You Should Have Been Here Before

You Should Have Been Here Before

by Harold Stephens,

Travel Correspondent for Thai Airways International


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 heard it said, or have uttered it ourselves: "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 Phraya 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 let’s be honest. Such travel was not in the cards for all of us. Unless we were seamen before the mast, government civil servants, anthropologists working for big museums, or else very, very rich, we would not have come to Asia merely for a vacation, unless, of course, we lived here. Nor is it likely we would have had the incentive a hundred years ago to travel half way around the world to reach the East. What did people who didn’t lived here 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 back before the turn of the century. When Sir Clarke was appointed Governor of the Straits settlement in 1876, he requested maps and information of any kind of the Malay Peninsula where he was going and was told there was absolutely no information of any kind available.

And those places that are so popular today--Bali and Kathmandu--a hundred years ago weren't known even in Asia. The great ruins of Angkor Wat were undiscovered. Kuala Lumpur, the present capital of Malaysia, was little more than a jungle outpost, not much more 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 their stories which fortunately are 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, what could you see and do, and how would you get around? 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. There were, however, 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, five weeks from San Francisco. The big boon to travel to Asia came in 1869 with the opening of the Suez Canal. Travel time was cut in half.

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 1901.

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 and pulled the cord to a punkah fan suspended from the ceiling.

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 1901, 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 that it is today, and they opened two other properties, the E&O in Penang and the Strand in Rangoon. Rumour has it that Conrad was one of Raffles's first guests, also a 23-year-old journalist named Rudyard Kipling. Kipling commented that the food was great at Raffles but the place to stay was at the Hotel de l'Europe. The old Hotel de l'Europe remained standing until 1936, when it was demolished 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 30 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 twenty years ago, when the Government decided to modernise.


Harold Stephens
E-mail: ROH Weekly Travel (

Note: The article is the personal view of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the view of Thai Airways International Public Company Limited.