If you are looking to see Southeast Asia via rail and at a slower pace, Michael Portillo has just the right attitude for this sort of exploration. A British journalist, broadcaster, and former Conservative politician, Michael Portillo is now known in television as one of the few who have traveled to Southeast Asia via rail.
The green light to film Great Asian Railway Journeys came after a highly successful Great British Railway Journeys and related series with Portillo as the presenter. Broadcast for the first time on BBC Two in January 2020 as twenty 30-minute episodes was later re-broadcast as ten 60-minute episodes in April of the same year.
Exploring the colonial history of the British, French, Dutch, and Portuguese empires, Portillo travels a total distance of 2,500 miles and passes through six countries beginning his journey from Hong Kong before arriving in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia before completing his travels in Singapore.
From Kowloon Bay to the Straits of Malacca
Beginning in Hong Kong, Michael investigates the shocking drug wars in which Britain won the island and Kowloon from China and the impact today of their return alongside that of the leased New Territories.
In the heaving megacity of Jakarta, the capital, Michael negotiates the city’s infamous traffic, takes a ride on the newly launched MRT metro and dines like a local on Jakarta’s famous street food.
In KL, as it is universally known, Michael tries the ancient art of pewter smithing and learns how the discovery of tin transformed a muddy estuary into Malaysia’s thriving capital.
Michael Portillo’s Southeast Asian railway tour reaches its final stop – Singapore. The island city-state at the southern tip of Malaysia is one of Asia’s biggest success stories. At the historic Singapore Botanic Gardens, Michael sees how a piece of rainforest that once covered this part of Asia has been preserved for future generations.
His tour in Singapore ends in the center of the city at Boat Quay, where he examines the life and achievements of Lee Kwan Yew, who as prime minister for 31 years was responsible for Singapore’s extraordinary growth.
Using ‘Bradshaw’s Through Routes to the Chief Cities of the World’ as a comprehensive guide published by Henry Blacklock in 1907, its historical references provided the charm Portillo carries throughout the series. He considers how the places visited have changed over the preceding century with graceful emphasis, especially on characteristics that make what Southeast Asia is today.
The documentary series, directed by Dave Minchin, has music composed by Jon Wygens and Joe Donohoe. Filming for the series was carried out in two stages and took 7–8 weeks to complete.
For a detailed description of each city on the television series, visit BBC’s official website for guide here.
Michael Portillo also wrote the foreword of Simon & Schuster’s book ‘Great American Railroad Journeys’ released in 2017. He was also a member of parliament for Enfield Southgate and Kensington and Chelsea, and held various ministerial positions, including Secretary of State for Defence.
Great Asian Railways Journeys by BBC is now available on BBC Earth documentary channel.