The Thai-Burma Railway is notably known as the Death Railway due to the harsh condition and high death rate during its construction in the early 1940s. Originally built to connect Bangkok in Thailand and Yangon in Burma (now Myanmar), you can now get on the train to explore the Death Railway from Bangkok to Nam Tok.
While you can easily find a lot of day trip tour options to get on the Death Railway train from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi, you can also arrange a trip to explore the remaining Thai-Burma Railway on your own. The scenic view of the train journey is rewarding, and to top it all you can also learn about the morbid history of how it was constructed during World War 2.
In this post, I'm going to share some insider tips about arranging a DIY The Death Railway trip. From how to buy train tickets from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi or Nam Tok, the best way to explore the Death Railway and other things you need to know about traveling through this infamous railway.
So, is it worth the hassle of planning your own trip to explore the Thai-Burma Railway? Here's the ultimate guide to exploring the Death Railway in Thailand!
What You Need to Know About the Death Railway in Thailand
The Death Railway is the real evidence of romusha, the forced labor done by the Japanese military during World War II. As an Indonesian, this is the term I often heard in my history book back at school.
My late grandma used to say that the condition of Indonesia under the Japanese invasion was so much worse than during the Dutch colonialization; exploring the Death Railway only proved the bad reputation of the Japs during this dark period… Except this time, I was exposed to how not only did they enslave the non-Japanese Asians in general, but apparently they also did it to the Allied prisoners of war like the Brits, Americans, Australians, and Dutch.
On top of the Allied prisoners of war, the Japanese military also captured some other civilian laborers from countries like Malaysia, the now-Singapore, and even Indonesia to construct the Thai-Burma Railway. They had to dig through mountains, construct bridges and viaducts, and most works were done manually, costing the lives of over 100,000 people as a result.
Nowadays, you can still take a train journey from Bangkok to Nam Tok to explore the route of the Death Railway in Thailand, as the railway beyond Nam Tok is no longer operated.
A lot of travel agents now offer a day trip from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi and Hellfire Pass. The most popular one is probably a day trip from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi, where you can learn the notorious history of The Death Railway while visiting the War Cemetery and exploring the famous bridge on the River Kwai. Another option is to take a full-day tour all the way from Bangkok to Nam Tok and explore the Hell Fire Pass to complete your adventure.
My boyfriend and I decided to travel slowly and arrange a DIY trip to Kanchanaburi from Bangkok instead. From Kanchanaburi, we went to Nam Tok to visit the Hellfire Pass without tour too the next day. So, here are some tips I can share based on my experience of exploring the Death Railway on my own!
How to Explore the Death Railway in Thailand
Essentially, the train through the Death Railway starts from Thonburi train station in Bangkok. Also known as Bangkok Noi, the best way to get there is by booking a Grab Car from your accommodation. Thonburi train station in Bangkok is very small compared to the main station at the Hualamphong station, so you won't see first-class or second-class inter-city trains passing this train station.
However, if you happen to go on the weekend, you can also take the train from Hualamphong to Kanchanaburi, as according to the schedule board that we checked at Kanchanaburi station there's a weekend train from Hualamphong that departs at 6.30 AM on Saturday and Sunday.
Train from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi
The train to Kanchanaburi and Nam Tok departs twice daily from Bangkok Thonburi station. Most day trip tours from Bangkok typically join the first train at 7.30 AM and then take the second train from Nam Tok at 3.30 PM. And the reason why we ended up arranging the trip on our own was because we didn't wake up early in the morning to join the tour. LOL.
When I planned out this trip with my partner, we decided to go to Kanchanaburi and stay there for a couple of days so we could get a chance to visit both Kanchanaburi and the Hellfire Pass from Nam Tok the next day. It was a wise decision!
The afternoon train from Bangkok Thonburi station to Kanchanaburi departs at 1.55 PM but we decided to leave our apartment in Bangkok early at around 11 AM. We bought the train ticket go-show for 100 THB (around $2.8 USD) per person to Kanchanaburi.
I'm not sure if you can book the train ticket from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi or Nam Tok in advance, but I couldn't find the online booking for this route unless you plan to take the bus. But since we aimed to explore the Death Railway, of course taking the bus to Kanchanaburi would be a whole different experience compared to taking the train on this historic railway.
Don't expect anything fancy about this train, because it's a very simple train with no air conditioning. There's no seat assignment, but the train wasn't full when we took the afternoon train from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi. However, keep in mind that the morning train might be more packed given the idea most day trip tours from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi and Nam Tok join the one at 7.30 AM.
From Bangkok to Kanchanaburi, if you take the train at 1.55 PM, you can expect to arrive in Kanchanaburi at around 5 PM.
If you decide to take the train journey to get some instagrammable snapshots, from Bangkok you can sit on the left-hand side of the train to capture some of the best views on this scenic trip through the Death Railway in Thailand.
I personally think that traveling slowly through the Death Railway in Thailand is the best way to explore, since I could only imagine that joining a day trip to Kanchanaburi or Nam Tok from Bangkok would be freaking exhausting, especially with the hot weather in Thailand!
Train from Kanchanaburi to Nam Tok
Another reason I think slow travel is the best way to explore the Death Railway is that you don't rush to visit all the must-visit sites related to this historic railway in Thailand.
If you follow the same route as we did when we decided to complete the Death Railway route from Bangkok-Kanchanaburi-Nam Tok, you can book accommodation in Kanchanaburi for one or two days so you can explore Kanchanaburi and its surrounding on the first day and head to Nam Tok to visit the Hellfire Pass.
My partner and I decided to take the morning train from Kanchanaburi to Nam Tok the next day. Since our accommodation in Kanchanaburi at Tara Raft Kanchanaburi was within walking distance from the train station, we initially planned to depart from there at 10.35 AM.
However, since we woke up early, we decided to visit the River Kwai first to see the bridge, only to find out that we could take the train from the bridge as well. The train from the River Kwai to Nam Tok departs at around 10.45 AM, but when we checked the ticket counter, the staff told us to just get on the train and pay for the ticket on board.
So here's our confession… We got on the train, and we sat down waiting for the ticketing staff to come and check our ticket but no one came to check us so we didn't pay for it. Even now, I'm not sure if it's common, or technically our train ticket from Bangkok the previous day is considered valid for the trip all the way to Nam Tok. Although when we took the train back to Kanchanaburi from Nam Tok, we paid the same price of 100 THB per person.
But yes, we didn't pay for the train ticket from Kanchanaburi to Nam Tok. Even if it turns out we should've paid, I'm not sure how much the ticket is for the train to explore the Death Railway from Kanchanaburi to Nam Tok.
Anyway, the cherry on top of the excursion to the Death Railway is the famous Wang Po viaduct. Nestled between the cliff and the river, you could only imagine why the railway is called the Death Railway especially with the technology in the 1940s when the POWs and Asian forced laborers built this railway. Despite the stunning view when you pass this viaduct, it's also a great time to reflect and remember the lost lives in the process.
Compared to the train from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi, the train that we took from Kanchanaburi to Nam Tok looked better.
There was no air conditioning still, but the seat looked sturdy and the entire carriage looked cleaner too. I'm not sure if it's also because the morning train is usually full of tourists, so that's probably why the better train is designated for them to enjoy the whole journey.
For a better view, especially around the viaduct, you can sit on the right-hand side of the train from Nam Tok. Expect more passengers to come out and take pictures there too though, there would be a lot of them!
FAQ About the Death Railway in Thailand
As usual, I'm going to list some of the frequently asked questions about traveling and exploring the Death Railway in Thailand. So, here we go!
How far is the Death Railway from Bangkok?
The original route of the Thai-Burma Railway was around 415 kilometers as it started from Ban Pong in Thailand and went through Thanbyuzayat in Myanmar.
The route that we currently know as The Death Railway in Thailand is only around 130 kilometers, starting from Bangkok to Nam Tok station. The whole journey takes approximately 5 hours one way, which consists of a 3-hour trip from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi and another 2-hour trip from Kanchanaburi to the final stop in Nam Tok.
How to travel to the Death Railway from Bangkok?
Apart from taking the heritage train from Bangkok Thonburi to Nam Tok and visiting Kanchanaburi and Hellfire Pass along the way, there are also some other options to explore the Death Railway in Thailand.
The day trip options from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi and Nam Tok usually include the train journey through the Death Railway in Thailand.
Alternatively, you can also take the bus to Kanchanaburi from the South Terminal in Bangkok. From there, you can take the train from the bridge on the River Kwai to Nam Tok. There's also a bus that goes directly from Kanchanaburi to Nam Tok, although keep in mind that the bus schedule in Thailand can be a bit messy so it may not be ideal if you have limited time to explore.
Some private transfer companies in Bangkok offer services from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi and Hell Fire Pass; some of them also include the trip to Erawan National Park for your convenience. Or if you want to explore the region more independently, you can rent a car in Thailand using your valid driving license.
How to ride the Death Railway train in Kanchanaburi?
If you travel from Bangkok, on weekdays you can take the train from Bangkok Thonburi station (known as Bangkok Noi) to Kanchanaburi. The morning train departs at 7.30 AM, and there's also an afternoon train at 1.55 PM.
In Kanchanaburi, you can either take the train from Kanchanaburi station or hop on from the bridge on the River Kwai. From here, you can finish the complete route to Nam Tok where you can pass the famous Wang Po viaduct.
The Thai-Burma Railway is a historic railway that left the dark history of World War 2 in Thailand. Nowadays, you can trace back the history while enjoying a scenic train journey from what's left of this heritage railway from Bangkok to Nam Tok.
While there are so many daily tour options from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi or Nam Tok, I would highly recommend taking a couple of days to stay in Kanchanaburi before heading to Nam Tok and visiting the Hellfire Pass to learn more about the tragedy of the Death Railway in Thailand.
While it's doable for a day trip from Bangkok, I imagine the trip itself could be so exhausting because the train journey would take longer than the time you spend exploring the historical sites in Kanchanaburi and Nam Tok.
You can use this guide as a reference if you want to arrange a DIY trip to explore the Death Railway in Thailand, and I will share the details of exploring Kanchanaburi and visiting Hellfire Pass in the next blog posts.
So, have you ever taken a heritage train anywhere in the world? Do you have a favorite? Share in the comment below, and cheerio!
Marya The BeauTraveler
I am the founder and main editor at The BeauTraveler. I spent 4 years working in the aviation industry but ironically got to travel more right after quitting the industry in 2015. Born and raised in Indonesia, I started working remotely in 2017, and while I stay at home most of the time, I also regularly spend 2-3 months living a semi-digital nomad life elsewhere every year.
This post may contain affiliate links. I receive a small commission at no cost to you when you make a purchase using my link.