built and maintained by an enthusiast who spent years scouring the line, understanding its history, finding things left behind and putting them into an impressive and detailed exhibition. One thing this exhibition does particularly well is convey the fact that allied prisoners who died were in a stark minority compared to those of local Asian labourers, known as Romusha, who were forced into work and died doing it. Of all those who died on the railway, more than 40% were Malay alone; Americans were 0.1%, but you wouldn’t know if from the memorial to the Asian dead – because there isn’t one. Their numbers weren’t recorded, their graves weren’t marked, their memory was not valued. The figure of a hundred thousand dead is an educated guess. This museum is as close as it gets to putting that right.

Oh, about the film. People seem to forget that The Bridge over the River Kwai, both the Pierre Boulle book and the David Lean film, were works of fiction set within a historical event: there was no Alec Guinness or Jack Hawkins equivalent and certainly no epiphany when an obsessive colonel blew up his own bridge.

The bridge, though, is very real, and all of it is original bar the middle spans that were rebuilt after being bombed by the Allies later in the war. There was a wooden bridge, too, built at least twice, but that is long gone. There are still bomb scarrings on the steel bridge’s concrete pillars, though, and the steel pins in teak timbers you can walk across today are just as they were when forced labourers hammered them in in 1942-3.

In the museum in Kanchanaburi there is video footage of two Japanese, engineers and photographers on the railway, looking back on it many years later. One of them rebukes the film, not for its depiction of Japanese brutality – which the movie frankly underplayed – but in depicting Japanese engineering as being in any need of assistance from British troops. Pride dies hard, it seems.

Perhaps the most lasting issue caused by the book and film was the name: the River Kwai. For a start, a better transliteration would be Khwae, but more to the point, the bridge didn’t cross it anyway. In fact, it crossed the Mae Khlung, which joins the actual Khwae further south. Boulle had never been here and so never saw either bridge or river, and he got the name wrong.

After the David Lean film came out, tourists started coming to see the Bridge on the River Kwai and the Thais didn’t have one to show them – so they changed the name of the river. Mae Khlung became Khwae Yai, or Big Khwae, just north of where it meets the Khwae Noi, or Little Khwae.


Despite the unfathomable loss, most of the 60,000 Allied prisoners who were forced to work on the railway did make it home eventually, though some would go on to further slavery after the completion of the railway in 1943; there were still almost two years of the war to run by the time the railway began carrying trains, and the survivors were scattered as far afield as Singapore, Java and Japan.

The railway they built was closed not long after the war after a train carrying Thai officials seeking to inspect its condition found out the hard way when their train fell into a ravine. It remained unattended until the section from Bangkok to Nam Tok was re-opened in 1956, and that is the stretch you can still ride on today.

Uncle Joe never spoke about his experiences. Returning soldiers were encouraged not to do so, lest it upset people: better to keep it all inside, to bear it like a man. But what must that have been like? He lived to his early 70s despite being stricken with malaria that would come back time and again in the subsequent years, and today I wonder who he confided in, what he felt, what he lost.

Joe Butler, left, with my grandad, Les Butler

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