Could a Unesco title be the demise of Thailand’s Death Railway?

Unesco title

Thailand’s Death Railway is aptly named for it’s gruesome past. Source: Shutterstock

THE small town of Kanchanaburi in the west of Thailand is seeking a Unesco World Heritage status for the infamous Death Railway.

Over the weekend, Kanchanaburi Governor Jirakiat Poomsawat held a public hearing to discuss the railway line’s recognition.

The proposal was first offered up in 2014 and received the backing of the Fine Arts Department, alongside 10 other sites around Thailand.

According to The Thaiger, 52 percent of local residents also backed the proposal to preserve the railway and have it recognized as a Unesco World Heritage site.

“The relevant authorities will be preparing a report to have it recognized as a Unesco site”, Office of Archaeology director Tharapong Srisuchart told The Thaiger.

What is the Death Railway?

The 415-kilometer railway line was built during World War Two by prisoners of war and Thai civilians under the Japanese occupation.

The construction of the railway and subsequently the bridge over the Kawi river was built in harsh conditions.

It is thought that for every sleeper laid on the track, a laborer lost his life – that’s over 100,000 people.

The history of the Death Railway, which runs from the Ban Pong district in Thailand to Thanbyuzayat in Burma, was notorious enough for the bestselling book, The Bridge on the River Kwai, to be made into a film.

It won seven academy awards in its first release in 1957 and was deemed one of the best American films ever made by the American Film Institute.


Around 90,000 people travel to different parts of the railway each year to see the historically significant tracks.

Most visit the Hell Fire Pass, a long deep cut of the railway through a dense jungle.

Many people travel on the tourist train over the Kwai river too.

But all who visit are made aware of the atrocities which took place nearly 80 years ago.

Is a Unesco World Heritage status a good thing?

As of July 2017, there were 1,703 Unesco World Heritage sites. 832 are cultural, 206 are natural and 35 are mixed properties.

World Heritage sites get their titles from United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations for having cultural, historical or scientific significance.

The title creates an instant protection around the sites and mostly guarantees preservation.

Although, not all titles are received well, as residents of George Town, Penang in Malaysia stress.

“I would like to remind people that we are not monkeys, and this is not a zoo,” George Town souvenir seller Lee Kah Lei told The Guardian.

However, she does admit that without the Unesco title, the town would be in ruins today.

Striking a balance between tourism and preserving sites has proved hard for many Unesco locations.

The very reason sites are given the title is to recognize its significance, but it inevitably allows a rush of visitors who inadvertently destroy the site’s value.

The over tourism in Venice, Italy is having a disastrous effect on the canals and quality of life for locals.

Equally, breath from visitors in the tombs in Egypt is causing fungus and causing it to rot.

This could make the ancient relic disappear in 100 years, according to Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities secretary general Zahi Hawass.

However, a Unesco title undoubtedly creates an income for local communities, as Lee Kah Lei illustrates.

This same paradox remains with the potential listing of the Death Railway as a Unesco World Heritage site.

It will seek to educate people about the past atrocities and create income for local businesses.

But equally, the threat of the railway being ruined and irrevocably damaged by mass tourism is a concern.