Books about Southeast asia
June 26, 2005 8:12 AM   Subscribe

I'm thinking about going to South-East Asia this fall. I'll probably be there for 5-6 weeks. Are there any books (besides the basic travel guides) that I should read before I go?

I do a lot of travelling, and before I visit a new country I like to read about that country. I also feel that reading great literature from those countries really helps me get a better understanding of the country, and helps me enjoy my time there.

So does anyone have any specific recommendations about books (fiction, or non-fiction) that I should read before going to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and possibly Myanmar?
posted by einarorn to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Touch the Dragon by Karen Connelly
Canadian poet's wonderously lyrical journal of her time in Thailand as a high-school exchange student in the late '80s. Won the Governor General's Award (one of Canada's most prestigious literary awards) when Connelly was 24.

The Beach by Alex Garland
Quick, gripping read about jaded backpackers in Thai paradise. Far better than the movie.

The Things They Carried (and/or anything else) by Tim O'Brien
and Dispatches by Michael Herr
There's a whole library of books about what your hosts think of as "the American War," but O'Brien's fiction and Herr's reportage do the work of any twenty other titles.

Also, you should have no trouble finding local-interest stuff once you get where you're going. The Thaibooks chain (many locations in Bangkok) stocks seemingly everything ever written in English about Thailand and Southeast Asia, including lots of stuff that isn't widely available outside Thailand. (My Thaibooks-brand introductory Thai cookbook has never failed to yield first-rate dinners.) There are also tons of used-book stalls along Bangkok's Khao San Road, and most Vietnamese traveller cafes have a shelf or two of used books for sale. These used-book emporia tend to have most of the major works on the region in addition to guidebooks, currently hip literature, and requisite piles of Grisham.
posted by gompa at 9:00 AM on June 26, 2005 [1 favorite]

I second the recommendation for Tim O'Brien books, especially "Going After Cacciato." "First They Killed My Father" is a beautiful and brutal book about Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. I didn't particularly enjoy "The Quiet American," but "Off the Rails in Phen Penh" was an eye-opener.

And as gompa says, it's easy to pick up books about the region for super-cheap once you arrive. You won't find literature by Toni Morrison there, for example, so bring that stuff with you, but try getting advice from fellow travellers and picking up books about the area that look interesting when you're there.
posted by equipoise at 9:11 AM on June 26, 2005

If you have a spirit of independence, wish to not be another Lonely Planet zombie and aren't afraid of decrypting hand drawn maps, then I can't recommend enough South-East Asia: The Graphic Guide by Mark Elliott. It's got 210 hand drawn maps of South East Asia and just enough info to get you in the right direction. It's also half the size of a Lonely Planet book and covers all the places you plan on visiting. Best $15 I ever spent and helped me earn a lot of respect.

Oh, and give Laos lots of time, it was definitely the part of South-East Asia I enjoyed the most.
posted by furtive at 10:42 AM on June 26, 2005

I highly recommend The Quiet American; it's still one of the best things ever written on Vietnam. Also Frances Fitzerald's Fire in the Lake, and of course O'Brien and Herr.

Thai literature is hard to find, but check out this website—Barang has translated a shitload of good stuff.

For Burma (I refuse to bow to the dictators who want it called Myanmar), a couple of old books worth reading are Orwell's Burmese Days and Norman Lewis's Golden Earth; for a more recent academic treatment, Robert H. Taylor's The State in Burma.
posted by languagehat at 11:26 AM on June 26, 2005

I picked up One Crowded Hour by Tim Bowden in Hanoi, and found it an inspiring read.
posted by the cuban at 11:48 AM on June 26, 2005

Lands of Charm and Cruelty : Travels in Southeast Asia (1994) by Stan Sesser.
posted by blue mustard at 1:20 PM on June 26, 2005

It's a magazine, and it's a bit of a travel guide, but it's current and it's awesome: Farang (thai word for "western foreigner")... you can get it in Thailand for 100B ($2.50 US).
posted by zpousman at 2:26 PM on June 26, 2005

If you are spending time in Bangkok, read John Burdett's Bangkok 8. Not only is it a really great literary detective novel, it captures Bangkok superbly.
posted by Falconetti at 7:15 PM on June 26, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. These all sound like wonderful recommendations. I'm sure I'll end up checking most of them out.
posted by einarorn at 2:19 AM on June 27, 2005

Private Dancer by Stephen Leather
posted by the cuban at 2:48 AM on June 27, 2005

Cambodia - I recommend When Broken Glass Floats by Chanrithy Him. It's an account of a young girl's extremely hard life during the Khmer Rouge. They sell photocopied books all over SE Asia at cheap prices. In Cambodia I bought quite a few from mine victims as I preferred to help them out this way than just give money.

Laos - I didn't know anything about the 'secret war' when I visited and I regretted my ignorance. I plan to read up on it now I've returned.
posted by echelon at 3:56 AM on June 27, 2005

Ill second The Beach by Alex Garland. Incredibly fast read, one of my favorite books as it is.
posted by pwally at 9:09 AM on June 27, 2005

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