The Death Railway unrolls far past the Bridge over the River Kwai. It once went on into Burma and, as far as I know, still does, but that portion no longer operates. The terminus is a small town called Nam Tok, where there apparently isn’t much to see but a couple stray dogs, some farm equipment long fallen into disrepair, and a lone train official peering over a spread newspaper, watching the day and occasional train pass by.
Before Nam Tok, however, the Railway has a few more things to show you. There are a number of wooden trestles that lift the train over wide, green gaps, and sometimes over passes of olive-colored water with reflected train-riders staring up at you. Many of these cling precariously to cliff faces, so that you feel as though, by leaning out the windows, the whole thing might topple over. But the scenery is spectacular. A few shots from the Death Railway even make it into Thailand’s “Amazing Thailand” tourism campaign.
(I learned this most directly as we passed over a particularly long trestle. The conductor came down the aisle with his megaphone, talking in a continuous stream of Thai that was interrupted at points by him yelling, “Amazing Thailand!” It took a couple of my fellow passengers doing their best to explain to me what he was saying before I understood the conductor was pointing out the more impressive photo ops).
Then, as we approached our stopping point for lunch, we encountered a hill. It wasn’t much of a hill, maybe only a twenty-degree incline, but to hear the conductors and staff describe it (or indicate it with their hands), we were looking at a veritable mountain pass. So, to gather room for momentum, we backed the train up a ways, built power–and hit that hill with all of maybe two horsepower and thirty miles-per-hour. It was slow going, even after we all piled to the front in hopes of making it easier on the engine. Boughs of the trees lining the railway dragged past our open windows. The occasional butterfly flew in, settled, and the, bored with our lack of progress, flew back out. A fine cloud of the train’s exertion drifted back down the hill, and eventually, they opened the side doors to let people get out and stretch their feet.
A small group of foreigners got out and walked the rest of the way to our next stop: Saiyok Noi Waterfall. The waterfall was a popular family destination, and mostly children splashed and slid down the falls’ smooth rock. I’d seen plenty of waterfalls already in my time in Thailand and, a little wary of the water’s warmth, I grabbed some food. I had sticky rice (one of those foods I will definitely miss) and chicken (freshly cooked and, in all honesty, probably freshly killed). After that, I marched up to the top of the falls where there were a number of caves.
The largest cave was too far away so, as a light rain started up, I went to the closest one. A brief climb through some rocky steps and I found this:
It was a remarkable grotto devoted to Buddha. Open at the top, sunlight and rain fell on top of the Enlightened One and his devotees, appropriately representative of the intimacy, universality, and embrace of nature that his faith signifies. Even a non-Buddhist could appreciate the spirituality of the place.
Following our lunch break, we hit Nam Tok and then began the trip back, stopping in Kanchanaburi, where there was a cemetery of the Allied prisoners who died constructing the railway. Of the 15-16,000 Allied POWs that died in its construction, about 6,300 were British, 2,800 were Australian, 2,500 were Dutch, and 350 were American, with smaller numbers of Canadians and New Zealanders. In the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, an immaculately-maintained square in the town’s center, hundreds of Brits, Aussies, and Dutch are entombed. By now the rain was strengthening, leaving the cemetery nearly empty. It made for a sobering reminder of the legacy of the railway and made one appreciative of the work that goes into ensuring the darker periods of collective history don’t go overlooked or forgotten.