Following on the heels of our post on what movies to watch before you come to Southeast Asia, this post is aimed at those who might prefer to get a lay for the land from the written page rather than the motion picture.
Any region or country is the sum total of its history, and in this regard Southeast Asia is a complicated dish. The past century has seen some of our civilization’s greatest tragedies and proudest triumphs, so it’s no surprise that many of the books deal with the events and people involved. At turns inspiring, tragic, funny, mysterious, and adventurous, these books are a perfect way to take a deep dive into some of the stories that make this part of the world such an endlessly fascinating place to be.
First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung
The scars of Cambodia’s disastrous Khmer Rouge takeover are still visible even today. Loung Ung’s powerful firsthand tale recounts her life as a five-year old, when her family was torn apart and she was sent to a work camp to be trained as a soldier. You’ll rarely find a tale of such a dark time told with such courage and hope – a true testament to the Cambodian people today who remain proud, strong, and optimistic.
Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam by Fredrik Logevall
There have been countless books written on one of Asia’s most impactful historical events, but this book is unique in that it digs deeper, examining the convoluted, intertwining threads that led to the Vietnam War. Beginning with the disintegration of French Indochina and following a cascade of poor decisions and bad policy by the powers and personalities that stepped into the vacuum, the book provides a deep understanding of how the dominos that led to the Vietnam War were set into motion.
The Ideal Man: The Tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War by Joshua Kurlantzick
Businessman, spy, and all around secretive, cagey expat, Jim Thompson is primarily known today as the man who, in the 1950s, singlehandedly introduced the world to Thailand’s famous silk. One day he went for a walk… and never returned. His story alone is worth reading about, but this book also provides insight into the politics of the time and the characters he palled around with, many of whom were busy deciding how, or if, the USA was going to get involved in the burgeoning Cold War – a decision that has had a profound effect on Thailand’s development into the modern era.
River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma by Thant Myint-U
Burma – or Myanmar – occupies a strange place in the hierarchy of Southeast Asia. A former British colony held in the grip of a brutal military rule for decades as its neighbors grew and modernized, its people and culture have developed very much on their own. This book tells the history of a country that began with Portuguese pirates and continued through Mughal princes, freedom fighters, colonial powers, natural disasters, and military crackdowns. A great read that provides insight into the families and institutions that have survived some of the most extreme decades in history – and that have emerged in the 21st century to give Burma such a confident – if not sunny – future.
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
This Pulitzer award-winning debut novel is masterly crafted. It offers a unique perspective on the American war in Vietnam from the view of a young double agent whose political beliefs conflict with his personal allegiances. A great read that delves into the complexities of wartime loyalties and sympathies.
Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam
Andrew X. Pham was born in Vietnam but grew up in America. There, he was seen as Asian. In Vietnam, he was seen as Korean or Japanese. After a family tragedy, Pham sets out on his bike to really, truly, find himself. This book is widely read by travelers in Southeast Asia, inspired by the same sense of adventure as Pham, and awed and amused by what he discovers on his journey. A great read with plenty of insights into what role upbringing, environment, and education play in defining who a person is, it’s a fascinating look into how culture is projected onto people, and what happens when some – maybe even you! – reject it and search for your roots.
Four Reigns by M.R. Kukrit Pramoj
A fictional story set against the very real backdrop of 19-century Siam, Four Reigns is one of Thailand’s most famous and culturally significant books. Its author was also one of Thailand’s great statesmen – Prime Minister, scholar, translator, dancer, and journalist – whose house is a tourist attraction today. The story provides a visceral sense of time and place, giving a great, detailed narrative of the massive changes that brought Thailand – sometimes painfully – into the 20th century and altered its ancient culture forever.
The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh
This is a magnificent story of love and war that begins with the exiling of the last king of Burma. The story follows the life of a young Indian immigrant as he builds a timber empire in Rangoon. The novel offers insight into the cultural, political and commercial relationships between India, Burma, Malaysia and the British colonists during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Gods Drink Whiskey: Stumbling Towards Enlightenment in the Land of the Tattered Buddha by Stephen T. Asma
This enjoyable read offers a look at Theravada Buddhism practiced in Southeast Asia from the perspective of a visiting westerner. Situated in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia, the writer documents his observations as the local Cambodians salvage their previously banned religion from the ashes of war. It is down-to-earth and comments on how locals grasp the mixture of religion and philosophy
The Falcon of Siam by Axel Aylwen
This epic novel covers a fascinating chapter in the ancient kingdom of Siam’s history starting with the arrival of the first Europeans. It roughly follows historical accounts of the tug-of-war played by various nations over Siam and the delicate negotiations and less delicate pressures applied by King Narai and his court. The story provides insights into the customs and rigid class structure that is still evident in Thai society today. You’ll wish the story doesn’t end when you get to the last page… and you’ll be overjoyed to learn it hasn’t! There are two more books in the trilogy, The Falcon Takes Wing, and The Falcon’s Last Flight.