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Interview: Walking the Death Railway

Written by: Andrew Tipp

A Hike Through a Disturbing History

Is it too dangerous to trek through a foreign country with only your sibling for company? If you ask Rachel and Luke Nowell, their answer is a resounding ‘no’. In May 2011 these Australian adventurers went for a walk in the footsteps of history. It was a pretty long walk, actually, because they were retracing the 300km-plus route World War II POWs worked along the ‘Death Railway’ that runs from Thailand to Burma. Gapyear.com spoke to the intrepid brother and sister about echoes of the past, sleeping in caves, listening to Lionel Richie with monks and stepping in bat poo…
Contemplation time
“The main thing you need to know about these types of trips is to just go for it. Don’t doubt yourself, especially when everyone around is questioning you. The only person stopping you from doing a trip like this is yourself.”
Rachel Nowell is explaining her simple ethos for taking on brave travelling challenges. Many expeditions will have contacts in the country and support teams back home. Rachel and Luke did this walk all by themselves. “We knew that the premise of our expedition was simple,” Rachel tells us. “Walk 300km from A to B. We just went for it.”
Good advice, but just who are these bold adventurers? Well, Rachel, 29, could be fairly described as something of a risk taker, and has embarked on numerous adventures all over the world, such as leading groups of young backpackers through South East Asia as a Tour Leader, working with children with AIDs in South Africa and saving turtles in Costa Rica.
Luke, 26, has more of an artistic persuasion, and expresses himself creatively through film, photography, drama and story. This has also taken him all over the world on trips to Cambodia, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines. In short, this pair don’t settle for the ordinary. In fact, they seem to search out the extraordinary. Even if it’s decidedly dangerous.
Despite being told by their translator on the third day of their walk that what they were doing was not safe, they continued walking. But why would two siblings choose to spend three weeks walking such a long distance through a country like Thailand anyway?

Worthy motivator

“The expedition was inspired by a documentary Luke made in 2006 about Stan Carlyon,” Rachel explains. “Stan was a friend of ours who worked on the Thai-Burma Railway as a POW during World War II. I composed and performed the music for the documentary, so both Luke and I felt a strong connection to Stan’s story. Sadly he passed away in 2009, so the walk seemed like something we could do to honour his memory and the many others like him.”
Stan Carlyon was one of 60,000 prisoners of the Imperial Japanese Army who were forced to build the Death Railway – so-called due to the 120,000 fatalities during its construction – stretching 412km from Kanchanaburi in Thailand to Thanbyuzayat in Burma during World War Two. In 1943 thousands of POWs that had been held in Changi Prison for a year were transported from Singapore to Ban Pong in Thailand to commence work on this railway.
A young monk
The POWs endured a horrific five-day journey crammed into steel rice trucks. On arrival in Ban Pong the working parties discovered they now had to walk to their prospective POW camps to commence work on a railway. One working party, a group called the F Force had to walk 300km from Ban Pong to their POW camp 20km from the Burmese border.
“Stan was a member of the F Force and therefore our walk was in memory of the F Force soldiers who were forced to march 300km through Thailand.” Luke explains, “Though we realised we would never be able to relive the unimaginable horror the POWs endured, we knew there was something to be learnt from going to the place where the horrific events happened.”
Rachel and Luke also started their journey in Ban Pong. “We couldn’t obtain maps outside of Thailand due to restrictions,” says Luke, “so we planned the entire route on Google maps and finalised it all when we got to Bangkok where we could buy the topographical maps we needed.
“It was a surreal moment to arrive in Ban Pong,” says Rachel. “We had spent so long researching the expedition so to finally be standing on Ban Pong Railway Station was exciting. It was also a sombre moment as we remembered that POWs had also stood here 70 years ago.”

Following footsteps

The footsteps of the POWs are what motivated Rachel and Luke to get up each day and walk, but the trip became so much more than they had originally imagined. Initially they thought that they would be camping every night. The idea of this made them uneasy as they knew that on some sections of the walk they would be surrounded by dense jungle and most likely be experiencing monsoonal rains. Sleeping in a tent in those conditions was far from ideal. But, as it turned out, by the end of the walk the siblings hadn’t camped once.
“On our first night we stayed with a girl we met along the railway,” Luke explains. “She was incredibly generous giving us a bed to sleep in and food to eat. She suggested that for the rest of our journey we stay in the temples. She said it would be safer. So that’s what we did!”
Buddhist temples in many countries are a traditional choice for travellers. Temples generally ask for a small payment in return for accommodation or hold spiritual retreats which give people space to learn about themselves and Buddha’s teachings. Rachel and Luke had not lined up any temples to stay in but felt that their ‘pilgrimage’ would be of interest to the monks and would be a unique addition to their adventure. On arrival in a town they would search out the local wat (temple) and simply ask to stay.
Living the high life
Rachel explains: “It wasn’t an easy task because we knew no Thai but over time we got to know the words we needed. Most importantly the word for sleep – norn lup – was a real help. However, sometimes the monks wouldn’t realise we wanted to sleep at the temple, thinking instead we were asking for the closest hotel. When they realised we wanted to stay at the temple they always took us in.”
The brother and sister stayed in eight temples in total. Each temple was unique and each gave the siblings a varied experience. Some temples had them sleeping in the wat at the base of the shrines and altars. Other temples only allowed them to set up a tent underneath a shelter on the temple grounds. Unsurprisingly, the pair didn’t mind where they were put, as long as there was a roof of some sort to protect them from the elements.
“The temples became an oasis for us.” Rachel tells us, “After a long day of walking when we were struggling to continue because of painful blisters we would glimpse a temple in the distance. It was always an amazing sight; one that created a sense of relief, peace and reassurance.
“When we walked onto the temple grounds we would search for the captivating image of orange robes hanging out to dry. This was a sign of where the monks lived.”

Spiritual insights

Monks do not eat after midday. At 6am they go out and collect alms; a monk will go out barefoot and follow the same route each day. He collects offerings of food from the local people and in return they receive a blessing. At one temple Rachel and Luke were invited to join the monks on their collection of alms.
“It was a real honour to witness the collection of alms,” says Luke. “The monk we followed had temple boys: young boys who come to live at the temple for a short time and assist the monk by carrying his food for him during collection of alms.”
The siblings really enjoyed observing the life of a monk. One monk in particular made a big impact on them. “I have really fond memories of Max the Monk. We met him at one of the temples we stayed at,” Rachel laughs. “He was so incredibly excited to have us stay. He spoke limited English but loved using our Thai Phrase book to help him communicate.
Home away from home
“He took us to a cave that the monks frequent for prayers and he also invited us into his room. It was quite an experience being in his room; everything was orange, the bed, the walls, his ornaments. I think the highlight though was when he put ‘Endless Love’ by Lionel Richie on his CD player!”
One particular temple was remarkable. Rachel explains: “We arrived at the temple to find that it was, in fact, in a cave. We were speechless. We were going to sleep in a cave! The monks at this temple were exceptionally friendly. They cooked for us and loved chatting away to us in Thai even though we couldn’t ‘understand’.
Luke’s experience was hindered by one thing. “Sleeping in the cave was amazing,” he says, “although I got up in the middle of the night and stepped in bat poo. I couldn’t sleep after that. Caves have their drawbacks too.”

Local hospitality

Rachel and Luke didn’t only sleep in temples. They also stayed with locals along the way. “On our first day when we were looking for somewhere to camp, a girl on a motorbike stopped to find out what we were doing,” Rachel says. “We ended up asking if we could stay at her house. She said yes. I think we were as shocked as she was!”
With so many people stopping to say hello to the siblings, finding somewhere to sleep was never a problem. Luke says: “By chance one day we met a Thai man who had helped to clear away the jungle that had swallowed the Thai-Burma railway at Hell Fire Pass. The jungle had been cleared so that the Hell Fire Pass museum could be opened.
“This was a great addition to our journey to meet someone who had links with the Death Railway. He invited us to sleep at his house and we gratefully accepted.”
Enjoying life on the river
The siblings experienced a great deal on their journey, but can pick out particular highlights. “I think my favourite memory is of the last night of the walk,” Rachel says. “We were stuck for a place to sleep and were standing in a very tiny village with dark clouds looming. We knew our only option was to ask some locals if we could sleep at their house. I was astounded that we were taken in. We were two white people who couldn’t speak Thai and smelt awful. I doubt I would have taken us in!
“But the family we approached not only welcomed us but gave us their beds. I was completely overwhelmed. Every time we imposed ourselves on the Thai people they gave above and beyond. They opened up their lives to us. I’ll never forget it.”
Rachel and Luke look back fondly on their encounters with the locals. They were totally amazed at the generosity of the Thai people, and couldn’t believe people that had so little would give so much. During the war Thai locals risked their lives to help the POWs that were working on the Thai-Burma Railway, and although their lives were not at anywhere near the same risk, the brother and sister can say they experienced the same genuine kindness from the local Thai people.
“It was amazing to experience the same selflessness from the new generations,” Rachel remarks. “It was something that I hadn’t expected and it was a really special part of our walk. We had so many people stop to offer us a lift but our goal was to walk the 300km from Ban Pong to Sangkhlaburi, so we never accepted lifts.”
However, it got harder to decline as the weeks went by. “The people who stopped were so friendly, so caring and genuinely wanted to help, “Luke explains. “In many ways it was a shame to allow those opportunities to meet new people go, but we had to stick to our main goal. Looking back we realise we could in fact have hitch hiked that entire journey without having to lift a thumb – literally!”
“It’s an idea for another expedition though,” Rachel adds.

Life lessons

The Death Railway Walk has taught the siblings two main things: “Firstly, we both have an even greater respect for the POWs who built the Thai-Burma Railway,” says Rachel. “Following their steps has been challenging and tested us physically and mentally.”
“Secondly, we have both been touched by the Thai locals we have met,” Luke adds. “Hospitality was a recurring theme during the walk and I know we both hope to return that gesture in some way in our own lives.”
Luke explains the most expensive element of the whole trip was the flight. After that, it was plain sailing financially. “Thailand is incredibly cheap once you get there,” he says. “Because we stayed with locals all the way the expedition cost us hardly anything.”
Rachel and Luke know that these types of trips aren’t for everyone, but hope that their trip will inspire others to experience the world in new ways. We think they’ve succeeded. “The world is an amazing place,” Rachel says. “One of the biggest things I learned from this expedition was when you open yourself up to the world it will open itself up to you. And you will be continually amazed at what situations you find yourself in and the wonderful people you will meet.
“If you have ever wanted to do something a little different, a little crazy or a little ‘off the beaten track’ I encourage you to make it happen.”
Original words and images by Rachel Nowell.

Further information

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Check out Rachel’s Gapyear profile
Visit her website, and follow her on Twitter
Read the siblings’ joint blog

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