Guide books like the Lonely Planet are great for finding out all the essential information about a place before you arrive. However, travelogues, novels and biographies can provide an even better window into the countries you are visiting.
While arriving at a new destination for the first time, with no prior knowledge of the area can be exciting and provide you with a blank canvas upon which to paint your observations and experiences, there is a lot to be said for reading up on its history, culture and stories, in order to help you quickly get a better understanding of your new surroundings.
With that in mind, here are some of my favourite books written about, set in, or featuring Southeast Asia and its many countries. If you are looking for some travel reading that is entertaining as well as, in most cases, informative about where you are travelling in Southeast Asia, then there should be something for you on this list.
1. Ghost Train to the Eastern Star – Paul Theroux
Apart from a few Bill Bryson books, this was my first travelogue, as well as being my first introduction to Paul Theroux, the American travel writer and novelist. In Ghost Train to the Eastern Star the author follows a similar route as he did in a book he wrote 33 years before, taking in how the countries and people have changed over the years.
The trail takes him overland from London and back again via Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Japan to name but a few. While the author has the ability to rub his readers up the wrong way with his often outspoken and at times cynical views, he is the best contemporary travel writer I have read so far and really makes the effort to get under the skin of his host country.
When I visit a country featured in the book I always make sure I re-read the corresponding chapters in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star to compare my views on the place with that of the author. While my views and experiences are very different to his, it still makes for enjoyable reading. Although it hasn’t done anything to persuade me to the ride the Trans-Siberian Railway!
2. A Fortune Teller Told Me – Tiziano Terzani
This book written by the late Italian journalist Tiziano Terzani, follows a year in his life while he travels around Asia and Europe, avoiding air travel on the advice of the eponymous fortune teller. His work as a foreign correspondent takes him to many places, and along the way he gets in contact with a range of fortune tellers as his interests in this area grows.
While this might not seem like the best premise for a book, the author’s first-rate writing abilities allows him to describe his travels in great detail and is both informative and entertaining. Don’t think of this as a book about fortune tellers and superstition, but more of a slow travel journal covering Asia and beyond.
3. The Damage Done: Twelve Years of Hell In A Bangkok Prison – Warren Fellows
While this isn’t going to win any literary awards, this autobiography of an Australian drug trafficker who gets a life sentence in the notorious jails of Bangkok, serves as a cautionary tale to any travellers who might be tempted to try their hand at making some seemingly easy money, or even just enjoying a night out, slightly bending any of the laws of the land. It also gives a good insight into the Thai justice system and the world of international drug smuggling and is the perfect page turner you won’t be able to put down, making it ideal for a relaxing beach holiday.
3. Burmese Days – George Orwell
Despite being published in 1934 and set in the 1920s, when Burma was still in the hands of the British Empire, this novel by George Orwell is still relevant today, thanks to its themes and depiction of expat life. The story follows a short period in the life of the books main character, John Flory, a merchant disillusioned with the expat lifestyle and the community he finds himself a part of.
Even though the tale is getting on for 80 years old, it still manages to parallel modern day expat life very well with characters that are sick of their new home but have been there too long to ever go back. The story manages to interweave strands of romance, political intrigue as well as providing a historical glimpse into the colonial past of this amazing country.
The author, George Orwell spent five years in the 1920s working in Burma as a police officer in the Indian Imperial Police force and used his time in the colony as material for this scathing critique of imperialism and the ruling structures which you can see as laying the foundations his later novels, 1984 and Animal Farm.
4. Bangkok 8 – John Burdett
This is the first in a series of novels set in Bangkok by expat writer John Burdett, featuring a fictional Thai police officer as the main character. Each novel tackles a different crime that takes place in Bangkok, drawing on the local environment, with plenty of name dropping and social commentary thrown in for good nature.
Despite the sometimes cheesy situations and characters, Bangkok 8 and the other novels in the series manage to do an entertaining job of illustrating how different the western way of life is to that of the Thais. While there are countless books set in Bangkok and Thailand written by expat authors, this is probably the best of the bunch.
5. The Killing Fields – Christopher Hudson
This is book of the film of the same name, tells the stories of an American journalist and his Cambodian counterpart and their time in the country up to and during the Khmer Rouge regime of 1975 to 1979. While Sydney Schanberg the American journalist makes it out of the country before the Khmer Rouge take over, his friend Dith Pran is not so fortunate. The book then charts Pran’s experiences of life in the forced labour camps of the communist regime that took over his country.
If you plan on visiting Cambodia, this book provides an entertaining way to learn about the troubled past of the country of which many of the main locations can be visited today, where they serve as memorials to the recent past.
6. When China Rules the World – Martin Jacques
This hefty tome delivers a fascinating insight into not only the past of China but its expected future role as leader of a new global order. The book explains why a modern China will look very different to the modern West and what impact these differences will mean when China is the world’s leading nation, with the biggest influence and say in international affairs.
Even if you aren’t going into China on your travels, this book will appeal to anyone visiting or travelling through Southeast Asia, or the rest of the world for that matter, and who come into contact with the Chinese diaspora. In fact, I’d say it is essential reading for everyone!
8. Lost on Planet China – J. Maarten Troost
Wherever you go in Southeast Asia it is very likely you will encounter strong Chinese influences; whether it be the food, people, culture or just the cheap plastic goods that are so in demand. So whether you reach China or not on your travels, you should be able to relate to this book and its full title: Lost on Planet China: One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation.
The author sets off on a voyage of discovery in an attempt to get to know the world’s most populous nation, which is becoming increasingly more influential on our daily lives. You feel like the author really tries his best to understand and embrace what he is confronted with but despite his efforts, he can’t quite manage it. This often results in almost hilarious encounters and observations providing a light hearted glimpse behind the great wall interspersed with serious points and facts along the way to break up the fun.
9. An Idiot Abroad: The Travel Diaries of Karl Pilkington – Karl Pilkington
You might have seen the TV show but now you can read along with Karl and the gang as they take in the Seven Wonders of the World with stop offs in China, India and Bangkok to name but a few. While you probably won’t learn much from this idiot’s adventures, you can’t help but laugh at his childlike intellect and observations.
10. Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory – Peter Hessler
Despite not yet venturing into mainland China you can probably see from this list that I have quite an interest in the country. This is another well written and entertaining book that gives a unique insight into China.
After living in the country for a few years and learning the language, the author acquires a Chinese driving license, which is a story in itself and sets out on the open road in a hired car. The book is in three parts and in the first he tracks the Great Wall in his rental car as far as he can go.
In the second part he moves to a small rural village for five years and gradually integrates himself with the local community as best he can. Finally he moves to a new factory city that is in its early stages of development, like hundreds all over China, and spends two years tracking the city’s progress and the stories of its migrant population.
Its fascinating stuff and the three parts of the book give a wide reaching view of the country and the changes being wrought on it by development and the race to modernisation and urbanisation.
Hopefully this list of the best travel writing about Southeast Asia will give you some ideas for your holiday reading list. If you’ve got any other recommendations, please leave a comment below.