A new tourist train makes for an interesting, informative, at times sobering, but certainly excellent way to spend a day away from Bangkok.
by Michael Moore.
Looking for an escape from the rigors of life in bustling Bangkok? The tourist train to the “Bridge on the River Kwai” in Kanchanaburi provides an ideal respite. Operated by Thai Railways during weekends and holidays only, the trip is entertaining and provides sobering lessons in some of the darker chapters of World War II.
The train leaves Bangkok’s Hualamphong Station (usually platform 11) at 6:30 a.m., returns around 8 p.m. and costs only THB 130 for a car with open windows and a fan. Although air-con is available, it isn’t recommended as taking pictures and seeing the sights is more difficult. Tickets are available at Hualamphong in advance or on the day of travel.
There are guides on the train offering commentary in Thai but they often stopped at our seat to explain things in English. Once off the train, people fend for themselves, but this didn’t present any problem as we simply followed the crowd to the various sights.
Our first stop was Nakhon Pathom, one of Thailand’s oldest cities and home of the world’s tallest Buddhist monument, the Phra Pathom Chedi. Looming dramatically over the entire city, the 127m-high orange-glazed spire glittered in the early morning sun as we scrambled off the train. The time allotted for the stop was only 30 minutes so we just had time to scurry to the base of the monument, snap a few pictures, and grab some of Nakhon Pathom’s famous khao laam – sticky rice and coconut steamed in a segment of bamboo – before rushing back to the waiting train.
Death Railway Bridge
For those expecting a wooden bridge like the one in the famous movie “Bridge on the River Kwai,” the present bridge spanning the Mae Nam Khwae Yai is quite different. The first bridge, completed in February 1943, really was made of wood, but it was replaced by a second bridge made of steel shipped in from Java by the Imperial Japanese Army a couple of months later. In 1945, after 20 months of use, the bridge was destroyed by Allied bombs but was rebuilt after the war using much of the steel from the original structure.
The tourist train stopped at the station adjacent to the bridge and we all got off and walked out onto the famous structure. Although there pictures taken with the bridge in the background, for many it was a time for serious refl ection. An estimated 90,000 to 100,000 conscripted laborers from Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, and Indonesia and 16,000 Allied POWs died constructing the bridge. The 415km-“Death Railway” is a tragic reality commemorated by the current bridge.
Along the Mae Nam Khwae Noi
After leaving the bridge and Kanchanaburi town, the railway moves into the mountains and is cut into the side of limestone cliff s overlooking the Mae Nam Khwae Noi. The narrow roadbed was made by blasting and hammers and chisels wielded by prisoners and conscripts. The toll in human lives making this section of the railway was incredible, but today this is often forgotten as people concentrate on the remarkable scenery.
Nam Tok Sai Yok Noi
Stomachs screeching for food, we arrived at the end of the railway shortly before noon. Nam Tok Sai Yok Noi is a charming little place with a cascading waterfall with a pool at the base of the falls. If you have a bathing suit or a change of clothes, jump in the water. It’s a great way to beat the heat! Thankfully, there were numerous places to eat around the little train station, with barbecued chicken being a specialty.
There are numerous well-marked trails leading away from the falls, taking hikers to additional falls, limestone caves, the remains of the “Death Railway” bridge, and streams fed by springs that bubble up out of the ground. Remember to leave yourself time to return to the train as it departs at 3 p.m.
Allied War Cemeteries
Our last stop was at Kanchanaburi town on the way back to Bangkok to visit the Allied War Cemetery. There were pick-up truck taxis at the station to take us to the cemetery for THB 10, but they really weren’t necessary as the cemetery was only a short walk away. The well tended cemetery is the fi nal resting place for hundreds of Australian, Dutch, French, and British soldiers who died building the so-called “Death Railway.” The seemingly endless rows of graves are topped with plaques containing the names, nationality, age, military insignia, and a short epitaph for the soldier interned below.
Interesting, informative, and at times sobering, this is an excellent way to spend a day away from the city.