In the summer after my freshman year of college I travelled alone through Myanmar. I used as a guide not Lonely Planet or Trip Advisor, but Somerset Maugham’s book The Gentleman in the Parlour, his travel diary of reflections and stories from a trip through Indochina in the early 1920s. I travelled by river, as Maugham did, on a restored Irrawaddy Flotilla Company steamship; I visited the sights that he wrote of, and stayed in the same hotel in Rangoon (now Yangon). Along the way I saw Myanmar through Maugham’s eyes, though that doesn’t mean I agreed with his descriptions.
There were surreal moments when I felt as though I was in Maugham’s world entirely, as though not a single thing had changed in the intervening 91 years. In these moments it took something to break the scene for me to realise I lived in a different world to Maugham’s. One evening I sat on the top deck of the ship which was tied up on the banks of the Irrawaddy near Mandalay. I was reading The Gentleman in the Parlour, as I did each day of my trip, but the passages I read that night were of the exact sights and sounds that I presently looked at; his ship might’ve been tied up in the exact spot mine was, and that evening’s weather and sunset seemed identical. As he recorded it: “The sun set on the other side of the river and a red cloud in the west was reflected in the tranquil bosom of the Irrawaddy. There was not a ripple on the water. The river seemed no longer to flow. In the distance a solitary fisherman in a dug-out plied his craft. A little to one side but in full view was one of the loveliest of the pagodas. In the setting sun its colours, cream and fawn-grey, were soft like the silk of old dresses in a museum… It was impressive to reflect that it had stood for so many centuries and looked down impassively upon the smiling bend of the Irrawaddy.” But I’m obliged to add to Maugham’s summary that in the background of this majestic scene were the guffaws of Americans and Australians, along with the perpetual droning of outboards attached to barges. Thousands of famished mosquitoes settled in for a feast despite their hosts’ best efforts to keep them out of the pantry, and a Californian felt the need to show off his camera’s new electronic viewfinder to all passengers nearby. It was thirty-three degrees celsius, the humidity unbelievable, and my clothes still stuck to me after the day’s stroll in Mandalay.
When one reads The Gentleman in the Parlour one can’t help but think that Maugham had the unique ability to never experience anything in his travels that detracted even slightly from a moment’s perfection. But moments when the spell was broken showed me how unlikely it was that that was the reality—only the reality he chose to pass on to his admiring and well-paying readers. Speculation, yes, but surely the mosquitoes were louder and noisier, more vicious, and as Maugham was later to discover, more likely to be carrying malaria. Surely his fellow passengers were equally as obnoxious at the wrong times, and roaming dogs, rabid, frightened him during the last few seconds of an Irrawaddy sunset. I’m not able to believe that Maugham was a traveler immune to every annoyance, perfectly calm and able to take everything as equally beautiful and part of a scene.
If that is true, then he was no different to any of us today. If Maugham were to make a Facebook account (despite the chuckle that image causes) he would fill it with beautiful pictures of himself frowning-smiling, as he did, in front of the sights of the “East”. Drink in hand, he would pose on the sun deck of the Flotilla Company steamer at sunset, next to friends and locals and other glamorous people, thinking of the sighs of awe that his reading public would let out when they see the photo on a foul London day. Travel writing was, in Maugham’s time, an earlier version of the Facebook glamour shot, available to the adventurous and wealthy few. We all engage in Maugham-style omission, projecting only the highlight-reel of our lives, and some seem to relish the thought of friends’ jealousy back home as much as I’m sure Maugham did.
Or perhaps there’s another explanation, which I was only able to see when re-reading Maugham after my trip: that I’m only able to speak of perfection and annoyances—I’m only conscious of them as an idea while traveling—because I view everything through the lens of Maugham’s writing and the perfected photos I’ve previously seen. I’m conditioned to seek out those “perfect” times, as defined by others’ photos and stories, so full of omission. If that is true, then travel is a search for the unattainable: nowhere, at any time, will ever come near to our preconceived notions. And out of fear of being viewed as inauthentic travellers, or unable to admit that the reality did not live up to the vision, we go home to partake in our own omission with curious friends, family, strangers… propagating that irreconcilable chasm between expectation and reality. It is telling that I couldn’t see this while in Myanmar, but only when I left and could look back on myself as a traveller.
I first remember critically reflecting on Maugham’s book that one evening on the top deck of the ship, right after the sun had set and I struggled to believe that Maugham’s descriptions were honest. But it is only recently that I’ve come to critically reflect on my own journey, on myself as a traveller and my use of Maugham as a guide.
I travelled to Myanmar because I wanted to see a country I’d heard so much about, and I used Maugham’s book as a guide because I wanted to view it through an historical lens. But in retrospect perhaps that was a mistake. I viewed the country through an historical lens, yes, but a lens that was so tied up with empire and colonialism that it was almost dangerous. On a separate trip to Phnom Penh in Cambodia I again stayed in a hotel that Maugham had stayed in and which he had written about in The Gentleman in the Parlour. Coincidentally—and these sorts of occurrences are what created my link to Maugham as a writer in the first place—I was placed in the hotel’s “Somerset Maugham suite”. On one level this was exciting, an inexplicable coincidence that left me examining every object in the room for signs of his long-ago presence. But in another sense it was troubling. It sold Maugham’s colonial lifestyle to wealthy travellers who never stepped back to question what it meant for a European traveller to be quite literally buying, for a few days, that life.
Writers often envelop us, holding us tightly when we read lines that cut to the heart of our thoughts and attitudes. These create powerful bonds that can often last a lifetime, and indeed there were aspects of this to the way I read Maugham—his attitudes to his own country while abroad, his patriotism, his descriptions of personalities he liked and disliked. But what I’m realising now is how we become different people through reading, no matter how much we have in common with the authors whose works we read. I’ve now read Maugham in over six Southeast Asian countries, three of them since my trip through Myanmar, and what has been more valuable than that trip to begin with has been seeing how my own attitudes have changed, including my attitude towards my own trip. My journey through Myanmar now seems to me less a grand adventure than merely a continuation of colonial influence and Orientalism in Southeast Asia, the sign of an unreflective teenager succumbing to the lure of pomp and grandiosity in what once seemed a part of the “exotic” “Orient”. Just as Orwell left Burma in disgust at his own role in the dynamics of empire, I too now worry about the systems of ideas and knowledge that led me to consider such a trip, and which blocked me and the other travellers I encountered from seeing the part we were playing in a larger historical narrative. Only now, years after my journey, can I see how Maugham’s version of the Facebook glamour shot kept me, just as it keeps many of us, from seeing what was really at stake in my travels.