I almost die at the Death Railway

My fascination for trains and railways brought us to Bangkok’s Thonburi Station at 7:35AM, with 15 minutes to spare before our train leaves. It was an ungodly hour for my night-wired brain, but we couldn’t miss the first trip to Kanchanaburi. Otherwise we would have to spend the night there, and we really only had a few days left in Thailand.

We pay 100 baht each at the small ticket counter. My friend Anne waits for the train as I rush to a nearby hole in the wall cafe for a cup of coffee and bread. Vendors are supposed to sell food at the train but better sure than sorry.

Soon we were finding the best spot for the 4-hour travel. My heart beats faster as the train starts chugging. It was finally happening. The adventure I have been waiting for for months.

The Thai-Burma Railway was built by over 300,000 prisoners of war between 1942-1943, to support Japanese forces in Burma. As the route had to pass through some really thick forests, the already starving workers were vulnerable to endemic diseases. And they say at least 100,000 prisoners died during its construction, hence the moniker Death Railway.

The landscape turns greener and older as we go further north. Thoroughly captivated, I walk a few berths to explore. There are different kinds – some with comfortable foam seats, some wooden, some facing each other. Found a few dozen tourists, but most passengers are really students, either on the way to school or on the way home, I never got to ask.

The restrooms, although just as old as the rest of the train, are surprisingly clean. And the train doors, just like the windows, are forever open – thank the gods for that. Stick around and you’ll find out why.

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Pretty soon we arrive at Kanchanaburi Station, where the iconic railway from a 1957 film stands, only more modern. The train slows down to give tourists time to fully enjoy the view. Our destination is the Wang Pho Viaduct, located between Tham Krasae and Wang Pho stations.

Our near death experience starts here.

The train slows down again as it passes the viaduct. Then it stops. I stare as most of the tourists get off, but there was no train station. And our research specifically said to alight at Wang Pho Station, not viaduct, so we pushed on. Lo and behold, only two souls got off at that station. (Guess who??)

Luckily, one of the marshals speaks English. Unfortunately, he says it’s a 3-kilometer walk back to the viaduct. There is no public transport, apart from the train we just left, which was coming back in an hour. But if we wait for it, then we wouldn’t be able to explore the death railway. So what was the point of coming all the way here?

We had no time to whine, and walking a road literally less traveled (we saw maybe 3 vehicles in 30-minutes) is just another adventure. So off we went. It wasn’t so bad. We actually enjoyed the fresh air, if only we weren’t so scared of being left by our ride home.

The marshal just said to go straight, so when we arrived at a fork, we were stumped. Thankfully, a man in his sidecar slowed down, as if to offer us a ride. He couldn’t speak a word of English, but he must have understood train, ’cause he brought us there. Bless him and his kind heart.

The girl at the station says we have 25 minutes left before the train to Bangkok arrives. I thought, it was more than enough. But it’s crazy how something with such a dark history could look so beautiful. With a jagged cliff on one side, and the River Kwai below, we were mesmerized.

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We walk past the viaduct, deeper into the railway leading to Bangkok, when we heard the familiar choo choo! Our train was leaving, and we wouldn’t make it.

It was just like the movies. We were speechless as we looked at each other, and telepathically agreed to run! If you have ever tried running on a railway, you would know how uncomfortable it is. Too many rocks and screws! One of them indeed sent me flying, the slow kind, the kind that makes your whole life flash before your eyes. But all I could think of was my camera, it couldn’t hit the ground, so I sacrificed my knee instead.

I stand up to screams from fellow tourists, who also couldn’t speak English. But there was a universal hand signal for hurry! Anne figured it out before my fogged up brain did, the train was coming. And we were standing on its way.

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Some 50 meters ahead, there was a space where tourists could watch the train pass the viaduct. So we ran for our lives. We got there just before the train did. But we still had one more problem. Our ride home is passing before our very eyes, and we had no way of stopping it. BUT it was running at only 10km per hour. Action stars have ridden/jumped out of trains faster than that, right?

I say the only thing I could think of, Anne, we have to jump. It was impossible, I know. I’ve never seen Anne do anything the least bit athletic in our over 10 years of friendship. But it’s a proof of how desperate we both were to get back to Bangkok that Anne didn’t need telling twice. She jumped to the next train door and I immediately followed, just when that door was leaving the bend were the tourists were, belatedly realizing that one misstep could have sent me flying to the river below.

We were laughing (crying) as we walked into the train, hearts still beating fast. But of all the cars we had to walk into, it had to be the one where the train officers were. There was maybe one second of stunned silence, before they started shouting. It was in Thai, but it was kind of easy to assume what they were saying. Why did you do that! That’s illegal! You could have died! 

We’re sorry! We didn’t know! We’re really sorry! We’re not sure they understood, but we tried to look apologetic as they shouted some more. Finally, one of the guys scratched his head in frustration, and with his hand directed us to find our seats.

That didn’t stop us from imagining all kinds of police welcome when we arrive in Bangkok. The conductor arrives later on to collect our fees. When he didn’t say anything else, we thought it was safe to calm down, and enjoy the rest of the trip.

I smile as I look back at the day that was. You can’t plan an adventure. It just happens – at the most unexpected places, at the most unfortunate times. It could ruin your day, or it could make you just a little bit tougher and wiser. The choice is yours.

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The sun sets as we were nearing Bangkok. I take a deep breath as I savor my favorite part of the day. Apart from my throbbing knee, all was well.

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