IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF
Somerset Maugham was born in Paris, educated in Canterbury and the University of Heidelberg, finally settling in the south of France. In the above book, the travel writer set out by ship from London to Colombo and Rangoon in 1923. There he visited the famous Shwedagon Pagoda and went up by steamer to Pagan and Mandalay. From Mandalay, he proceeded to Taunggyi to cross the Shan States to Kengtung and on to Chiang Mai, where he took a train to Bangkok to continue to French Indochina by steamer.What an adventure this journey must have been in those early days of travel!
Retracing some parts of Maugham’s adventure, my modern journey started with a low-cost carrier flight that departed from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City early on the morning of October 25.
In Ho Chi Minh City, formerly called Saigon, I met my travel guests from Germany. We stayed at the Park Hyatt Hotel downtown in an area that is still called Saigon. Formerly a Khmer port town called Prey Nokor that the Vietnamese had occupied and annexed in the 18th century, Ho Chi Minh City boasts close to 12 million people – most of them drive motorbikes.
During a one-day sightseeing tour, we visited attractions such as the Opera House, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Saigon Central Post Office, which was built from 1886 to 1891 by renowned French architect, Gustave Eiffel.
We inspected the Independence Palace, where the official transfer of power to the victorious communists took place on April 30, 1975. A visit to the Museum of Vietnamese History evoked 3,000 years of cultural development, which started in the Stone Age, but also showed marvelous art pieces of early Champa and the Khmer Empire.
Mixed Taoist-Buddhist temples were seen with the Thien Hau Pagoda in Cholon and the Jade Emperor Pagoda in Old Saigon. A romantic dinner cruise on the Saigon River ended a fine day.
The next stops on our luxurious tour through Southeast Asia led us by air to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in Cambodia, where we stayed one night at the Raffles Hotel “Le Royal” in the capital and four nights at Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor. Both hotels were built in the 1930s.
We enjoyed a stroll at Wat Phnom in Phnom Penh and had enough time to see the Royal Palace, National Museum and Central Market. In Siem Reap, we stumbled over the stone castles of Banteay Srei, Angkor Wat and the mysterious Bayon within Angkor Thom. We visited the fishing village of Kampong Klaeng, which neatly nestles near the Tonle Sap Lake, and ended our sightseeing tours with temples along the “Great Circuit” such as Prasat Preah Khan, Neak Pean and Ta Phrom - best to visit when night is falling in. Also, don’t miss any of the classical “apsara” dance performances, which echo times of a lost paradise, as well as “Pub Street” with a myriad of restaurants near the Old Market.
To reach Singapore at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, we flew from Siem Reap via Phnom Penh on November 2. We arrived at Singapore’s Changi International Airport in the afternoon and were transferred straight to the landmark Raffles Hotel Singapore. Founded in 1887 by the four Armenian Sarkies brothers, this iconic property had welcomed Somerset Maugham between the two world wars and functioned as second home for people like Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling and Charlie Chaplin.