The Thai - Burma 'Death' Railway

The cutting at Krasae Cave
The dramatic cutting at the Krasae Caves

The Thailand - Burma Railway was built by the Japanese during World War II to provide an efficient supply line to Japanese forces in Burma as they pushed into British-held India. The line became known as the "Death Railway" owing to the thousands of prisoners of war (POWs) and local laborers who died in its construction.

Japan invaded Thailand on December 8, 1941 from its bases in French Indochina, which it had effective control of via an arrangement with the Vichy government. Fighting only lasted a few hours before Thailand effectively surrendered and agreed to give the Japanese troops free access to Thailand for the invasion of Burma and Malaya. Thailand retained nominal sovereignty but Japan was granted full access to all means of transportation, military bases and communications systems. Under Japanese pressure, Thailand declared war on Britain and the United States in January of 1942.

Japanese troops quickly took Burma, and then began preparations to move into India as well. Supplying the forces needed for such an endeavor required an efficient and reliable supply line, which the Japanese could not do by sea, due to allied submarines operating in the area. This problem was driven home when the Japanese lost their entire carrier fleet in the battle of Midway in June 1942.

The idea of a rail link between Bangkok and Burma had been studied by both the British and the Japanese prior to the war. The British determined that the project wasn't feasible, but the Japanese felt it could be done, and drew up plans as early as 1939, and signed a formal agreement with the Thai State Railway in 1942. The design has the line starting as a branch off the southern line, which was built in 1903, at the point where it turns south about 80 kilometers west of Bangkok. It proceeds westward and crosses into Burma through the Three Pagodas Pass. Construction on the Thai end began near the end of June 1942.

Converted diesel truck
Converted diesel truck used to ferry supplies along the railway during construction.

Owing to the difficulty in bringing in and maintaining heavy construction equipment, the Japanese decided to built the rail line using manual labor. Estimates of the number of workers used varies from 200,000 to 350,000. About 61,000 of these were Allied POWs, drawn mostly from camps in Malaya and at Changi in Singapore. They were transported to Thailand in boxcars. Local laborers were essentially conscripts working under slave-like conditions. As many as half the workers died. The two lines met and the rail work was completed in 1943.

The most famous part of the railway is the 'Bridge on the River Kwai' - which is actually a fictional creation. The bridge people are shown today - the longest span of the line - is over what was the Mae Klong River. The section of the Mae Klong around the bridge was renamed the Kwai Yai in the 1960s to enhance the tourism appeal of the area. For me, the most spectacular section of the line is the massive trestle and cutting into a cliff face near the Krasae Caves shown above.

The line, especially the bridges, were bombed several times by the Allies in 1945. After the Japanese surrendered, the British dismantled close to 4 kilometers of the rail line crossing the border between Thailand and Burma. Some sources say the poor construction of that section meant it would not support commercial traffic, but others say that the British did not want a link between Burma and Thailand, perhaps due to lingering suspicions about Thailand's role in the war.

After the war, the line was in very poor condition and needed to be completely rebuilt. The line to Nam Tok was refurbished and opened in 1958.

The Thailand Burma Railway Center in Kanchanaburi has an excellent exhibit covering the construction of the rail line. A ride on the train from Kanchanaburi to Nam Tok makes a good day trip.