THE BRIDGE ON RIVER KWAI
Kanchanaburi may not sound very popular as a destination in Thailand, but it surely becomes more appealing when you get to know it is a crucial point of the Burma Railway, aka the Death Railway, precisely where the famous Bridge on River Kwai (or Kwae) is located.
Only thing we knew before getting here was that there are a book and movie of the same name, but we definitely learned more about this railway thanks to this trip.
So here’s our guide to all you need to know about the Death Railway and how to go to the Bridge on River Kwai in Kanchanaburi.
We landed in Bangkok and planned to head straight to Kanchanaburi, so we got a taxi direction Bangkok’s South Bus Terminal (Sai Tai Mai) and then a bus to the western Thai city.
However, there’s a few options to enjoy this trip, so here’s the details you need to know. If you prefer joining a guided tour with transport included, have a look here.
The Bridge on River Kwai lies after Kanchanaburi Train Station coming from Bangkok, so if you are planning a day trip from the Capital, your best chance is to get off the train right before the bridge and then take a walk on and hang out around it (there are the War Museum and War Cemetery to be visited, plus shops and restaurants). If you rather experience the entire Death Railway travelling over the bridge and towards Hellfire Pass by train, we recommend to spend at least 1 or 2 nights in Kanchanaburi.
For a day trip to the Bridge on River Kwai, check Part 1.
For a full experience of the Death Railway, check Parts 1+2, spending one or two nights in Kanchanaburi.
PART 1 – HOW TO GO FROM BANGKOK TO BRIDGE ON RIVER KWAI, KANCHANABURI:
- From Bangkok by train: reach Bangkok Thonburi Station (Bangkok Noi) on the day of travel to buy your train ticket. There are two trains daily to Kanchanaburi, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, taking about 2h30, see timetable below. If you’re planning to travel during high season or weekends, be warned that carriages may be overcrowded, especially 1st and 2nd class may sell out quickly, whilst 3rd class tickets will always be sold, worst case scenario you’ll have to spend your journey standing. There’s an additional Tourist Railcar running on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, leaving Bangkok Hua Lamphong Station at 6.30 am and returning at 7.30 pm, you’ll have to buy tickets at the station at least one day in advance.
- From Bangkok by bus or private transport: if you can’t find any train tickets available or don’t want to spend too many hours on a train, you can reach Kanchanaburi by alternative means of transport, check here. For example, we landed in Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport at 6 am and it was more convenient for us to go by bus straight to Kanchanaburi, as we couldn’t make it in time for the 7.50 am train.
PART 2 – HOW TO EXPERIENCE THE DEATH RAILWAY, KANCHANABURI TO NAM TOK:
- By train: reach either Kanchanaburi or River Kwai Bridge stations, there are three trains daily to Nam Tok terminus, the first at 5.55 am and the others later on coming from Bangkok. It takes two full hours to get to Nam Tok, see timetable. Tickets are 3rd class only, 100bahts (3$) per person and can’t be purchased online, be sure to get to the station in time to buy them. Once in Nam Tok there’s a bunch of activities to do, our favourite definitely was visiting the Hellfire Pass Museum, but you can also see Erawan National Park or Sai Yok Noi Waterfall.
- From Kanchanaburi by bus or private transport: we list this option only if you plan to go one way by train and back by bus, or viceversa, just make sure you cover the railway at least one way, please!
WHAT SEAT DO I NEED TO BUY ON THAI TRAINS?
As said, the Burma Railway trains have only 3rd class carriages, however when travelling from Bangkok and in Thailand generally speaking, there are quite a few options about seats.
We love 3rd class seats when travelling in Thailand, if it’s not too many hours of course. We personally think using 1st class is such a shame! But let’s see in details:
- 3rd class seat: the most popular choice for local people, because of their super cheap prices (a 100km ride from Bangkok to Ayutthaya costs 20bahts only, 0.50 cents!). We strongly recommend this kind of seat if you want to have an insight of Thai culture. We don’t suggest 3rd class carriages for journeys longer than 3 hours, your back is the most important thing when you are backpacking, and you don’t want to lay it to a wooden surface for a long time, or worse, not lay it at all.
- 2nd class seat: way more soft, not too expensive. This might be your best option if you are travelling in tourist season, you won’t have to worry about the crowd and you will be able to sit back and enjoy the landscapes. Prices are still very very affordable.
- 1st class seat: they come only numbered. You will have privacy and air conditioning, but you’ll miss the best sensation in the world: feeling the wind in your hair when leaning out from the window! On longer routes as Bangkok-Chiang Mai, online booking is recommended as trains usually have only one or two higher class carriages. Read about our experience on a Thai sleeper train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. You can pre-book all your Thai train tickets here.
Whatever class you choose, get a window seat and enjoy the view!
Let’s now go back to our personal experience of visiting the Bridge on River Kwai.
We decided to do things properly and stay two nights in Kanchanaburi. Chez Bure Homestay where we booked is one of the best value for money we ever had in Thailand: modern, spotless, cheap, plus great all day food selection!
Kanchanaburi lies on the banks of River Kwai (I’ll tell you more about the name later), first thing we do is taking a walk along it to spot the iconic bridge. For an interesting insight of the war pay a visit to the War Museum, which is open daily until 5 pm.
THE BRIDGE ON… THE WRONG RIVER!
As the sun goes down we take the first walk over the historic Bridge on River Kwai. Here’s the anecdote about the name: the book writer, Pierre Boule, had never been to Thailand, he just knew that the railway ran along the river and assumed the bridge was on River Kwae. Truth is, the river crossed by the bridge is actually the Mae Khlong, just before joining with the River Kwai. After the movie gave emphasis to this location and tourist began to flock here, the locals had a bridge on the wrong river, so they smartly decided to rename the river to Kwae Yai (Big Kwae), as the other west to the confluence became Kwae Noi (Little Kwae)!
Walking around together with a few tourists we realise with pleasure that this isn’t such a mainstream destination.
Indeed the next morning, after waking up at 5.30 and getting a lift from our super kind homestay owners, we reach the almost empty Kanchanaburi station to catch the first train of the day leaving at 5.55. There’s another train at 10.35 that gets probably busier, we are so happy to have a whole carriage to ourselves!
KANCHANABURI TO NAM TOK
Be aware that there are two train stations in Kanchanaburi, the main being up in town, and the secondary right next to the bridge and river. You may want to hop on the train at the main station to precede the crowds and find a better seat, although if you take a later one it may be already busy with people coming from Bangkok.
The train stops in remote villages where sometimes only one or two student kids in their purple uniforms get on or off. They must be very used to foreigners and don’t give much attention to us.
Since the train runs through the large Kwai valley for the first hour and more, you get nice views from both sides, as the railway runs along the river for most of its lenght. However if you want to have the best view of the Wampo Viaduct (also Wang Po) when travelling from Kanchanaburi to Nam Tok, sit on the left handside to have an open spectacular sight of the wooden trestled bridge facing the river, whilst on the right handside you’ll have the cliffside literally inches away from your nose!
At the end of the relaxing ride, we reach the much awaited Wampo Viaduct, built by Prisoners of War during WWII, where the train breaks down to walking pace and very slowly covers the length of the bridge, few kilometres before reaching Nam Tok terminus.
THE DEATH RAILWAY
If you are a train ride lover as we are (check our favourite railway worldwide, in Sri Lanka) you’ll definitely appreciate this route and actually the best is yet to come as you should absolutely visit the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum, the site where the hardest section of the Death Railway was built during WWII by Prisoners Of War, running here through the thickest jungle.
But don’t expect this railway to be a continuous string of sights, be prepared that the most famous views (Bridge on River Kwai and Wampo Viaduct) are located at the beginning and end of the journey, there’s not as many other remarkable landmarks in between.
A BIT OF WWII HISTORY…
What is impressive about the whole Death Railway isn’t just the railway itself but all the history that comes with it. The Japanese forces needed to find a safer way alternatively to the sea route from Singapore to reach the Burmese front, so they planned to connect Bangkok to Yangon and Thailand to Burma (now Myanmar) by cutting through the mountainous forest. The Hellfire Pass got its name from the terrible conditions the workers had to face, including multiple diseases, starvation and maltreatment, and as a matter of fact the thousand of workers who died led to the infamous name Death Railway.
Also, its technical aspects are notable, like the rock cuttings which were hand-dug and the construction of wooden bridges over deep canyons that are nothing but engineering masterpieces, considering the time and working conditions. Visiting this site is truly emotional. We like to underline that nowadays, besides tourists, this railway serves kids mainly, so that not all the efforts were useless and are in some way transmitted to the new generations.
To know more about the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum, read our detailed article here.
A SPECIAL TRAIN JOURNEY
As said earlier, travelling by train isn’t the only option to reach Nam Tok and the Hellfire Pass, it’s also possible to arrange private tours to get there quicker, and visit Erawan National Park, but personally we think visiting the Death Railway without taking the train would make no sense at all! If you are in a hurry you could consider to make only one way by train and returning differently.
As for us, we loved every minute of our Death Railway experience, from the thrilling start over The Bridge on River Kwai, to the relaxing journey along its valley, to the astonishing Wampo Viaduct, and the touching visit at the Hellfire Pass Memorial.
We strongly recommend to spend a couple of nights in Kanchanaburi so that you can dedicate a full day to this experience. Travelling from Bangkok and back in the same day is also possible but you wouldn’t have time to see the Hellfire Pass and to fully appreciate the area. If you are rushing but still want to make it to this area, you could consider one of these tours.
Hope you enjoyed our article and found the information you needed, should you have any questions, let us know in the comment section below!
WHERE TO STAY AROUND KANCHANABURI:
Chez Bure Homestay, Kanchanaburi: the perfect place to stay in Kanchanaburi: modern rooms and furniture, great food selection available all day, and the kindest owners, starting from 1000 bahts!
Natee The Riverfront Hotel Kanchanaburi: for an unforgettable stay, check out this wonderful hotel facing the River Kwai, with outdoor swimming pool and free bicycles for guests.
At Mind Executive Suites, Bangkok: our favourite place in Bangkok, with studios, gym and rooftop swimming pool conveniently located close to the BTS skyrail.
You can prebook all your stay in Thailand with free cancellation here.
HOW TO GET AROUND:
Bangkok-Kanchanaburi, by train or private transport, for the Bridge on River Kwai;
Kanchanaburi-Nam Tok, by train or private transport, for Death Railway and Hellfire Pass;
You can book your bus tickets online and in advance here.
|Bus Bangkok - Kanchanaburi $ 8.02 3h 30m|
|Van Bangkok - Kanchanaburi $ 4.81–10.27 3h – 3h 30m|
Never leave home without a reliable travel insurance. Even if you trust yourself, you can’t always trust others. Better safe than sorry! Get your quote here.
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