The rise of dark tourism has been noticeable the last few years even more so now it has a name. By definition it means tourism to places historically associated with death and tragedy (Wikipedia) and these days it is big business. The ethics of whether countries and companies should capitalise on this morbid sense of fascination is a debate for another blog but Australians seem to be a big consumer of this type of tourism and none more so than in Thailand visiting the “Death Railway”.
As an Australian I grew up hearing stories of Weary Dunlop and his famous Donkey who helped Prisoners of War when others couldn’t or wouldn’t and about how thousands of Australians had died building a railway in the jungles of Thailand. Since I was only a kid at school I naturally only paid enough attention to or remembered enough to pass the end of term test then promptly forgot all about it. Even when, years later, I heard about how you could cycle the Death Railway I never put two and two together and instead just added a cycle trip to my bucket list of things to do one day.
A short history of the Death Railway
The Thai-Burma Railway was built in 1942-1943 for the purpose of supplying Japanese forces in Burma. They used the 60,000 Allied prisoners they had captured in 1942 to build it and when this workforce proved incapable of meeting the required timelines they “recruited” a further 200,000 Asian labourers to pick up the slack. They then starved the prisoners and workers of food and medicine and forced them to work long hours in unhealthy and challenging conditions. Over 12,000 POWs died and an unknown number of the Asian labourers though 90,000 is a widely accepted number.
River Kwai Discovery Tour
When in Thailand recently with a client, his big “must see” was Kanchanaburi and the River Kwai. After some research we headed out for 3 incredible days of gorgeous sights, 5 star luxury and sobering truths about the reality of what those POWs went through to build a railway. We booked an all inclusive tour that broke up the harsh realities of life as a POW with a taste of village life for the local Mon people all the while staying in 5 star accommodation with a private guide. For full details on the tour we booked check here. Whether you decide to do a day trip from Bangkok or spend time in the region like we did you can’t help but fall in love with the region which feels so different to the rest of Thailand.
Bridge on the River Kwai
This bridge has featured in many movies and books over the years but the most famous is the 1957 film called “Bridge on the River Kwai”. The bridge was part of the Death Railway and therefore a strategic location to bomb and or destroy to prevent the resupply of the Japanese. It is now a tourist destination in its own right and has many souvenir stores and restaurants surrounding it as proof of this. While it is an iconic image, the press of tourists and locals looking to make a buck did detract from it I thought.
Death Railway Museum and Research Centre
A good example of dark tourism at work. Downstairs is all facts, figures and official war photos to give the visitor an understanding of what it was like as a POW and what they went through. Upstairs is a cafe where a free coffee is part of the entry price so you can sit and relax overlooking the war cemetery.
Kachanaburi War Cemetery
Right in the centre of town with housing and busy roads all around is the war cemetery where close to 7000 Australian, Dutch and British POWs are buried. Not the quietest resting place these days but seeing the shear number of headstones does bring home the reality of how many died at the hands of the Japanese.
Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum and Walking Trail
The Australian Government maintains this museum and grounds and you can tell the difference in funding compared to the Death Railway Museum and Research Centre. It is set in a modern building with state of the art features and amenities but gives a good, unbiased overview of what life was like for both the POWs, the Asian labourers and the Japanese guards. It gets crowded and loud with tour groups all tripping over slow readers or those trying to watch the short video and bored people showing no respect by talking, so try to time your visit for early or late to avoid these interactions.
Likewise for the short walk down to visit the Konyu cutting (Hellfire Pass). It got its name from the prisoners who had to work day and night with hand tools to cut rock and when they lit the torches for night work the name Hellfire Pass was born. If you can time it to avoid the throngs of other tourists you will get a sense of the sheer effort and engineering achievement that makes this place famous.
While the railway has been removed there is a short 4km section of the track open as a walking trail. Like the majority of tourists we didn’t get a chance to walk beyond the pass however I would love to return and do this walk one day. Regardless of whether you just visit the pass or do the entire 4km walk be prepared for the climb back up to the museum and waiting buses.
This was the most confronting part of the tour for me and involved a historic ride on the Death Railway Train passing over the original wooden viaduct constructed by the POWs. I was so excited for a train ride through the jungle yet once I was on board and had my head out the window enjoying the breeze in my face and watching the carriages in front pass over the bridge all that I had read and learnt the previous days came crashing into reality for me. I sat there numb with the realisation of how many people died so I could take a picture. How they had sacrificed and endured all so I could post a picture on Instagram and see how many likes I get. What made it worse was that at the end of this bridge was a theme park where you could do all sorts of activities like indoor rock climbing, ATV’ing or simply buy crappy souvenirs and ice-cream. This theme park seemed a cheap and disrespectful way to experience the area but I guess that adds to the debate of whether dark tourism should even be allowed.
All the museums and guides talk about the human toll of construction but there was very little about the actual engineering of it. In a twisted way I became interested in this side of the story as, after seeing the terrain and learning about how many people that died in the construction of it, I admired the feat of actually making it operational in the time frame they set. So, if anyone has any recommendations for this side of the story please let me know in the comments below.
After 3 days seeing the region, reading more about it not only in the museums but actually being interested enough to read more on the internet after our days exploring and realising all that was done to thousands of people both foreign and local in order to build this railway, you can’t help but be moved by the experience. I still don’t know whether dark tourism is a good or bad thing but I am glad I went to visit the Kachanaburi region and learned more about the Death Railway.
And, by the way – you can’t actually cycle the Death Railway so cross that off your bucket list.
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