Sunday, March 20

Riding the Death Railway

Thailand’s infamous death railway passed through dense tropical jungle and steep, remote river valleys for much of its length.  This route resulted in the construction of numerous trestle bridges, rock cutting and mile upon mile of hillside cuttings (typically called benches).  The work was back-breaking and often dangerous.  Tropical diseases, industrial accidents and malnutrition took a heavy toll.  An estimated 180,000 died during its construction.

The 415 km line was completed on 25 October 1943 and operated under wartime conditions for a further 22 months. During this time it transported more than a quarter of a million tons of food, ammunition and ordnance to Japanese troops in Burma.  Several thousand troops also made the journey. 

However, after the Japanese surrender in 1945 the railway’s value came into question.  In particular, returning British administrators were concerned that it could be used to supply and reinforce rebellious Burmese hill tribes who oppose the return of their colonial administration.  In 1947, last than four years after its opening, the British tore up a section of track and all operations ceased along the line.  

The irony of this decision is hard to ignore.  An oppressive and brutal imperial power (Japan) built the railway to expand and project its control of the surrounding region. Yet when the war was over another invasive imperial power destroyed it in order to stop the locals from challenging its authority.

After severing the link with Burma the Allied authorities agreed to sell the section stretching from the Burmese border into Thailand back to the Thailand government.  However, a subsequent survey of the line resulted in a decision to close it entirely.  In 1957 a section of the railway was reopened from Nong Pladuk to Nam Tok.  This section remains in service today.

Tourists and locals can catch a train from Kanchanaburi (where the train crosses the renowned Bridge over the River Kwai) to the former jungle terminus of Nam Tok.  The journey’s highlights include a slow and winding transit along the Wampo Viaduct built by prisoners of war.  The viaduct consists of wooden trestles that sit on a narrow rock ledge carved precariously into towering cliffs along the edge of Kwai River.  The entire journey takes several hours. 

Garry and I joined a tour that meets the train south of the Wampo Viaduct.  Our tour coach literally chased the train through rural countryside for several kilometres before the train suddenly stopped in the middle of nowhere.  It was here we boarded the train where several empty carriages at the back of train had been reserved for us. 

We paid a little extra to secure a window seat on the carriage’s most scenic side, then sat back and watched as Thai village life rolled by.  We knew when we finally approaching the viaduct as rows of tourists and backpackers appeared alongside the track.  The train then slowed to a crawl as we crossed onto the trestle bridge.  The transition itself was rather dramatic. In a single moment a solid and rather lush green lawn that stretched past a quaint local station gave way to a plunging, foreboding rock face.

The sight of the train winding its way along the narrow rock ledge below was equally spectacular.  We could literally lean out of our carriage and see past the edge of the track to the river itself dozens of metres below us.  Once safely back on level ground our train pulled into a local station where we got off and joined the coach taking us back to Bangkok.

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