how to visit the thai burma death railway

How to Visit The Thai Burma Death Railway in Thanbyuzayat Myanmar

In 1943 90,000 Allied POW’s and 200,000 Romisha (slave labour from South-East Asian countries) built 420 kilometres of railway.  They did this through inhospitable rainforest, jungle and sheer rock. They did this by hand, with few tools, little food and clad in rags.  This was the Thai Burma Railway.  Here in Thanbyuzayat we found the Burmese end of the line.  The Death Railway.

33% of prisoners died. From disease, malnutrition and torture. More were just murdered, although if you don’t call putting prisoners of war in a situation where disease, malnutrition and torture isn’t called murder, then I don’t know what is.

This was the Thai-Burma Death Railway. When the war ended the railway continued to be used.  This time to transport Allied prisoners of war and Japanese troops from Burma to Thailand and what was then Malaya. It was also used extensively by the Allied War Graves Commission surveying party.  They searched for the remains of POW’s who had died at camps along the route.

There were many considerations after the war about the ongoing use of the railway – it was in poor condition for instance. The materials used to build it had been “acquired” by the Japanese from other locations.  The “Bridge on the River Kwai” was taken from a bridge in Java, thus restitution would be required to be paid should the railway remain in operation.

By 1947 the Allies decided that the railway on the Burma side of the border would be torn up.  The Thai side would be sold to the Thai government (for GBP 1.5million). These funds were used to pay reparations.

Most folks now visit the famous “Bridge on the River Kwai” in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Fewer take the time to visit the incredibly moving and atmospheric Hellfire Pass and spend time walking along the route of the tracks.

We spent time there in November 2014 – it was possibly the most moving experience of my life.

However, its here in Thanbyuzayat that we found the other End of the Line.

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This is the Burma end of the Thai-Burma Death Railway. It was constructed to maintain Japanese supply lines, which were severely restricted following the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway in 1942.



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Getting to Thanbyuzayat

We took the train from Yangon, buying tickets at the shed-like central ticket office in the old Burmese capital.

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We even got to see the hand written passengers lists.  No computers here.

 

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4,250 kyat (chat) (US$3.31 GBP2.19) got us Upper Class tickets on the twice daily train that heads to the South East of the country.

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It swayed from side to side less than other Burmese trains we’ve taken, but it ran later. I shrug as I write this, we got there later, but there was less motion in doing so.

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Scheduled to depart at 0715 we finally got out of Yangon at 0828. We’d swapped with a Burmese woman, so we could sit together.  Sitting on the left hand side of the train allowed us to avoid the sun all the way to Mawlamyine.  When the sun switched sides as the day progressed, the train changed direction.

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It’s a glorious ride through the countryside.

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Although true to form something went wrong, this was after all, a Burmese train.  There wasn’t enough power, once it got dark, to have both fans and lights working.  In their (very short lived) efforts to fix the problem, the train folks managed to leave us with neither.  Still, it meant fewer insects.

We stayed overnight in Mawlamyine

The train dropped us at Mawlamyine – Moulamein in Kipling’s day, for this is where he, making an unscheduled stop enroute to San Francisco from Calcutta, was struck by the beauty of Burmese women.

Mawlamyine is the closest town to Thanbyuzayat that caters for visitors who don’t speak Burmese. And so we got here, as usual, in the dark. The train station is cunningly about 3km from the town itself.  We took a tuk tuk, which ran out of petrol as we headed up and over the hill to town. Our driver, ran back down and then all the way back up, convinced, I’m sure that we’d just hop and walk from there.

 

Our whole route through Myanmar has been designed to let us leave through the border crossing at Myawaddy back to Thailand so that we can come there, to the end of this line. So after a comfortable night in the pleasant and friendly Sandalwood Hotel, we headed for Thanbyuzayat.

Bus from Mawlamyine to Thanbyuzayat

The next day we took the 1,000 kyat (US$0.78, GBP0.52) local bus from outside the Zeigyi market in Mawlamyine. The bus runs on the hour from 0600 until 1500. We took the 0800, buying our seat specific tickets (we got 1 & 2) at the small ticket booth cunningly hidden behind the bus.

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There’s no signage in English, but someone will always help in Myanmar and there is always someone who helps, no matter how little English is spoken.

Taking a Motorbike Taxi in Thanbyuzayat

Two hours later we disgorged into the market area of Thanbyuzayat.  Half a dozen motorbike taxi drivers were waiting for the bus’s arrival, although no one seemed keen to approach us. 2,000 kyat (US$1.56, GBP 1.03) each had us a motorbike taxi to take us to the actual end of the line and then the Commonwealth Graves Cemetery before returning us back to the Mawlamyine bus stop.

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Our driver spoke no English, but we’d taken the leaflet from our hotel and in pointing to the photo’s we managed to convey where we wanted to go.  They, of course, easily managed to convey how much it would cost.

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The end of the line

There’s no superbly laid out museum here (like you’ll find in Hellfire Pass).

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There’s no audio tracks with the voices of survivors to talk you through the track you’re walking on.

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And there’s no poem from Australian POW Duncan Butler to make you weep, like it did me at Hellfire Pass and afterwards.   But you should listen to it anyways.

Click to listen to Mates.

Or read about our visit to Hellfire Pass here.

There’s just a rail track, an old Japanese engine and a Commonwealth Graves Commission Cemetery.

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There are plans for a museum and there looks to be work going on to make this happen, but for now, this is the forgotten end of the line.

 

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It’s moving. In its own way. But if you visit here without understanding the history, there’s nothing to help you along the way.

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After 20 minutes clambering around the engine, and walking the tracks, our motorbike drivers start to look a little concerned so we head off to the cemetery.

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The Thanbyuzayat Cemetery

Every cemetery that we’ve visited that’s maintained by the Commonwealth Graves Commission is meticulously maintained.

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There are six member governments that make up the Commonwealth War Graves Commission: Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa and the United Kingdom. The Commission cares for cemeteries and memorials at 23,000 locations in 153 countries.

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Here in Thanbyuzayat lie the remains of 3771 known and 154 unknown Allied soldiers of the war. Here are Australians, Dutch, Malayan, Indian, Kiwis and Burmese men.

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And it feels like the end.

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This is a moving experience coming here. I can’t compare it to Hellfire Pass, where it feels like the hammer tap, hammer tap of the past drowns out the silence of the jungle.
I’m glad we’ve come here. It feels as though we’ve completed the journey and paid our respects appropriately. I don’t have any family here, I don’t know anyone who was a POW on the Death Railway, but nothing has moved me more than these kilometres of rail.

The logistics of the journey.

Getting to Thanbyuzayat from Mawlamyine:

1) Take the train. There’s one a day, it leaves Mawlamyine at 0430 and arrives into Thanbyzuyat at 0630. The train back to Mawlamyine leaves at 1800. Trains are cheap in Myanmar. They’re also seriously late running, not wildly comfortable and dawn and dusk will see you bitten within an inch of your life.

2) Take a local bus. They go from the Zeigyi market area – once an hour from 0600 until 1500. A ticket costs 1,000 kyat each way. Buses return from the market area in Thanbyuzyat on the half hour from 0730 until 1530. Seats are numbered and tickets are sold at the booths at either end. Locals will also stand or sit on the floor, but they wouldn’t sell us westerners a standing or sitting on the floor ticket, so we waited for the next return bus (1230). The bus takes a not unpleasant, but great people watching 2 hours, AC is an open window. Book tickets for your return after you arrive, or risk an hour or so wait to return to Mawlamyine.

3) Get a private taxi. Organize through your hotel, from 40,000 kyat depending on if you want to see other things on the way like the huge Lying Down Buddha, reputed to be the largest in the world, some 20km south of Mawlamyine.

Transport while in Thanbyuzayat.

It’s true you could walk from the bus stop to the Cemetery and the End of the Line (1.4km and 1.1km respectively each way from the bus stop, which is about mid-point between the two), but at 36 degrees when we were there, we weren’t up for that. Motorbike taxis can be had where the bus drops you off. We paid 2,000 kyat per bike and driver to take us around and drop us back at the bus ticket office. Neither driver spoken any English, but they got other people to help when they wanted to ask us something and taking the leaflet with pictures of the locations definitely helped speed things up.

Food and Drink in Thanbyuzayat

There are several places to eat and get a cold drink while you’re waiting for the bus. There are no menus and there was no English spoken anywhere we went, but other customers were happy to translate how much our food cost and it was easy to point to what other folks were eating in order to get a great bowl of noodles.

 

Resources

Don’t forget to book your buses, ferries and trains – and confirm your travel. Easybook have the largest network in South East Asia!

 

 

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