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Following Maugham’s Footsteps–Malaysia


“If you haven’t seen this place, you haven’t seen the world.” –W. Somerset Maugham

The Gentleman in the Parlour is a travelogue of Maugham’s 1923 trip through Burma, Siam, and Indochina (the peninsula that nowadays consist of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia). The title, taken from Hazlitt, refers to a precious anonymity, which Maugham associates with travel. His trip included a trek through the Shan States, now a rather uncomfortable part of Burma. Maugham passed through Mandalay, Ayutthaya, Bangkok, Saigon, Hue, and Phnom Penh.

What grabs me attention is his encounter in Malaysia, my upcoming destination.

Published in 1949, the English novelist Somerset Maugham’s Borneo Stories series contains a short story entitled The Yellow Streak. In it Maugham relates his near-death experience when he encountered the Benak on the Batang Lupar.

The writer was paying a visit to the Third White Rajah, Rajah Brooke, in 1924. At the Rajah’s invitation, Maugham was traveling by boat along the Batang Lupar, rowed by prisoners of the Rajah, to the town of Simanggang (now known as Sri Aman).

During his voyage, Maugham unexpectedly encountered the mighty tidal bore, was thrown from the boat, and narrowly avoided drowning. The account in The Yellow Streak illustrates Maugham’s opinion of the benak, and that it clearly upset him nearly bringing his eminent writing career to an abrupt and untimely end.

Widely known as the Pearl of the Orient, Penang is one of Asia’s most famous islands. Its natural beauty and exotic heritage have been attracting curious visitors for hundreds of years. Travel guides have referred to it as “a place of mysterious temples and palm-shrouded beaches”, while W. Somerset Maugham is known to have stayed on the island and spun tales about the romance of the white planter in Southeast Asia.

One Response

  1. First of all How To Pronounce this Mans Name!

    “Moo’m” because most non anglo-saxon do not have a clue how to pronounce Maugham. “Maug- hamm”.
    Just try me.

    What with the pretensious W in front of his name?

    I my youth I read his Bondage novel. I would not read it again. Schmalz. But I like his witty quotes. Like the one from Strand Hotel in old Rangoon. “Mad dog and Englishmen go out in the midday sun”

    Panta rei

    John K Lindgren
    Bangkok Nawamin road

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