Harold Stephens tours modern Asia through the eyes of 19th-century travel writers.
We become angered--we get caught in a traffic jam, a flight we planned is overbooked, a clerk at the other end fouled up our reservations and we must settle for another hotel. When this happens, how many times have we said, "I should have been born a hundred years ago!"
Granted, travel a hundred years ago had a romance all of its own. How thrilling for someone living in London to book a cabin (port side going out) on a P&O liner and steam off to the Far East, through the Suez, with a stopover in Bombay, and then on to Singapore, up the Chao Phaya to Bangkok, across to Saigon and then on to Hong Kong or maybe Manila before reaching Yokohama. A five to six month trip. What excitement!
But we must be realistic. Such travel was not for everyone. Unless they were seamen before the mast, government civil servants, anthropologists working for big museums, or else very, very rich, people would not have come to Asia merely for a vacation. Nor would they have had the incentive over a hundred years ago to travel half way around the world to reach the East. What did they know about Asia? Siam, Singapore, Hong Kong--they were no more than exotic names in fancy gazetteers. There were no guides or travellers' hand books in those days that sold Asia. In fact, there was very little knowledge about the area in 1886. When Sir Andrew Clarke was appointed Governor of the Straits settlement in 1876, he requested maps and information about the Malay Peninsula where he was going--and was told there was absolutely no information of any kind available.
Bali and Kathmandu weren't known even in Asia a hundred years ago. The great ruins of Angkor Wat were undiscovered. Kuala Lumpur, the present capital of Malaysia, was little more than a jungle outpost, less than 20 years old. Taiwan was a coaling station in the South China Sea, and Phuket, visited by Captain Light a century before, was only a mark on sailing charts. Pattaya was a fishing village.
Nevertheless, visitors did come east. We have the accounts of many of these early travellers. Joseph Conrad wrote volumes about Asia, Anna Leonowens told us in her book about her life in Bangkok, Alfred Wallace explored the eastern jungles and reported on them, and many lesser-known travellers, like Isabella Bird, an English woman who passed through Southeast Asia in 1874, have handed down stories still in print today. Many of these travellers tales are fascinating and informative, and they give us a clear picture of what travelling in his part of the world was like in their day.
And from what they had to tell, it wasn't all that romantic, not as we imagine it to have been.
So let's suppose, for one reason or another, perhaps a rich uncle died or a museum agreed to back you, you did decide to come to Asia. How would you get here, and once you did come, where would you stay? Hotels were few. What about the sights? Transportation? There were no buses taxis or trains. There weren't even roads. What, then, was it like travelling in Asia?
To have reached Asia, of course you would have had to come by sea. Travel by land then was impossible. (It took Marco Polo 17 years to make the round trip.) There were some fine shipping lines then, the P&O Line and the Messageries Maritimes, but the bulk of the travellers came by steerage class on merchant vessels. It was a tough way to travel, far below deck in airless cabins jammed with bunks. Furthermore, first class or steerage, you could expect the voyage to last six weeks from London, or five weeks from San Francisco. The Suez Canal, opened in 1869, cut travel time in half, to three weeks.
What we also tend to forget today is that those travellers who did manage to reach Asia back then made it a-once-in-a-lifetime trip. There were no repeat journeys. There simply wasn't enough time when travel was so slow. I often think about this when I meet someone today, and they announce in one breath how nice it would have been to visit Asia a hundred years ago, and in the next breath they say that on their vacation next year they might take in Phuket instead of Pattaya. Visits to Asia today can be yearly events; they weren't in 1886.
Our steamer arrives in Singapore. We disembark and after a fortnight we will travel up to Bangkok and then to Hong Kong and Manila. Where will we stay?
Finding accommodations presented problems for early travellers in Asia before the turn of the century. For civil servants and people travelling on official business, government rest houses were provided. They became institutions, spread out across the Indian subcontinent all the way to Burma and down the Malay Peninsula to Singapore. They averaged twenty miles apart, the distance a bullock cart loaded with luggage could travel in a day.
At the end of the day, after journeying by elephant or horseback, weary travellers would search eagerly in the darkness for the glow of a hurricane lamp lighting the verandah of the local rest house.
And there on the verandah steps the traveller was certain to be greeted by a white-coated Hindu or Malay house boy and led to his quarters. The sight was always welcoming: a spacious, high ceiling room, with shutters opened on the verandah, a mosquito net draped over the bed, a flowered porcelain Shanghai jar filled with fresh water and a dipper, and sticks of smoldering incense burning in a pot beside the bed to keep the mosquitoes at bay.
Air-conditioning then was a turbaned youth who sat in a far corner. In a slow rhythmic motion he would pull the cord of the punkah, causing the enormous rattan fan suspended from the ceiling to swing in pendulum motion back and forth. A few old rest houses still have their punkahs and every time I see one today, I wonder how honeymoon couples who checked into a rest- house managed. Turning on the air conditioner is so much easier, and less inhibiting.
But we are not government servants and we need to find a hotel. In Singapore, there were several adequate establishments. Passengers from the P&O liners unloaded at Hotel de l'Europe. Conrad remarked in one of his novels that passengers came to the hotel with their luggage plastered with hotel labels to prove "they are well travelled." Even in those days tourists were the brunt of sarcasm.
If you were a seaman in 1886, you could have checked into the Seaman's Home on south Bridge Road, or into Raffles Hotel which opened that year. The Sarkies brothers bought the Raffles Girls Board School and converted it into the famous Raffles Hotel, and they opened two other properties, the E&O in Penang and the Strand in Rangoon. Rumour has it that Conrad and a 23-year-old journalist named Rudyard Kipling were among Raffles's first guests. Kipling commented that the food was great at Raffles but the place to stay was at the Hotel de l'Europe (demolished in 1936 to make room for the Supreme Court).
Aside from Raffles opening her doors as a hotel, two other events took place that year. Singapore celebrated Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee with parades and band concerts on the Padang, and the colony erected a statue of their founding father Sir Stamford Raffles. Had you been there, when the dark bronze statue of Raffles was unveiled, you would have heard the excited comments made by the Malays: "Why, he's a black man just like ourselves!"
Travellers who did arrive in Singapore a hundred years ago witnessed an atmosphere we could never know today. I felt it in part when I first arrived in Singapore 25 years ago, but that was nothing compared to what Isabella Bird found. She was enthralled with Singapore, especially the bazaars: "the continuous rows of open shops which create for themselves perpetual twilight by hanging tatties forming long shady alleys." She tells of crowds of buyers and sellers, the bustle and noise, the ringing of bells and rapid beating of drums and tom-toms. She called it "an intensely heathenish sound. And heathenish this city is. How I wish I could convey an idea, however faint, of this huge, mingled, colourful Oriental city." That city disappeared fifteen years ago, when the Government decided to modernise.
It's 1886. We've spent two weeks in Singapore and decide to visit Malaya to the north before continuing to Bangkok. There are no roads, and less than two dozen miles of rail lines. Towns on the Malay Peninsula were only pockets of civilisation, each one living in isolation. The only means of communication was by way of narrow jungle tracks. Goods had to be carried by bullock cart or elephant back.
The first rail line in Malaysia was opened on June 1, 1885, connecting Port Weld with Taiping, covering a distance of eight-and-a-half miles. The following year, in 1886--the year of our imaginary trip--another line was opened, from Bukit Kuda to Kuala Lumpur, a grand distance of 20 miles. The news made headlines. It was no less important than our present day landing on the moon. It truly must have been exciting to have been there at the time.
The Straits Times, dated September 22, 1886, called it a momentous occasion. Brass and royalty were aboard, from His Excellency the Governor and Lady Weld to His Highness the Sultan of Selangor and his hundred attendants. "It started at twenty to ten," the reporter wrote "and at quarter past eleven the train steamed into Kuala Lumpur, the run of about twenty miles having been done in ninety minutes."
The article goes on to tell how "as the train neared K.L. the speed was greatly accelerated and we were then going about thirty miles an hour." The reporter concluded by saying "the motion was very pleasant."
What did the arrival of the iron horse mean? Another reporter saw it merely as a tourist promotion scheme. In the same issue of The Straits Times, he wrote: "The train will mean an increase in foreigners and strangers who will come, much to the profit of the country."
Since overland travel to the Malay states was impossible, the only way to visit was by steamer, as Isabella Bird had done. She left Singapore by local steamer and sailed to Malacca, Port Klang, Lumut and Penang. She described the voyage: "The mercury was 90 in my little cabin, and it swarmed not only with mosquitos but with cockroaches, which in the dim light looked as large as mice." It doesn't sound very romantic.
Travel then did have its discomforts. One of these was mosquitos. There was no escaping them. "I am dreadfully bitten on the ankles feet and arms, which are so swollen I can hardly put on my clothes," wrote Miss Bird from her room in Klang. "I have to sew my feet up daily in linen." She also remarked that a tiger which "had devoured six men" was killed in the forest nearby. Tigers in Singapore at the same time were killing on average 600 workers a year. One did not venture away from the towns. Jungle walks were out and early morning joggers of today would have to have been aware back then.
Piracy was another threat. When Miss Bird arrived in Lumut, the ink on the Pangkor Treaty was not yet dry. The treaty gave Britain control over the Dindings, a strip of land along the Malay mainland where pirates hid in small coves and in the mangrove swamps. Pirates raided a town on the coast and slaughtered a dozen people the month before Miss Bird arrived.
But, in 1866, if you were a big game hunter you would have enjoyed Malaya and most Southeast Asian countries. In fact, in Malaya you could have made money at it. There was a $15 bounty on tigers, five for rhinos and five for crocodiles.
From Singapore , it took five days by steamer to Bangkok. Conrad described sailing up the Chao Phaya to reach this eastern capital: "One morning early we crossed the bar, and while the sun was rising splendidly over-the flat spaces of land we steamed up the innumerable bends, passed the shadow of the great gilt pagoda, and reached the outskirts of the town." Anyone who sails up the same stretch today will find little has changed.
Conrad continues with his description with his arrival in Bangkok: "There it was, spread largely on both banks, the Oriental capital which has yet suffered no white conqueror." The author was truly moved by Bangkok, as we can see in the following lines. "Here and there in the distance, above the crowded mob of low, brown roof ridges, towered great piles of masonry, king's palaces, temples, gorgeous and dilapidated, crumbling under the vertical sunlight, tremendous, overpowering, almost palpable, which seemed to enter one's breast with the breath of one's nostrils and soak into one's limbs through every pore of one's skin."
The Bangkok that Conrad found upon his arrival was certainly not what we find today, and yet aspects of his world are still here. The City of Angels was going through some dramatic changes, under the reign of King Chulalongkorn.
Before he succeeded the throne, King Chulalongkorn had travelled extensively throughout Southeast Asia and Europe. As a result of his travels, when he became King, he began to modernise Bangkok. One of his projects was to carve a wide avenue from the Grand Palace to the new Dusit Palace, patterned after the Champs Elysees in Paris. The avenue as we see it today is called Rajdamnern, or Royal Progress Avenue.
Conrad was witness to some of these changes. He tells us in detail about his travels through Bangkok by horse-drawn carriage and by sampan on the klongs. A third means of travel in those days was by rickshaw. Only a few years before Conrad arrived, a Chinese nobleman humbly presented a rickshaw to the King for his private use. By Conrad's time the vehicle was seen in such numbers that the government had to promulgate an act governing its use, to ensure public safety. In 1884, electricity was installed to light up the Grand Palace, and about this same time horse-drawn trams were introduced to Bangkok. Soon 800 ponies were pulling trams up and down New Road. Getting around in Bangkok a hundred years ago would not have been a problem, and maybe a bit easier then than it is today.
As for hotels in Bangkok back then, there were a few. Siam had been closed to the West for nearly two hundred years, and when the King granted trading rights to the British in the late 1850's, he also gave a Rama Palace on the right bank of the Chao Phaya to them for their ships officers to stay ashore at night, where they could be entertained. It may have been the original Oriental Hotel, making it much older than the 120 years it claims to be. Whether it be the same hotel or not, we do know The Oriental was there when Conrad arrived over a hundred years ago.
There's talk that Conrad stayed at the Oriental, but in one of his short stories he tells us that he thought the hotel might be too expensive for his meagre wages as a ship's captain. But he made frequent references to the Oriental. He mentioned upon his arrival there were ten or more ships anchored out front, with the Otaga, which he was to command, anchored a little upstream from the hotel.
Conrad had his first meal ashore at the Union Hotel on New Road. It was depressingly empty. "A wagging punkah fanned twenty vacant cane-bottomed chairs and two rows of shiny plates. Three Chinamen in white jackets loafed with napkins in their hands around that desolation."
How was the Oriental Hotel today's number one hotel in the world, over a hundred years ago? Another writer at the time described his stay in Room Number One. The room, he said, consisted of a double-bed sleeping room, a parlor and a large wide verandah. there were two sheets on the bed, a real luxury in those days, and a "peace-maker," a long, narrow bolster covered with white linen and placed in the centre of the mattress from head to foot. "An, important feature on a double bed on a Bangkok night."
If we think there may have been romance sailing the South China Sea in Conrad's day, then follow his voyage to Singapore. When the Otaga crossed the bar at the mouth of the Chao Phaya and entered the open sea, there was little wind and it took him three weeks to sail the 800 miles to Singapore. Fever and sickness broke out again aboard ship and only Conrad and his first mate were on deck when they swung the ship into the wind and let the anchor and chain rattle through the hawser in the outer roads in Singapore. It wasn't a pleasant way to travel.
To reach Hong Kong from Bangkok in the 1880's, sailing ships had to wait for the right monsoon winds to take them there, but with steamers the distance could be covered in a week. Isabella Bird described her first view of Hong Kong. "By a narrow and picturesque channel we enter the harbour," she wrote, "with the scorched and arid peaks of Hong Kong on the one side, and on the other the yet redder and rockier mainland of China, without a tree or trace of civilisation, or even habitation."
Kowloon without a trace of civilisation! She should see it today. She noted that "the Hongkongese are attempting to create a suburb but it appears to be too arid."
Hotels in Hong Kong when Miss Bird arrived were a real problem. She was advised to stay aboard, as every hotel and rooming house in the colony was filled. She commented that there were no plays or music halls, but once a week people could cross into Canton and see public executions there.
Manila over a hundred years ago was a pulsating city under the Spanish and an exciting place to visit. The walled city of Intramuros, with its magnificent gates and tiled plazas, was certainly one of the most beautiful cities in Southeast Asia. Called the "Pearl of the Orient" Manila was linked to Europe by a direct monthly maritime service, and by four indirect lines through Hong Kong. There were weekly vessels sailing from Hong Kong to Manila and vice-versa.
And that was Southeast Asia, more or less, in 1886. The political situation was uncertain and did not make travel easy. Both France and Great Britain were attempting to extend their colonial influenc--if not their rule--over the area. In 1886, Great Britain had incorporated Burma into the British Empire as a province of India. To the south of Siam, the king had expanded his territory over the Malay Peninsula as far north as Perak. The French had extended their power in Indochina to the banks of the Mekong River, from the northern point of Laos to the Cambodian frontier. Travellers were simply not welcome.
Mosquitos, diseases, cockroach-infested tramp steamers, wild animals ready to prey, savage pirates, lack of accommodation, border wars, a six-month voyage to get back home--that was Southeast Asia one hundred years ago. I am sure Asia is much more enjoyable today, and we can, if we wish, make it as romantic as we want it to be.
Harold Stephens is one of Southeast Asia's best known writers. Having lived in the area most of his adult life, he's authored 17 books--most recently, The Last Voyage, about his 18-year journey aboard a schooner he built himself--and more than 3,500 newspaper and magazine articles, covering everything from travel to jungle exploring and searching for lost cities. He lives in Bangkok and the San Francisco area. This article originally appeared in the Bangkok Post.
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