November 11, 2014
Visiting both ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ & ‘Hellfire Pass’
Revised April 2017
Annual Events: There are 3 major annual events that take place at these historical sites, with two remembrance services are held at Hellfire Pass:
ANZAC Day (25th April)
Armistice Day (11th November).
There is also the much larger annual, River Kwai Bridge Festival (From late November to early December). In this post we have tried to provide details of a minimum 2 day trip to enable you to visit both Hellfire Pass and the River Kwai Bridge, without coming away exhausted as the locations are some distance from each other.
How to get there
There are numerous ways to get to the two locations, the bridge is approx. 130 kms west of Bangkok with Hellfire Pass a further 118 kms via a horse shoe route of approx. 3 hours by road.
It is this additional travelling time that makes it almost impossible to see both locations in one day. The most poignant route to take is that of being on-board a train travelling on the track that was the ‘Death Railway’.
In my humble opinion the journey from Bangkok to Nam Tok (now the the end of the line) is the most memorable train journey in the Kingdom.
The Thonburi train station itself is very old and quite small but it does have its own charm. The ticket list price is 25 baht but because this is an official tourist line it is a fixed price of 100 baht each way.
While there is a dual pricing structure in Thailand one for Thai nationals and one for tourists, the price is in real terms is still pretty inexpensive, if you consider it will take you all the way to Nam Tok for the price of a few beers or a burger. (don’t forget to see the waterfall at the end of line it is quite beautiful especially after a heavy rain, more below).
A word of warning and a tip to help you beat the masses that will try to board the early train at Bangkok. If you get on the wrong side of the train you will find yourself staring at a mountain face and you will miss most of the scenic views, especially once you get to the Bridge and the viaduct.
To avoid this disappointment, walk a hundred yards or so off the platform towards the direction of the oncoming train just prior to its arrival. The train slows down considerably as it comes out of the bend, jump on it here before it comes to the halt and grab your seat on the left hand-side of the train.
The train journey is not renowned for its smooth ride as the seats are made of solid unbending wood so be prepared to be Shake Rattled and Rolled during the 2.5-3 hour journey time.
That said taking this form of travel has so many advantages over simply travelling by bus or taxi, as you get the chance to witness, feel, see and smell the real Thailand in both the scenery and the warmth shown by others sharing the same journey. There’s no buffet car, but vendors walk up and down the train selling soft drinks, beer, and pre-packed fruit and food.
The train stops at a number of small rural stations until it arrives at the city of Kanchanaburi, then onto the River Kwae Bridge station, (The bridges own railway station-200 metres before the bridge itself) before crossing over the Bridge. Then it’s onto the Wampo viaduct (also built by prisoners of war) before finishing at Nam Tok railway station.
History of the Death Railway
According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission:
“The notorious Burma-Siam railway, built by Commonwealth, Dutch and American prisoners of war, was a Japanese project driven by the need for improved communications to support the large Japanese army in Burma. During its construction, approximately 13,000 prisoners of war died and were buried along the railway. An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 civilians also died in the course of the project, chiefly forced labour brought from Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, or conscripted in Siam (Thailand) and Burma. Two labour forces, one based in Siam and the other in Burma, worked from opposite ends of the line towards the centre.”
Do it yourself – Rather than go on a guided tour and beholden to others and try to cram in both locations in one day, try this two day plan:
Day One-Bridge on the River Kwai
Take the train to Kanchanaburi (see above) and find your accommodation first, most of accommodation in the city is situated around the train station and the night market, see our post ‘The Sights and Sounds of Kanchanaburi’
The Bridge on the River Kwai is about 5 km from the centre of Kanchanaburi and you can walk, hire a push bike (approx. 50 baht per day), motor bike (approx. 150-200 baht per day) or hire a cycle rickshaw to the bridge and then walk across it.
Do be aware of the regular trains which hoot like crazed banshees as they cross the bridge at a sedate 10kms per hour, this is when you are expected to step off the tracks into the passing spaces that are all along the track.
During your stroll across the bridge and while you are soaking in the sights and sounds, it is easy to visualize how it must have been for the prisoners of war and the forced labour, who worked in the unbearable heat and rain for so many long hours, days, months and even years, with no real food or medical aid………. Frightening for most of us, who’s only real worry today is ‘what will I eat next?’
From the bridge you can either jump on a train to finish the journey crossing the Wampo viaduct ending at Nam Tok . Its a further 20 minute walk to visit the Sai Yok Waterfall (the rail cost is an additional 100 Baht).
Do remember to take a change of clothes and enjoy a dip in the fresh water emerald pools at the waterfall, (Note: The last train leaves Nam Tok at 15:15).
Day Two-Hellfire Pass
If you have not over done it the day or night before, you can easily arrange a taxi and driver from Kanchanaburi. A half-day will cost 1500-2000 baht, (always agree a fair before you get into the taxi).
Or if you have the time take a full day taxi for approx. another 500-800 baht, ask the driver to take you from the pass, to visit the seven tiers of possibly one of the best waterfalls in Thailand, the Erawan Falls of the Erawan National Park. For more details see my post ‘Sights and sounds of Kanchanburi’
Hellfire Pass, or to give it its proper name, Konyu Cutting, is located approx. 80km (50 miles) north of Kanchanaburi, on the disused section of the railway line. It is here the Australian government has cleared approx. 7 km of the old track-bed as a memorial to those who lost their lives building the railway. This includes Hellfire Pass itself, it was dubbed ‘Hellfire Pass’ by the POW’s, for the way the works in the pass looked by torchlight at night.
There are one-day organised tours from Kanchanaburi to Hellfire Pass, but these typically get only 30 minutes at the Pass, only enough time to see it from a distance and no time at all to see the excellent museum, from which you can find self-guided walking tours. These allow you to listen to heart rendering narratives from actual survivors through audio headsets as you walk to and through the pass. From the museum you can also make out the Myanmar border just across the beautiful Kwai Noi Valley.
A word of warning the descent to the pass is over rough ground in places and can be an arduous trek if only wearing flip flops, but is defiantly worth it.
As you reach the bottom it is the un-nerving serenity that appears to surround you and which appears to take a grip your very soul, that makes you instantly forget all the hard work getting there.
As you walk along where the tracks once laid, you are surrounded by what I would term as the stillness and reverence, one only finds in a church or place of worship. Later when the heat and humidity hits you, you start to realise that the guys that first worked here, not only had to hike a lot longer than you, they did it every day and still had to work very long hours, hewing out the rock and cutting back the jungle by hand, all on the most meager of food and water.
As you look up along the area that is now once again cleared, it is very hard not to be moved by the sheer scale of the hardships these men had to endure.
“Visiting ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ & ‘Hellfire Pass’ is both a thought provoking and moving experience and something that will stay with those that witness it forever”.
Maps and time Tables of the Thai train network
Click here for an interactive route map provided by possibly the best source of train travel in Thailand Mark Smith and ‘The man in Seat 61’ showing trains and connecting buses & ferries across Southeast Asia. For a more detailed map of the Thai rail network itself, see Dave Bernstein’s excellent downloadable Thai Rail Timetable here.
Click here for departure times from Nam Tok and Kanchanaburi
For more directions by road
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