Kanchanaburi and the Thai-Burma Railway: disputed narratives in the interpretation of War

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Purpose - The purpose of this paper is to consider the history and dark tourism attractions associated with a case study of the Thai-Burma Railway in the city of Kanchanaburi, Thailand. The paper considers how history has been abridged and distorted at a number of attraction sites in order to exploit the dark tourism commercial potential. The role of filmmedia is considered as a critical element of the site narrative and the reality of the tragic past of this place is discussed within the context of Thailand's role in the Second World War. Kanchanaburi, through the urban attractions that constitute the primary motivations for visitation, distorts and exploits its dark history for commercial and ideological purposes. Where accurate the Second World War interpretation was identified, it was maintained by balancing the requirements of national governments and institutions with acceptable levels of ambiguity and non-controversial perspectives on this urban location's dark past. Design/methodology/approach - The paper draws on literature, historical documents and tourism publications related to the Second World War and the incarceration and forced labour associated with the Thai-Burma Railway and the city of Kanchanaburi. Fieldwork incorporating tourist attraction and commemorative site visitation was undertaken in Northern Thailand in January 2017. Curators, managers, operators and tourist authorities were contacted in advance of the fieldwork by e-mail to request interviews. The sites identified were the primary sites visited by tourists, and no related Second World War site in the area was excluded. For those interviewed in relation to the subject area, a standard questionnaire based on a rolling database, relevant to particular sites was utilised. Interviews were taped and transcribed. Findings - The city of Kanchanaburi is defined by a heritage that has changed over time. Many factors imbue the meanings and content of place. This is a function of a plethora of competing Influences and agendas; political, economic, cultural, demographic and historical. Yet, this destination is defined by the dark history of the Second World War which is associated with this place. The visitor attraction sites considered in Kanchanaburi provide multiple narratives around the Second World War events. They offer a range of content driven by influences as diverse as simple commercial gain to the complex interaction of political, economic and ideological agendas (of. Gegner, 2012). In each case, the interpretation is used to articulate heritage through objects, artefacts, audio recording, place or imagery. These elements exist in environment(s) of their creation; the Second World War heritage of Kanchanaburi is developed in a nation that has only a partial and selective acceptance of its role in this conflict. The visitor attractions examined in this research and their content have all re-constructed and re-represented the past. Historical memorialization remains embedded in interests that are global, commercial, ideological but rarely neutral. The interpretation of the Thai-Burma Railway and the narrative of the many victims is associated with the construction merit respect, commemoration and consideration that is value free and not distorted by ideology or commercial imperatives. Practical implications - This paper provides a foundation for further consideration of how such contested dark heritage is viewed not least by visitors and users. Development of research in this area would provide a valuable source of data on: consumer profiles, motivations and orientation. Relating this data to nationality and origin would provide useful comparative data to that offered by operators and managers of key attractions. Furthermore, the prevalence of social and digital media as primary tourist information source could be measured against the continued (and possibly declining) importance of the filmic narrative. Furthermore, deeper evaluation of nature and content of interpretation is merited, given the range of approaches and content observed. At a political and policy level, the treatment of this part of Thai history and the degree of sensitivity around interpretation is linked to how a nation confronts its difficult past. More thorough evaluation of treatment in national media and education curriculum also merits review. Urban heritage is an important element of urban destination marketing and evaluation based around core themes of transparency, openness, respect for the past, and sensitive treatment of tragic events offer direction for application and evaluation in other urban contexts. Originality/value - This is the first time the heritage of this city has been considered in the context of dark tourism and the role of Thailand in the Second World War. It incorporates an analysis of all of the relevant attractions in the city and provides through the fieldwork conducted an original contribution to the tourism literature in this field. It draws on historical record, original documentation, interview analysis and tourism data. It provides further evidence of the dark tourism phenomena in a South East Asian context linked to a conflicted and selective appraisal of the past.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)140-155
Number of pages16
JournalInternational Journal of Tourism Cities
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 26 Apr 2018


  • dark tourism attractions
  • Thai-Burma Railway
  • commercial potential
  • film media
  • Kanchanaburi
  • Dark tourism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law
  • Tourism, Leisure and Hospitality Management


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