My body, once sweaty from the tropical heat and humidity shivers in the freezing cold Air conditioning. Riding backwards staring at the Thai countryside flowing past my window, enjoying the food coma caused by my lunch of traditional Thai sausage and sticky rice, the train sways side to side as it bounces down these tracks of death. Quickly now, making our way back to the bridge that crosses the river Kwai. The policeman on board, doubling as tour guide, chatters on endlessly in Thai, occasionally using his megaphone to make a point. Stopping at the end of every rant to give us an obligatory word or two in English.
We started our day at 6am, meeting dear friends Adrian, June, and their adorable daughter, Pang at Bangkok’s Hualamphong Station. We were going on an excursion over what remains of the Thailand Burma railroad line and the bridge that crosses the river Kwai. The excursion called Nam Tok Saiyoknoi is through Thai Railroad and cost only 240 Baht ($7.20) for 2nd class with a/c.
The itinerary is ambitious covering a lot of territory in thirteen hours. Tours like this have their drawbacks but this would allow me to share the experience and spend the day with my friends.
The first stop was Nakhon Pathom station. We were given forty minutes to get food and visit the Great Pagoda of Nakhon Pathom, the tallest Buddhist pagoda in the world. Walking along the length of the train I turned right up the road to the Pagoda and saw the Great Pagoda towering in the distance. Immediately I realized my mistake. Forty minutes was a ridiculously short time to appreciate the Great Pagoda and the vibrant little city that surrounds it. We barely made it halfway up the road. Working our way up through the crowds, weaving our way through congested intersections, and finding a restroom had consumed half our time and we still needed to get our food. The food carts lined the street with their vendors calling out with greetings to bring you in but their was no need. The smell of the food, the cracking of the spices in burning hot oil, and the bright colors were more than enough. There is no street food in the world like Thai, no, none. We bought spicy red fried chicken, pork shumai, Kanom Tuay, and white steamed buns with a mysterious filling. On the train just in time, we unwrapped our treasure and began eating as the train slowly pulled forward.
Another hour and we arrived at the bridge. I wanted this moment to be special. I wanted to touch the bridge, feel its energy, reflect, and honor the memory of the 100,000+ that died. They died building this railway and this bridge under the mind-numbing cruelty of the Japanese occupying army. Unfortunately this place has been turned into a tourist trap. Locals and their stalls lined the path to the bridge selling their goods. Buses unloaded throngs of tourists. We weaved our way through the crowd to cross the bridge. I was frustrated. I know better. To fully experience any major historic site it is always best to go extremely early or late. Hang out and visit after the tourists go home. I’ve crossed the bridge, been there, but not really.
Back on the train we continued on to Nam Tok Saiyoknoi. Two hours on train tracks laid on the backs and deaths of so many. The terrain was so rough at points it defied imagination as to how tracks were laid without modern machinery and equipment. Occasionally you could touch cliff walls on one side of the train and look down hundreds of feet from the other. These tracks were laid by people emaciated from starvation, sick from dysentery and malaria, wounded from beatings, and under the worst conditions possible. Ultimately the vast majority were killed or worked to death.
The park is the end of the line. The tracks beyond this point have all been pulled up years ago. The park was a fine place to spend a few hours with friends. Back on the train the conductor hit reverse and we were off. A few hours later we pulled back in to Bangkok Hualamphong Station.
If you have the chance make the journey to the bridge that crosses the river Kwai but take your time, skip the planned excursion, and really explore this area. Seat61.com is a great website to consult whenever you plan a trip by train.