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The Burma-Siam Railroad and the Bridge over the River Kwai Guide

The Burma-Siam Railroad and the Bridge over the River Kwai Guide

By Chris QuanUpdated May. 19, 2021

During World War II, the Japanese needed a railroad from Thailand to Burma, which they expected to take five years to complete. Those plans were drawn before they found a source of free labor: the Allied Prisoners and forced laborers. Because of the inhuman amount of labor forced on the workers, the railway line that was expected to take five years to complete was ready in only 16 months.

There is a famous bridge in Thailand that crosses a river called the Khwae Yai. The historic bridge is a symbolic reminder of the harrowing cruelty suffered by the Allied prisoners and the conscripted southeast Asian laborers, all forced into service by the Japanese.

Highlights

  • The notorious Burma-Siam railway, built by Commonwealth, Dutch and American prisoners of war, was a Japanese project, driven by the need for improved communication to support the large Japanese army in Burma.
  • 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.
  • The railway is 250 miles (402 kilometers) long and was completed in December 1943.
  • The ‘Death Railway’ starts at Nong Pladuk, 80km west of Bangkok.
  • Using a guided tour service is recommended while visiting this place, as you will be accompanied by a tour guide that can tell you the history of this place.
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The Burma-Siam Railroad

The Burma Railway, also called Burma-Siam Railway, was built during World War II, connecting Bangkok and Moulmein (now Mawlamyine), Burma (Myanmar). The rail line was built along the Khwae Noi (Kwai) River valley to support the Japanese armed forces during the Burma campaign.

More than 12,000 Allied prisoners of war (POW’s) and tens of thousands of forced laborers perished during its construction.

History

In June 1942, the Japanese General Headquarters directed its army to build a single-line meter gauge railway, 250 miles long, from Thailand to Burma. The railway was to carry goods from Ban Pong in Thailand via the Three Pagoda Pass on the Thai-Burmese border to the Burma railway at Thanbyuzayat.

Work started in October 1942, much of it through jungle terrain. The railway was completed at the end of October 1943. More than 12,000 prisoners of war and 100,000 forced laborers died building the railway. Most of the deaths were from sickness, malnutrition and exhaustion.

The railway was to be an alternative to the sea route to Rangoon via Singapore and the Straits of Malacca, since the sea route was being closed in by Allied submarines and aircrafts. The only land road from Thailand to Southern Burma, which ran from Raheng through Kowkariek to Moulmein, was insufficient.

Before the war, Thailand and Burma had begun work on a Bangkok-Moulmein Railway but it was never completed.

Allied Prisoners and Asian Laborers

Allied Prisoners and Asian laborers experienced inhumane treatment and endured torture by Japanese forces. Not only were the long days of the workers filled with harsh labor and punctuated by physical abuse, but also the prisoners were provided with grossly inadequate food.

In addition, there was a lack of potable water. Consequently, the workers were malnourished, dehydrated, and predisposed to illness. These factors, compounded by the unsanitary conditions in the work camps and the tropical environment, meant that disease was rampant. Dysentery and diarrhea were responsible for more than one-third of all deaths on the railway project.

After the railway was completed, the workers still had almost two years to survive before their liberation. During that time, most of them were moved to hospital and to relocation camps where they could be available for maintenance crews or sent to Japan to alleviate the manpower shortage there.

Construction Conditions

Between June 1942 and October 1943, the POW’s and forced laborers laid some 258 miles (415 km) of track from Ban Pong, Thailand (roughly 45 miles [72 km] west of Bangkok), to Thanbyuzayat, Burma (roughly 35 miles [56 km] south of Mawlamyine).

Construction was extremely difficult, with the route crossing through thick, mosquito-infested jungle and uneven terrain, while monsoon conditions prevailed. Rivers and canyons had to be bridged and sections of mountains had to be cut through to create a bed that was straight and level enough to accommodate the narrow-gauge track.

The longest and deepest cuttings in the railway occurred at Konyu, some 45 miles (72 km) northwest of Kanchanaburi, Thailand. This section of the railway became known as “Hellfire Pass” because of the harsh working conditions.

The Bridge over the Khwae Yai River

Kanchanaburi, on the Myanmar border, is home to the famous River Kwai Bridge, which was built during World War II by the Japanese. One of the most important and deadliest parts of the entire railway is the Bridge on the River Kwai, which was built over the Mae Klong River.

The Story about the Bridge

There were actually two bridges built over the river at Kanchanaburi. A wooden bridge was built first, about 100 meters up-river from the current bridge, to expedite construction on the line beyond the river. The concrete and steel "main" bridge was added during the war when the steel became available.

The railway line was meant to transport cargo daily to India, to back up their planned attack on India. The bridge served its intended purpose for less than two years, when the railway was heavily bombed by the Allied forces in 1945. Both bridges were bombed near the end of the war. The wooden bridge was demolished after the war since its thick structure blocked the flow of the river.

The Film ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) is an epic World War II adventure/action, anti-war drama. The screenplay was based on French author Pierre Boulle"s 1954 novel of the same name.

The film"s story was loosely based on a true World War II incident, and the real-life character of Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey. One of a number of Allied POW"s, Toosey was in charge of his men from late 1942 through May 1943, when they were ordered to build two Kwai River bridges in Burma (one of steel and one of wood), to help move Japanese supplies and troops from Bangkok to Rangoon.

In reality, the bridges took eight months to build and were actually used for two years, and were only destroyed two years after their construction, in late June 1945.

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery is only a short distance from the site of the former "Kanburi", the prisoner of war base camp through which most of the prisoners passed on their way to other camps. It was created by the Army Graves Service who transferred to it the graves along the southern half of railway, from Bangkok to Nieke.

Some 300 men who died (mostly from a cholera epidemic in May/June 1943) at Nieke camp were cremated and their ashes now lie in two graves in the cemetery. The names of these men are inscribed on panels in the shelter pavilion. More than 5,000 Commonwealth and 1,800 Dutch casualties are buried or commemorated in the cemetery. The cemetery was designed by Colin St Clair Oakes.

5-Day Essential Bangkok Tour:
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Guided Tour

Take an easy day out of Bangkok to visit the River Kwai which is about 128 km to the West.  You will visit the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre, an interactive museum with information and research facilities, dedicated to present the history of the Thailand-Burma Railway. 

You can take a scenic long-tailed boat trip towards Bridge 277, the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai, that inspired the book and film of the same name. Walk along the bridge, check out local street markets, and then climb on board of a train to travel along the Burma Railway.

At the end of the day, disembark the train and take a walk through the jungle to reach a nearby restaurant where you can relax and have good food with a wide selection of Thai specialties. If you book with Asia Highlights, we will arrange everything so you can enjoy the thrill and learn about the history.

Visit the Bridge with Asia Highlights

Traveling to a place full of history won’t be complete if you don’t have a tour guide to tell you about every inch of the place. Asia Highlights is a professional travel agency that is familiar with the surroundings, and will arrange everything to meet individual clients’ demands. Please contact us if you have any questions.

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