I took part in the 2008 QLT [Quiet Lions Tour]. Best experience of my life, met loads of people and it changed my view on life.
[Jacqui Harkness, Esperance Senior High School]
The Burma-Thailand railway is a major tourist attraction for the Thai province of Kanchanaburi. In contrast, the political isolation of Myanmar (formerly Burma) in recent decades has limited the number of visitors to the Burmese end of the railway.
Each year about 5 million tourists visit Kanchanaburi province. The vast majority of these are Thai, not foreigners.
They are attracted to the province for many reasons: its accessibility from Bangkok, its natural beauty and its eco- and adventure-tourism, offering activities such as trekking, rafting and elephant riding. Since the valley of the Kwae Noi was historically a route for Burmese invasions Kanchanaburi province also contains a number of ruins of fortresses and battlefield sites, such as the Nine Army Battle Historical Park.
The 'Bridge on the River Kwai' and the operating sections of the railway between Ban Pong and Nam Tok are also major drawcards. Many bus tours from Bangkok stop briefly at the bridge precinct and the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery before heading north to the national parks and resorts. Often tourists 'Ride the Death Railway' from Kanchanaburi to Wampo viaduct or Nam Tok, and then rejoin their buses.
The Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum is too far for many weekend tourists who come from Bangkok. They tend to go no further than Kanchanaburi town and its discos floating on the Kwae Yai.
Since its opening in 1998, however, the memorial museum has gradually attracted an increasing number of tourists, peaking at 90 000 to 100 000 per annum. The majority of these visitors are now Thai. Other significant national groups are Dutch, British, Americans and Australians.
Some of these foreigners are engaged in a kind of 'pilgrimage'. They come to the railway as a personal journey, seeking to pay their respects to those who died, tracing their family histories or simply trying to learn more of this catastrophic episode in human affairs. They may be part of a wider global phenomenon of 'dark tourism', that is, tourism which makes places of punishment, incarceration and even genocide popular destinations.
'Pilgrims' come individually, with family members or in groups including veterans' associations, commercial companies and organisations that are committed to keeping the memory of prisoners of war alive.
One such organisation, which brings Australians to the railway each year, is the Quiet Lions Tour. Begun in 1985 by former POWs, Bill Haskell and Keith Flanagan, its role is not commercial tourism. Rather it aims to perpetuate the memory of prisoners of war by educating current and future generations about the Burma-Thailand railway and particularly the role of medical officers such as Lieutenant-Colonel E.E. 'Weary' Dunlop.
Each Quiet Lions Tour therefore includes secondary school students sponsored by veterans' associations, their schools and other sources. They have a prominent presence at the Anzac Day ceremonies at Hellfire Pass cutting and Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, joining official mourners in laying wreaths.
Although it is important to both Thais and foreigners, the Burma-Thailand railway has little protection as heritage. The Thai government has shown no inclination to nominate the railway for World Heritage status. As it is, what remains of the railway would be unlikely to meet the requirements for World Heritage inscription.
The railway's length in Thailand is not listed on the Thai Heritage Registration List. Thailand has a hierarchical system of heritage management, with national government controls applying only to heritage of national significance, regional controls to that of regional significance, provincial controls to sites of provincial significance, and municipal to those at this level.
Consequently the maintenance and development of the railway is fragmented between several agencies, only some of which are concerned with heritage preservation. How this will affect the future development of the railway, which plays an important role in providing local transport between Kanchanaburi and Nam Tok as well as tourism, remains to be seen.