When I began doing motorcycle tours of the Thai-Burma railway six years ago, I wasn’t sure who my customer base would be. I hadn’t designed it for the hardcore biker; the bikes available to me aren’t big enough and there are too many stops for those that just want to ride. Nor was it for the novice rider, or even for the serious history buff. Who it has turned out to be is a sample of everyone.

A broad swath of humanity. Those I would have expected, like young couples interested in adventure travel and old guys keen on military history. But there was a whole slew of the unexpected as well. A quintet of Saudi women dressed in full naqib who rode two PCX’s like champs and took interchangeable selfies at every stop. The gay Belgian couple who had never even heard of the Bridge over the river Kwai but were looking for something other than drugged tigers or overcrowded waterfalls to do while in Kanchanaburi. A touring group of Austrian jugglers. Vietnam War vets from California who served at Sattahip airbase when they were just kids and were back for the first time since for a reunion.

Single and multi-day ‘Death Railway Motorcycle Tours’ (as described below) run 7 days per week out of central Kanchanaburi, 130km from Bangkok. For more information and booking, visit www.deathrailtours.com.

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Bridge on the River Kwai

Riding a motorcycle is by its nature a dangerous proposition and doing it in Thailand amplifies that danger. Though I take as much precaution as possible, shit, as they say, happens.

People come off their bikes, skin gets lacerated, bruises and sometimes breaks occur. Bikes get smashed and have to be paid for. In one instance, a young Singaporean army officer actually managed to break a Honda Click in half; if I hadn’t seen it I wouldn’t have believed it – especially since he walked away unharmed.  

This is the racket I ended up in and this is the way I go about it. I called my business Death Rail Motorcycle Tours. Those with an opinion told me it was an awful name that would ensure failure, but the name is descriptive and if it weans out those of lesser imagination (the traveling frat boys, lager louts and neo-hippy backpackers) so much the better. My one-day Death Rail Tour is a full day riding a 100-kilometer loop to visit four of the most important historical sites of the rail line.  

The tour generally starts at 8 am. I meet my people at the rental shop where we find the right bike for them. Most opt for a Click or PCX if they’re going to ride two-up. Occasionally someone with a yen for shifting and cornering will take a CBR 300. We get the paperwork out of the way and do a quick course in Thai road rules; be weary of the no-look left and avoid hitting dogs with generous use of the horn.

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(On) the bridge on the River Kwai

We gear up and head out. Cross the Kwai Yai River and make a quick right, just a couple of kilometers to the foot of the famous bridge. After all the hype and image branding, the bridge feels small and inconsequential. It is a scaled up erector set which had been captured from a Dutch warehouse in Sumatra and shipped up through Malaysia by the Japanese Army. Climbing up to the tracks, we unravel the historical truth from the myth portrayed by the famous film…

That Pierre Boulle was captured in Malaysia as a spy for the French resistance and did his time as a POW in Laos. In 1945, when the camps de-mobbed, he met prisoners who told him their harrowing stories of building the railway. When Boulle returned home he wrote the novel, which became the movie. Pieced together from the conversations he had with men who had worked all up and down the line, Boulle created a pastiche of their stories. It never exactly describes the reality, but rather pays homage to the overall tragedy. The Bridge On The River Kwai was the first of 26 books he would write including The Planet Of The Apes some thirty years later.

From the bridge, we ride a quiet and twisty road that follows the river through villages of mostly traditional houses and mom and pop shops. The tall shade trees that edge the road part often enough to catch views of rice paddies, with the jagged rim of mountains surrounding Kanchanaburi on all sides.

Only 10 or so kilometers from the famous bridge we come to Chungkai cemetery. While the alternative POW cemetery in town is busy with tourists most days, this immaculately manicured spot is always empty. Also maintained by the Allied War Cemetery Commission, it is the original burial spot for some 1,500 POWS who died either in the camp’s hospital or close enough on a construction site to have been transported and buried here. Chungkai was the first camp most POWs would have arrived at after being shipped up from Singapore in cramped boxcars with little to eat. They were then forced to march 50 kilometers to the bank of the river where they swam across to their new lives of toil and abuse. A far cry from the ‘health camp’ they were promised at Changi prison by the Japanese. Leaving the cemetery, the first resort we pass is called ‘Good View’ – a terrible faux pas on the owner’s part.

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View of The Kwai Noi River from Wat Kao Poon
Thamakam cutting at Kao Poon

A couple of kilometers up a steep hill is Wat Kao Poon. Tourists are bused in and walk through the small cave to find one of the best views of the Kwai Noi River, all under the gaze of a fat golden Chinese Buddha. I don’t take tours to the Hellfire Pass, as famous and important as it is. It’s too far for a day tour and takes too long to see thoroughly. It’s also easily accessible by public transport and free audio tours are provided. Instead, we walk the first rock cutting here just a few kilometers from town. This is a scaled down version of the Kunyo cutting at Hellfire, a 75-meter-long, 25-meter-deep passage cut and blasted out of solid rock by hand. The bore holes for explosives made with hand spikes are still clearly visible on the scarred rock walls; in some places, these show perfect explosion patterns of shattered rock.  

From Kao Poon we get our first good ride in. Twenty-five kilometers on more or less deserted roads. Up through the hills with some long lazy turns and views of the limestone crags that stipple the valley. We pass Prasat Muang Sing, a national landmark which was the westernmost extent of the Khmer empire over half a millennia ago before arriving at Wampo viaduct. The viaduct, which edges a sheer cliff for 500 meters, was one of several architectural feats built up out of the jungles, although it is the only one still in use today. The structure was completed in a seemingly impossible 17 days during the speedo period of 1943 when the Japanese extended the working day to 18 hours and canceled any kind of sick or injury leave in order to complete the line in one year instead of the initially projected two.

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Afternoon train on the Wang Po Vidaduct
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Another shot of the cutting at Kao Poon
Beneath Wang Po viaduct, each upright is numbered as no two are alike

Four trains a day still inch over the free standing track perched 25 meters above the river. The surrounding area has been groomed with the lush lawns of resorts where guests play on inflatable slides or swing on zip lines. Next up is Kra Se cave, which during the war was used for storage and a place to get out of the 50-degree heat during smoko breaks. Only ten years ago it held a simple small Buddha and a pack of monkeys; now, it is occupied by several large golden Buddhas where tourists on their knees shake magic sticks to get lucky numbers. The past here is not forgotten but it certainly is trivialized.

Walking a length of the viaduct in the middle of the day lends some sense of the extreme heat and brutal conditions the workers survived. Except, ten minutes later we’re across the river for a civilized lunch at the Rim Nam resort.

The restaurant affords a panoramic view of the rail line and, if the train is on time, offers a great vantage from which to photograph it. The food is authentic, no farangifying the flavors here. The place is normally abandoned for lunch during the week so we have a long, relaxing time eating and re-hydrating under the fans while the river lazily flows by.

More back roads take us another 20 kilometers north to Sai Yok Noi waterfall and the termination of the current rail line. Sai Yok is just of off the 323 and the only free waterfall in the province, so it gets crowded. It has the atmosphere of a market and, though pretty enough, feels almost man made with its concrete pools, stairs and paths. Towards the Nam Tok Station, an old Japanese-made steam engine sits on a disjointed piece of track slowly rusting away under the garlands of flowers hung over its pitted cow catcher.

Nam Tok Station, Sai Yok Noi

Backtracking on a different route towards town there’s one more stop. Just outside of Lat Ya on the kwai Yai is the seldom visited Shinto Garden. This memorial was built by a nonprofit organization to promote world peace and is open to the public seven days a week, free of charge. It’s single English language placard is the only reference to Asian laborers who worked and died here in far greater numbers than all POW’s combined.

Japanese-style structures dot the garden. A bell tower, a traditional tea house and a museum that houses random relics from the island nation including (in no specific order): a stuffed wolf, a suit of samurai armor, a life-size geisha doll, and a pack of The King’s cigarettes.  

Navigating the small lanes of Lat Ya and Nong Bua along the kwai Yai gets us back to town without having to deal with the after-school/work madness of adolescents racing Honda Waves four-up at a hundred kilometers an hour along the main roads. Safety is job one. When the day is done I will often sit with my clients over a cold beer and can assure them they have seen and know more about the railway than most residents of the city ever will.