Ideas for Books to Read While Visiting Southeast Asia

I love reading. And I love traveling. One of my favorite things to do is combine the two and read books set where I’m traveling. Here are some of my favorite books for vacationing in Southeast Asia (or when you’re dreaming of vacationing!).

One thing that struck me as I was thinking about books for this list is how, while I consider myself to be reasonably well-read, I haven’t read just a ton of books set in Southeast Asia. I realized this before my trip, and have definitely added more than a few to my to-read list! 

Novels Set in Southeast Asia

Burmese Days

I love Orwell in general, and I love classics – Burmese Days is a perfect read to understand some of what has made Southeast Asia what it is today. It’s hard to read some of Orwell’s descriptions of “the natives” but it’s hugely insightful as to Myanmar’s (and so much of Southeast Asia’s) colonial past.

The Glass Palace

The Glass Palace is one that stuck with me. It’s a love story with star-crossed lovers, told through decades, and spanning Myanmar, India, and Malaysia. It’s written beautifully, and really does a great job of describing the landscapes!

Animal Farm

Yes, another Orwell. And while this has seemingly nothing to do with Myanmar, people within the country (and some historians) have suggested that both 1984 and Animal Farm are about Myanmar. Understanding Animal Farm can help you see more into Myanmar’s past – and present.

Crazy Rich Asians

This books is about as far from some of the others on this list as is possible – this is a novel set in Singapore and the US, and I liked how it really dove into the dynamics of “society” in Singapore. This is also a good juxtaposition for everything Southeast Asia – while you’re there, you’ll see the wealthiest wealthy people imaginable, and the poorest of the poor. It’s a land of extremes, and this is a fun beach read for the upper side.

Lotusland

This one is getting harder to find, but it’s worth the effort! Lotusland is the story of two American ex-pats in Vietnam, and how their lives connect and also diverge. It is a fun novel, and a somewhat easier read.

The Bridge Over the River Kwai

This is a novel set in Burma/Myanmar during the Second World War, and tells the story of a Japanese POW building part of the railroad there. It was also made into a movie, so if you’re not in the mood for a book, that’s an option too!

Non-Fiction Books to Read About Southeast Asia

First They Killed My Father

First They Killed My Father is a haunting memoir about one girl’s experiences during the Cambodian civil war and the Khmer Rouge. It’s one that sticks with you, especially through how she lets you see into her life pre-war – you can see how normal things were. And then… everything changes. Definitely a must-read if you’re heading to Cambodia.

The Haves and the Have Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality

This is not specifically about Southeast Asia, but is a good read for anywhere you’re going to be dealing with extremes of wealth and poverty. This book dives into the level of global inequality (I was shocked), and helps you really understand the forces at work driving the inequality we know today. The thing I love most about this book is how it takes global GDP per capita and converts it to purchasing power – it’s incredibly enlightening!

Guns, Germs and Steel

Yet another one not specifically about Southeast Asia but about understand how the world around us came to be. I liked this for the discussion of how more advanced countries came to be so. This is not a beach read (I didn’t find it to be an easy read), but it’s worth it!

In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam

Especially for Americans traveling to Vietnam, it’s worth reading up on the history of the Vietnam war. It’s a hard chapter in our history, but it’s good background for visiting the country!

Bamboo Palace: Discovering the Lost Dynasty of Laos

This one is now nearly impossible to find (but so so worth it!) This is a history and exploration about what happened to the ruling monarch in Laos. There’s basically an almost Romanov-level question about their disappearance, but of course, it’s not as well covered for people in Western society. The mystery is intense, and worth learning about.

Cambodia: From Pol Pot to Hun Sen and Beyond

Cambodia is known for Angkor Wat – and for a horrific genocide. This book dives into the history of Cambodia in a way that can help visitors truly understand the complexity of the country, and appreciate the beauty of what it has become.

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