Kanchanaburi, Thailand – The Death Railway and Erawan National Park

Kanchanaburi, Thailand death railway


Through wild and green, western Thailand runs an unfinished railway dubbed the “Death Railway,” so called because of the more than 100,000 lives lost to build it.  Beginning in Bangkok, it heads west to the town of Kanchanaburi, over the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai, and abruptly ends in the town of Nam Tok.   During World War II, Allied prisoners of war were forced to build this under inhumane conditions, in order to provide Japanese forces a rail connection into Burma.

The Bridge over the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi. gained popularity as a tourist destination after the eponymous movie was released in 1957.  I found myself joining the ranks of the curious after a week in Bangkok and boarded a train headed west.  Other than having inhaled a lot of dust that had me coughing for weeks afterward, the ride was really enjoyable, offering incredible views of green hills and silty rivers.  It felt wrong enjoying such a beautiful train ride, at the expense of so many people.

About halfway to Nam Tok, everyone on the train fell quiet.  Many passengers stood up to look out the window.  Outside, people had gathered on the sidewalks to watch the train go by.  We were crossing the Bridge over the River Kwai.  With somber faces, passengers and spectators made fleeting eye contact, in recognition of the reason for everyone’s visit.  Those moments set the tone for the rest of that solemn day.

After crossing the river, the train continued for another hour to the terminal station in Nam Tok.  Once there, my friends and I took a quick cab to the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum. With little to no actual artifacts on display, the museum serves mostly as a memorial and means to educate visitors on the history of the railway.  Videos, photos, and information placards detail the horrors of life as a prisoner of war in Thailand, under Japanese control. Starvation, tropical ulcers, cholera, and dengue fever were not uncommon struggles for the prisoners, killing an average of 20 of them a day.  The museum took great pains to pay respect to all lives lost, including the Japanese.  It’s a very moving experience, be prepared to choke up a little.

After exploring the museum, visitors have the option of walking along the unfinished section of the railway to see where laborers cut through large sections of stone.  The cuttings are dotted with small, personal memorials to loved ones who died.  Walking the canyon-like trail through the cuttings and seeing the fruits of their painful labor, their story seems inconceivable.  How did these sick and malnourished people cut through so much stone with handheld tools?  I can’t even imagine the harsh reality these poor people faced on a daily basis, with no end in sight.  It made my complaints about inhaling dust on the train feel stupid and privileged.

The history of the railway, while infinitely fascinating, left us feeling in need of a more uplifting activity.  So the following day, we shifted gears and took a bus from Kanchanaburi to Erawan National Park to splash around in their seven-tiered waterfalls.

kanchanaburi death railway

The park, which sits about 40 kilometers from the border with Myanmar, is a local favorite.  Thai families come to Erawan to cool off from the intense heat, and to enjoy a free foot exfoliation from the small biting fish that live in the waters.  In accordance with the paradoxical Thai modesty, swimsuits were not allowed.  Visitors may only swim wearing shorts and shirts, though I did notice a handful of men wearing significantly less than everyone else.  I had brought my bikini.  However, since I’m not a fan of being stared at, I chose to adhere to the suggestion of modesty.

Various websites make note of the difficulty of walking up all seven tiers of the waterfalls.  The park’s website recommends allotting 2-3 hours to the hike.  I’m often suspicious of such warnings.  Walking uphill in the heat and humidity can make time seem much slower than it really is, but the end result is often that I’m left with a lot more time than I budgeted for.  This hike was no exception.  If you’re used to exercising for longer than ten minutes at a time, I see no reason it would take longer than two hours to reach the seventh waterfall.

Due to the constant flow of people through the park, wildlife viewing isn’t really a highlight a visitor can look forward to unless you like fish that eat dead skin.  The real highlight is the sight of aquamarine-colored water dripping and pooling around limestone formations and thick vegetation.  I never knew that shade of blue existed in nature.  And there’s something incredibly relaxing about sitting on a rock the size of a car and listening to the water burbling away.

kanchanaburi death railway

After the heat of the sun hit full force and the park filled up with more people, we saw this as our cue to go.  So we endured another dusty ride back to Kanchanaburi.

When I travel, I’m often left with a profound sense of gratitude.  I’m so lucky to have the life that I do.  Yes, I appreciate the freedom and ability to travel, but it goes deeper than that.  My life is so comfortable, compared to what most people throughout history have experienced.  To be able to run away from the uncomfortable feeling of sadness when faced with the ugliness of history is a luxury that not everyone can afford.  A humble sense of mindfulness is what I hope to cultivate from these experiences.  Thank you, Kanchanaburi, for sharing your history and your wealth.

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