Great Asian Railway Journeys – BBC 2

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I appreciate that Thailand doesn’t like “The King and I”, but, without it, I wouldn’t have read up on King Mongkut and King Chulalongkorn, and then I wouldn’t have got so excited over hearing the many mentions of them throughout Michael Portillo’s journey across Thailand.  Michael clearly felt the same: we were even told about the involvement of Louis Leonowens in the Anglo-Thai teak trade.  He doesn’t half get to go to some exciting places for these railway programmes!  This new series has already taken us through Hong Kong and Thailand, and we’ve got Vietnam to come.

“It’s pointless trying to apply the values of the 21st century to the 19th.”  Hooray, someone on the BBC who talks common sense.   And, hey, someone on the BBC who gives a balanced view – that, in the 19th century, China thought it was superior to the West, and the West thought it was superior to China.  Six of one and half a dozen of the other.  Make that man director-general!

This was in relation to the Opium Wars, for the first episodes, which were in Hong Kong.  We went from the Opium Wars to the transformation of Hong Kong from a backwater to one of the busiest ports in the world, to the dark days of the wartime Japanese occupation, to the handover in 1997 (how on earth was that 23 years ago?), and right up to date with the current protest movement.  And we also went back in time, especially in the beautiful rural areas – you think of Hong Kong in terms of skyscrapers, and it was lovely to see how much more there is to it.  We saw a beautiful family temple in one of the villages.  And there were cups of tea.  That was good.  There should always be cups of tea.

It did get quite political … there was quite a bit of talk about Sun Yat-sen, the provisional first president of China, having spent time in Hong Kong, and that moved on to claims that the protesters’ ideas are similar to his.  The series is not including mainland China, but I don’t know whether that’s simply due to its size or whether there might have been issues filming there – or whether the BBC just wanted to show us Thailand and Vietnam, two countries which don’t feature on TV as often as China does.

Various strange things were included.  Hong Kong included bouncing up and down on a pole to make noodles, and Thailand included a snake farm.  Thailand also included elephants, which are much nicer than snakes.  An elephant hospital, in fact, because elephants are sadly sometimes injured by landmines laid in the Thai-Myanmar/Burma border area as part of the ongoing internal conflict in Myanmar/Burma.

Thailand looks so, so interesting.  OK, OK, a lot of that’s because I get excited every time the kings from “The King and I” are mentioned, but even so!   We heard about the religious traditions, the foods, and the arts and crafts.  We saw beautiful, lush countryside, and stunning Buddhist temples – as well as one temple, built in Chulalongkorn’s time, which looked bizarrely like a Northern European church.  We heard about the history of the Lan Na kingdom, now part of Thailand but previously an independent state in the north, and about Atyutthaya, which was the capital of Siam until it was destroyed by the Burmese in 1767, after which the old Siamese kingdom collapsed, and the new one, under the present Chakri dynasty, was established.

On a more sombre note, we also saw the Death Railway – the one featured in a very different film, “The Bridge on the River Kwai”.  Around 90,000 civilian forced labourers and 12,000 Allied prisoners of war died constructing it, and we saw Michael visiting a cemetery there, where many of the Allied dead are buried.

But then it was on the modern Thai capital, wonderful Bangkok, and the Royal Palace there.  Well, the outside of it, anyway!  Sadly, King Mongkut, Rama IV, didn’t really dance the polka with Anna Leonowens in there, or indeed anywhere else.  He was, however, interested in astronomy, and we saw his observatory at Phetchaburi.  We also saw some photos of him.  And some pictures of Yul Brynner.

Then on to the holiday resort of Hua Hin, where – this journey through Thailand was gloriously royal-dominated! – we got to see a royal summer palace, which Michael was escorted round by one of the present king’s nieces.

It wasn’t all about royalty.  We also saw some snakes.  Rather too close for comfort!  And Thai boxing – where the instructor said that worldwide interest in the martial arts of the Far East was influenced by the “Kung Fu” TV series and film (which I never watched, although I know that Justin from North and South was in it!) and “The Karate Kid”.

However, the main theme of the programme is railways, and it was King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, who brought the railways to Thailand … although King Mongkut allegedly got interested in them after receiving a model train set from Queen Victoria!  They came to Hong Kong slightly later, for one reason or another, but by 1911 you could travel all the way from Britain (well, apart from 35 miles or so by ferry to Calais!) to Hong Kong by train.  Get to Moscow, get on the Trans-Siberian (which I’ve always rather fancied) to Beijing, and then change at Beijing for Hong Kong.  What would have been better, that or the longer voyage by sea?  Still trying to decide that one, but I am very much looking forward to seeing the episodes still to come.  Bring on Vietnam.

This is great: it really is.  Unless it’s in connection with The King and I, how often does Thai history and culture get mentioned on British TV?  Unless it’s in connection with the Vietnam War, how often does Vietnamese history and culture get mentioned on British TV?  We don’t even hear much about Hong Kong these days, unless it’s the protests.  This series is so informative, and so entertaining.  Great stuff!