Death Railway

Thursday, 20th August 1987

I woke early and by 7:00am I was already sitting at a table in the “Hallo Guest House” with coffee, toast and jam in front of me. I read all about Rudolf Hess’ recent death in the Bangkok Post before heading off.

I made my way down to the river and paid my 3 bahts to cross on the Kaho Paya express boat to Thorn Buri; the Southern Railway terminus.

My plan for the day was to travel on the infamous “Death Railway”.  The line was built by the Japanese to link Thailand with Burma during World War Two.  They used slave labour and captured allied POW’s for much of the construction .  I intended to travel to Kanachabiri to see the museum that told the real story of the “Bridge over the River Kwai”.


At Thorn Buri I washed down my malaria tablets with some Fanta whilst I was standing in the ticket queue.  I then purchased a 3rd class return to Kanachabiri for 50 baht.

The train, already standing at the platform, was quite short. It was made up of just three 3rd class carriages with a diesel locomotive on the front.   I clambered aboard and took one of the wooden seats that were arranged in bays of 4 around the open windows.

The train never got full and by 9am it was ready to leave. The journey was quite slow but pleasant enough. As we left the suburbs of Bangkok the scenery turned green and got more interesting. The sun was hot but there was a pleasant little breeze coming through the open windows along with the rhythmic chugging of the diesel and its constant blaring horn.

There were two food and drink sellers on the train but they didn’t seem to be doing much trade. By the time we reached Nakhon Chaisi just 50 minutes out they had already been up and down the train six times and their stock of items hadn’t been depleted at all.

The train arrived at Kanachaburi on time at 10:30 and I alighted. The station was just short of the famous bridge. The train was going to carry on over the bridge and then continue another hour or so down the line where it would turn round.

I stood for a while on the platform and watched a platoon of Thai troops drilling in the hot sun. Remembering the dark military history of the place that I was about to see,  it was actually quite an eerie sight to see those soldiers there.

Outside the station I somehow teamed up with an American,  Shaun from South Dakota (teaching English in Kyushu in Japan), Jenny from Liverpool and two Dutch lads. We hired ourselves a somgthaew driven by a young Thai couple and negotiated a price of 200 baht for a trip to the museum and the cemetery.

The JEATH museum was supposed to be named after the main 6 powers involved: Japan, England, Australia, America, Thailand and Holland. Ever pedantic, I pointed out that it should really be JEA- ATH but I was told that it is JEATH because it is meant to rhyme with death.

“Death” is certainly the main theme of the museum. It is all about death and particularly death accompanied by a lot of terrible suffering. There were clippings from the Dutch, Australian and British newspapers of the day, drawings made secretly by the prisoners, lots of photographs and two recreations of the actual bamboo huts used to house the POW’s.

There were also graphic illustrations of the various types of cruel torture employed by the guards on their captives. It was both quite harrowing and strangely moving at the same time.



From the museum we went on to the cemetery. Actually there were two cemeteries and the four of us walked around the graves in both of them. We walked around in near silence reading the stones. Jenny and I spent some time looking in more depth at the British section.


The names of the regiments on the stones suddenly made me feel quite home sick. Looking at the ages of the soldiers when they died, so similar to my own age,  made me feel profoundly grateful to have been born later in the 20th century.

Died aged 23.  (I was 23 myself when I took the photo)

From the cemetery we went on to the bridge itself. The bridge was not the one built by the prisoners. It was a much more modern construction. The original had been destroyed towards the end of the war in an air raid. We walked around the small railway museum near the bridge and then, skipping over the sleepers, we crossed to the other side.

The River Kwai is quite beautiful at this point but the area doesn’t resemble the scenes from the famous David Lean movie at all. This is perhaps not surprising as the film itself was shot in Sri Lanka.

On the way back across the bridge I was stopped by a Japanese lad. He must have been about my own age or slightly older. He asked me to take his picture with the bridge in the background. This seemed a little strange at first but the more I thought about it, the more it made perfect sense.

We were two young people from two peaceful democracies enjoying travelling, being friendly and civil towards one another. Surely that was a modest but a fitting tribute to the poor souls who died in this place. I took the photograph for him and he smiled and nodded approvingly when I told him I would be visiting Japan soon.

We had time before the train back, so Shaun, Jenny and I teamed up with an Italian lad and went for lunch. We had a very hot chicken and rice dish in one of the open air restaurants that lined the river. The food was extra spicy so we ordered chunks and chunks of fresh delicious pineapple to follow.

The return train trundled across the bridge and arrived on time at the station at 14:30. I spent a very relaxing journey with my head against the open carriage window taking in the breeze and nodding off for some of the time.

Back on the north side of the river the evening at the “Chart” was uneventful. I caught a bit of “Dog Day Afternoon” but went to bed early and I enjoyed the best sleep for a long while.


Friday, 21st August 1987

I was up again early and after a rushed breakfast I caught a boat to the River City Sheraton and then ran all the way to the Hualumpong station, the main station on the north bank, for the 8:30am departure north to Ayutthaya.

The train was quite a long one and it took about 40 minutes to clear the extensive suburbs of Bangkok, trundle past the airport and then travel another 40 minutes to reach Aytutthaya itself.  It was an 88km trip from Hualumpong.



Until its destruction by the Burmese in 1767 the island city (it is surrounded by 3 rivers) was capital of Thailand. I crossed the little river by ferry paying half a baht for the privilege. I walked into an area surrounded by shops and then out again into green tree- lined streets.  Many of the streets had canals running down them.



This was obviously a big tourist city. There were empty buses of all shapes and sizes all over the place with sleeping drivers in their cabs. The tuk tuks here were a different version to the ones in Bangkok and they seemed a little bigger too. They still stopped every five minutes to see if I wanted a lift.


I spent the day touring the temples. I paid 20 baht to get in most of them. I descended into the crypt of the ruined Wat Rajburana, I marvelled at the 3 cheddis of the Watches Si Samphet, I relaxed in the gardens of Wat phua ram sand I must have walked past a dozen more.

There seemed to be school children everywhere as well and they were all dressed in very colourful uniforms and all guided by their teachers with loud hailers.

At temple Borit I dined on some sticky rice and satay chicken, I know now that that must have been the source of the food poisoning that was to give me so much trouble for the next few days, but at the time it tasted delicious.

I concluded my trip  with a visit to the Phraya museum and a very impressive display on the influence of the Dutch in Thailand.


Apparently there are more than 1,000 Bhuddas of the various periods in the town, including some pre-14th century ones. They are all in various states: walking, reclined, repelling fear and doing lots of other things.

I was already quite exhausted and went back to the station to wait for the early evening train back to Bangkok. It should have been an hour or so wait, but a train that had not been on the schedule pulled in almost as soon as I reached the platform. I scrambled aboard and made my way back to Bangkok.


Saturday, 22nd August 1987

The next day I checked out of the hostel, boarded an overcrowded local bus and sat on it for  2 long hours as it made its way the whole 15km to the airport.

I arrived at 1.30pm, checked in and then sat in the overcrowded airport lounge until the Cathay Pacific flight was called at 5pm.

I was heading to Hong Kong.

1987 – Hong Kong