55 Books About Southeast Asia To Enrich Your Journey

Contents

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These books about Southeast Asia are bound to scratch that travel itch if you’re currently stuck at home longing for that adventure!

There are loads of great books to choose from which is why we’ve decided to break up our list by country. In the list, you’ll find books about Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia and more!

So, no matter where in Southeast Asia you are headed, there will be something for you in our best books list!

When your next adventure still feels so far away… it is important to budget a little time for escapism from your everyday life. After all, how will you make it through the impending weeks and months if you don’t allow yourself to dream?

Also see – The Best Travel Books Of All Time.


Best Books About Southeast Asia – Country By Country!


Books about Thailand

Find out more about Thailand here.

1. The Beach – Alex Garland

It is the classic backpacker novel… Love it or hate it, you’ve certainly heard of it. The Beach tells the story of Richard, a backpacker on the search for his own personal paradise. He finds what he is looking for, but in the quest to keep this dream destination a secret, is there anything he won’t do? It has been over 20 years since The Beach was released and it is still as relevant as ever. Everybody still wants to be the first person to discover a new and exciting place and backpackers still want to avoid places that are ‘too touristy’. Even after all this time (and knowing how the story ends), I think most of us would still follow Daffy’s map.  

2. Backpacker Business – Nikki Scott

For those of you that are familiar with South East Asia Backpacker, the name Nikki Scott might ring a bell… This young backpacker turned publisher is actually the owner of this very magazine and website! Dreaming of a travel lifestyle, Scott embarked on an epic journey which saw her start her very own business in Thailand. Backpacker Business details everything from the 23-year-old’s backpacking trip in Nepal to her first ever business meetings. This is a story of determination, culture shock, heartbreak and a lesson in what you can achieve if you work hard enough.  

3. The Bridge Over the River Kwai – Pierre Boulle

Often touted as one of the best novels ever written, The Bridge Over the River Kwai is an incredible read for anybody but those heading to Kanchanaburi, where the famous bridge is located, should definitely not miss it. It tells the tale of three prisoners of war enslaved in a Japanese camp, who are forced to help build the Burma-Siam Railway. This iconic book, written by Pierre Boulle was translated into English by Xan Fielding. It also inspired the hugely successful, critically acclaimed film by the same name. Read the book first, then watch the movie.  

4. Private Dancer – Stephen Leather

Although this personal retelling won’t appeal to everyone, Private Dancer is an engrossing read about the author’s experience dating a pole dancer in Thailand. On the surface, she is perfect. Long legs, beautiful face and an amazing body. However, as Leather gets more involved, he realises things are not quite what they seem. The story is written from several perspectives, including from the family and friends of the main characters. Reportedly true to real life, this fascinating book is a study of morality, love and lust. Read it but don’t be surprised if it leaves you feeling a little uneasy.  

5. Sightseeing – Rattawut Lapcharoensap

This debut from Lapcharoensap is a compilation of stories set in contemporary Thailand. All seven stories in the book tackle the complexity and value of human relationships, whether they be between family members, lovers or friends. This is not a light read and sadness characterises many of the stories within the book’s pages. However, the sophistication of these tales cannot be denied. Whilst all of the stories are very different, each captures your imagination and they all feel remarkably real. A great choice for those interested in the study of human relationships.  

6. A History of Thailand – Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit

If you are looking to learn more about Thailand’s economic, social and political history, this is the book for you. Thailand’s past is complex and this text reflects this. In particular, this book offers good coverage of the past 200 years of Thai history. It is certainly heavy reading, though enlightening in many ways.  

7. The Railway Man – Eric Lomax

Another book about the Burma-Siam Railway, this narrative by Eric Lomax is a story of heartache, love and most of all, forgiveness. Like many others, Lomax was tortured by the Japanese during the Second World War. This harrowing experience changes his life forever and he bears the mental scars from his treatment decades on. Struggling to form meaningful human relationships, his wife encourages him to revisit the demons of his past and put them to bed. Fifty years later, he makes his way to Thailand intending to confront one of his main torturers. This remarkable true story is a tale of courage against all odds.     

8. The Backpacker – John Harris

This amazing true story needs to be read to be believed and even then, you still might not believe it. The Backpacker follows the story of author John Harris when he heads out on a trip to India. Things don’t quite work out as he planned though and his girlfriend dumps him while he’s there, leaving him with a hard question to answer. ‘What do I do next?’ After meeting Rick, a fellow backpacker who persuades him to go to Thailand, things really start to get crazy. This tale about the pursuit of hedonism makes for a gripping read, even if John and his cronies are the kind of backpackers you know other people tut about!  

9. The Damage Done

In 1978, the author of this book was sentenced to life imprisonment having been found guilty of heroin trafficking. This insight into the life of an inmate in a Bangkok Jail (nicknamed ‘The Bangkok Hilton) is undoubtedly both hard to put down and hard to imagine. As you lie back in your hammock, Fellows will transport you into a shocking world of solitary confinement and sewer rats. So if you’re strapped for cash and would even consider getting involved in drugs in Thailand, consider this a terrifying warning. 


Books about Vietnam

Find out more about Vietnam here.

Basket Boat Crab Fishing in Hoi An, Vietnam.

10. The Quiet American – Graham Greene

Perhaps the most famous fiction book to be set in Vietnam, Graham Greene’s ‘The Quiet American’ is dubbed by many as a political masterpiece. CIA agent Alden Pyle is sent on a mission to Saigon during the Vietnam conflict between the Viet Minh communists and French colonial forces. Numerous themes run throughout this book including desire, morality and hope. It is one of the most quotable books in literature, with well renown snippets like ‘Innocence is a kind of sanity’. It was initially published in 1956 before being adapted into a film, twice. Those looking for escapism and to learn more about this period in Vietnamese history should definitely read it.  

11. At Home in the World – Thich That Hanh

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh provides inspiring and thought-provoking stories in this book about life. As well as tales from his upbringing revolving around rural traditions in Vietnam, there are also stories from his time as a teacher and writer during the Vietnam War. When reading this book, you cannot help but question your own life and actions. These stories have been very artfully written to lead you towards self-reflection without actively pointing you in that direction. Anybody interested in Buddhism, mindfulness or life’s big questions should read this book. To learn more about the teachings of Thich That Hanh, check out this post on inspiring Asian quotes!  

12. Catfish and Mandala – Andrew X. Pham

This fascinating memoir follows the tale of Vietnamese-born Andrew Pham, the author. When his transexual sister committed suicide, Pham sold everything he owned and embarked on an epic bicycle journey around the world. He visits several countries but when he returns to Saigon, he finds himself feeling alien in a place that used to be home. Although his journey was intended to help him forget the pain of his past, he soon realises that his travels have resulted in a search for his own cultural identity and the only way to find this is to delve into his country and it’s history. This book should be required reading for anyone visiting Vietnam!  

13. The Beauty of Humanity Movement – Camilla Gibb

There are three main characters in The Beauty of the Humanity Movement. Maggie is Vietnamese by birth but has lived in the US for much of her life and Tu is a young tour guide working in Hanoi. Old Man Hung is the thread which links the two of them together. He is a wise gent who has lived through decades of turmoil in Vietnam and holds local fame for making a mean bowl of pho. Travellers looking for an authentic picture of Vietnam should read this novel. It reveals so much about the difference between what the tourists see and the struggles that many locals still have behind the scenes. This book comes highly recommended, regardless of whether or not you have yet visited Vietnam!  

14. The Sympathizer – Viet Thanh Nguyen

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, this fierce novel starts with the American evacuation of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. The main character is a captain to a general in the South Vietnamese Army. His position earns him a place on one of the boats to the US. What his peers do not know is that he is also a spy for the Viet Cong. Combining all the elements needed for a good action book, this gripping story doubles up as both a spy novel and a love story.  

15. The Sorrow of War – Bao Ninh

This haunting book is a must-read for anybody with an interest in the Vietnam War. It is based on the true experiences of the author and was banned by the Communist party. This goes some way to proving just how powerful the novel is. Protagonist Kien had his battalion annihilated by American napalm in 1969 and was one of just ten survivors. This book is a reflection of those wartime years and the main characters attempt to reconcile the traumatic events that characterised this time in his life. It is harrowing but a truly important read.  

16. The Girl in the Picture: The Story of Kim Phuc, the Photograph, and the Vietnam War

Inspired by the famous photograph of a young girl running naked from a napalm bomb during the Vietnam War, ‘The Girl in the Picture’ is a biographical tale of life during the war, through the eyes of Phan Thị Kim Phúc (famously photographed) and her mother. Having been told that it was unlikely that she would survive due to the extent of her napalm burns, Kim Phúc’s life was saved by surgeons. In her own words, her experiences taught her to be “strong in the face of pain” and have since gained her recognition as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. Through a lens previously overlooked, the biography provides a glimpse into the family’s experience of Vietnamese and American relationships in that troublesome time.


Books about Cambodia

Find out more about Cambodia here.

The magnificent temples of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. This is Banteay Srei temple

17. A Woman of Angkor – John Burgess

The Angkor Empire has long been a symbol of mystery within the minds of travellers. Many people who visit Cambodia, know about the Angkor Wat complex and its status as the largest religious monument in the world but aside from this, most of us know little about the empire. A Woman of Angkor is set in the 12th century and follows the story of Sray, a young woman who is hiding a secret. It is a must-read for any lover of historical fiction, especially those who have visited or plan on visiting Cambodia. Despite the grandeur of seeing Angkor Wat in person, it can be challenging to imagine what life would have been like in this ancient culture. Burgess does a fantastic job of bringing this period to life.  

18. First They Killed My Father – Loung Ung

Sadly, it is impossible to talk about Cambodia and neglect to mention the Khmer Rouge regime. This factual account, written by Loung Ung, documents her experience of being trained as a child soldier and being separated from her siblings when they were sent to labour camps. (In 2017, the book was turned into a movie directed by Angelina Jolie.)    Ung loses many of her family to the brutal regime which makes for harrowing reading. She was only reunited with her remaining siblings once the regime had been beaten by the Vietnamese. Although a deeply distressing read, Ung’s story is imperative to educate people about the Cambodian genocide. Whilst we can learn about this awful period in Cambodia from history books, hearing an account first-hand sheds new light on the terror.  

19. To Cook a Spider – Mark Bibby Jackson

Set in Battambang, Cambodia, To Cook a Spider is an unconventional love story. Don Oake is a retired British entrepreneur who reconnects with his good friend George Defaux. George, who owns a hotel in Battambang, invites Don to come and visit. However, when Don arrives in the hotel, he is surprised to find no signs of his friend, just the family he has left behind. Don gets to know his best friend’s wife more as he waits for the return of George and finds himself falling into a deep dark hole of love that he knows is bound to bring trouble… This book is easy to read and hard to put down. It’s a must for anyone craving a story with love, drama and crime!  

20. Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare – Philip Short

Under the leadership of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge regime committed genocide in Cambodia. It is estimated that up to 25% of Cambodia’s population died during this horrific period in history. Philip Short observed Pol Pot on one of his only overseas visits to China in 1975. After the Khmer Rouge regime had been destroyed, Short embarked on a mission to understand just how Pol Pot had wreaked such terror upon his country. This historical narrative is a fascinating look into the face of evil.


Books about Indonesia

Find out more about Indonesia here.

Yogyakarta, Indonesia

21. Eat, Pray, Love – Elizabeth Gilbert

A classic novel which always appears on the ultimate travel books lists; Eat, Pray, Love is a journey of self-discovery and you guessed it, love. Whilst Elizabeth Gilbert is a divisive protagonist (you either love her or hate her), her journeys through Italy, India and Bali are insightful and captivating. The book offers good insight into both Indian and Indonesian cultures but those who are not into spirituality may struggle with aspects of the story. Regardless of your opinions about Gilbert’s adventures, the underlying message of this book is that self-care is important and to embrace it when you need to. That is a positive message that we all need to remember sometimes!  

22. A House in Bali – Colin McPhee

Although this book was released in 1947, it remains as relevant today as ever. A House in Bali details the story of American composer McPhee, who overhears some Balinese gamelan music and is dying to get to the source of it. McPhee spends much of the 1930s exploring the island and getting properly acquainted with the gamelan music. Whilst this doesn’t sound like the most captivating book on the surface, the story is actually a page-turner which offers valuable insight into Balinese culture and the importance of music within it.  

23. Stranger in the Forest – Eric Hansen

Published in 1988, this travel memoir tells the tale of Eric Hansen, one of the first-ever westerners to walk across Borneo. This 7-month journey totalled a whopping 2,700 km (1,500 miles) on foot alone and nearly 4,000 km in total (2,500 miles). Accompanied by nomadic hunters known as Penan, Hansen trekked through the rainforest on his epic journey. This book provides not only a special insight into the rainforest as it once was but also the lives of one of the last surviving groups of jungle tribes. It is an absorbing and important read which will lead you to question your own purpose in life.  

24. Hotel K – Kathryn Bonella

This ugly read documents what life is like in Bali’s most notorious prison: Hotel Kerobokan. Written by journalist Kathryn Bonella, this exposé of corruption details the realities of being locked up in Hotel K and many of the stories you just won’t believe. The jail has surprisingly held several infamous and notable convicts, including Gordon Ramsay’s brother, a Balinese King and a number of tourists who were caught trying to smuggle drugs out of the country. In case you were considering it (which we certainly don’t recommend), have a read of this book first. Nothing will put you off more.  


Books about Singapore

Find out more about Singapore here.

Supertree Grove, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore.

25. Notes From An Even Smaller Island – Neil Humphreys

Written by Englishman Neil Humphreys, this memoir explores the many facets of Singaporean life. As an expat who has made Singapore home, Humphreys offers a locals perspective which is enlightening when it comes to understanding the culture. The author has a good sense of humour and this really shines through in his writing. Notes From An Even Smaller Island is funny and despite being released some time ago, still relevant to Singaporean life today. Read for a humorous insight into what life in Singapore is really like beyond the skyscrapers.  

26. Crazy Rich Asians – Kevin Kwan

Discover the inner workings of Chinese culture in Kevin Kwan’s ‘Crazy Rich Asians’, which follows Rachel Chu, an American-born Chinese girl, who travels with her boyfriend to his home country of Singapore, where she learns that he just so happens to be the heir to one of Asia’s most enormous fortunes. Cue a hilarious journey populated with larger-than-life characters, granting readers a glimpse into an impossibly lavish lifestyle and the secret clashes between mainland Chinese and overseas Chinese.  You have probably heard of Crazy Rich Asians due to the recent film adaptation of the novel. This book falls into the romantic comedy genre and is loosely based on Kwan’s own experience of growing up in Singapore. The novel follows the stories of three Chinese families and allows the reader to take a peek into the lives of the opulent Asian JetSet. The story is unique and offers a refreshing Asian perspective instead of the typical American style rom-com that is consumed the most. Tune in for gossip, scheming and backstabbing! You’ll laugh out loud and fall in love all at once – what more could you want?  

27. Singapore Grip – J.G. Farrell

This satirical novel centres on a British family throughout the period following the Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia in the Second World War. The Blackett family, of the leading trading company Blackett and Webb, see their world turned upside down. Both a war story and a love story, this book is the final instalment in the Empire Trilogy which documents the fall of British colonialism. Although highly rated, the satirical tone of these books may not appeal to everybody. However, for those that appreciate this style, the entire Empire Trilogy is a treat to read.   

28. Crossroads: A Popular History of Malaysia and Singapore – Jim Baker

As well as being a book for those visiting Singapore, this is also a great choice for those heading to Malaysia. This non-fiction text documents the history of both countries and successfully puts them in context when compared to the rest of Southeast Asia. Whilst it would be natural to assume this book is a little heavy (it is a history book after all), Baker actually writes in a very straightforward way which is easy to understand. If you know nothing about either of these countries, Crossroads will give you a great foundation of knowledge.  

29. You’ll Die in Singapore – Charles McCormac

An epic factual account which documents the struggle of one man who values an attempt at freedom over any threat of danger. Author Charles McCormac tells his story of escaping from a Japanese Prison Camp during WWII in Singapore. Along with 16 others, he broke out of the camp and embarked on an unbelievable escape which totalled over two-thousand miles. His journey took him through the rainforests of Indonesia and eventually over to Australia. Sadly, only two of the original men survived and this was mainly due to the goodwill of those they met on their journey. This story of compassion and courage is a must-read for everybody, even if you usually avoid war books.  


Books about Laos

Find out more about Laos here.

Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang, Laos.

30. Crescent Moon Over Laos – Mark Boyter

This memoir documents author Mark Boyter’s 18-day journey through Laos, only months after the country first re-opened to western travel. Although Boyter had travelled extensively through Asia, Laos felt alien to him. As well as being a book about Laos, Crescent Moon Over Laos also doubles up as a journey of self-discovery for the author. On the path to find out who he really is, both personally and spiritually, this book is an illuminating account which wrestles with many of life’s valuable lessons.  

31. Love Began in Laos – Penelope Khounta

When one thinks of love stories in Asia, most picture a western man falling for a gorgeous local lady. Love Began in Laos is a story of the reverse. Penelope is an American who travels to Laos in the 1960s. Of course, backpacking in the ‘60s was a completely different time and brought all sorts of new challenges – and that is without issues of the heart complicating things! This memoir tackles the protagonist’s attempts to learn about the Laotian culture in a time when most other Americans didn’t even know that Laos was a country. Containing adventure in its purest form, as well as personal growth, loss, love and of course, travel, this inspirational book is a must-read for anyone visiting Laos.   

32. One Foot in Laos – Dervla Murphy

Dervla Murphy is a renown travel writer and touring cyclist. She has been writing about her adventures for over 40 years and in that time crossed through many countries rarely seen by western eyes. Murphy plans to hike through the Laotian mountains, however, her trek is anything but smooth. She injures her foot and instead decides to explore the country on an old bicycle instead. The account of her journey is both insightful and eye-opening. Murphy explores areas of Laos still rarely visited to this day and we’re taken on the journey alongside her.  

33. Ant Egg Soup: The Adventures of a Food Tourist in Laos – Natacha Du Pont De Bie

This travelogue is a fantastic choice for anyone who wanders around the world guided by their stomach. Author Natacha Du Pont De Bie does just that, and no journey is too long if a good meal awaits her at the end. Although this book contains some recipes, it is more of a travel book than a cookbook. Rather than recording all of the best (read: most popular) foods that Laos has to offer, the author is more than happy to sample the strangest of cuisines and shares her experiences munching on fried crickets and drinking raw turkey blood. Nice.  

34. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures

Often, travel inspires us to learn, to better understand the people and the lands that we’re visiting. To see the truth, we must first understand what is often not explained. What many people do not know is that, while the US was waging war on Vietnam, it also raged a ‘secret’ war across the border of Laos. As a result, Laos is the most bombed country in the entire world. In this daring nonfiction novel, author, Anne Fadiman, tells us the story of Lia, a young Laotian refugee battling epilepsy, whilst commenting on everything from Laos history, to Hmong culture, and the difficulties of working through differences in cultural beliefs about health care. A really fantastic read!


Books about Malaysia

Find out more about Malaysia here.

Girls standing in a dense jungle

35. The Gift of Rain – Tan Twan Eng

Any backpacker looking for escapism can’t go wrong with the novel, The Gift of Rain. Set in Penang in 1939, we are introduced to 16-year old Philip, who is half Chinese and half English. He is suffering an identity crisis and is looking for the place where he belongs. It appears he finds it in his friendship with Japanese diplomat Hayato Endo. The bond that they have established together is put to new tests after the Japanese invasion of Malaya and Philip is forced to risk everything to save the ones he loves. The Gift of Rain won the Man Booker prize in 2007 which is a testament to the quality of this novel. This cleverly crafted book is well worth the read!  

36. Once We Were There – Bernice Chauly

A beautiful and evocative book, Once We Were There documents the fictional love story between journalist Delonix Regia and Omar during the Reformasi movement in Malaysia’s capital of Kuala Lumpur. Their story progresses in a similar way to many, from love to marriage and then to parenthood. Life is normal until their two-year-old daughter Alba is kidnapped. From this point on, the story gets dark and explores the illicit underbelly of the city, where babies get sold and young girls are trafficked. Whilst this story makes for a gripping read, it probably isn’t going to make you want to immediately run off and plan a trip to Malaysia. However, you are certain to want to check out more of Chauly’s books.  

37. The Japanese Lover – Rani Manicka

This fictional book follows the journey of Parvathi, a young Sri Lankan girl who is travelling to Malaysia for an arranged marriage. She comes from a poor family and her father has secured the marriage by showing a marriage broker a photo of a different girl. Feeling duped, her soon-to-be husband threatens to send her home, however, the pair reach a compromise and what follows is years of loveless marriage and misery. After the Japanese invasion of Malaya in WWII, Parvathi’s husband dies and she has no choice but to accept the protection of a Japanese general. If you enjoy this, check out Manicka’s first book, The Rice Mother.  

38. KL Noir – Amir Muhammed (Various authors)

This collection of short stories comes in four volumes: KL Noir: Red, KL Noir: White, KL Noir: Blue and KL Noir: Yellow. They all document the dark side of Kuala Lumpur highlighting the seedy goings-on in the city. Stories have recurring themes of kidnapping, drug dealing, prostitution, black magic and murder to name a few. Don’t be too scared by what you’re reading – it’s all completely fictional. Or so they say…  


Books about Myanmar

Find out more about Myanmar.

39. Burmese Days – George Orwell

Burmese Days is George Orwell’s first novel which arguably influenced his later more famous works such as Animal Farm and 1984. Based on his time working as a policeman in Burma during the weakening of the empire, Orwell reveals the reality of British colonial rule. This sad story paints a grim picture of colonialism and the racism which was rife during this time. It may not be the book that Orwell is most known for but Burmese Days is a haunting read that further cements him as one of the most prominent and influential writers ever.  

40. The River of Lost Footsteps – Thant Myint U

A misunderstood country with a turbulent past, Burma (known today as Myanmar) is a place that still holds a lot of intrigue. Although it doesn’t always make for pleasant reading, this comprehensive insight into Burmese history is sure to be educational. Thant Myint U is a western academic, however, he has family ties to many of the most important figures in the country during the 20th century. Whilst this is foremost a history book, it also offers a level of Burmese perspective. If you are planning on travelling to Myanmar, this book is sure to put the culture and sights into context.  

41. Letters From Burma – Aung San Suu Kyi

However you may feel about Aung San Suu Kyi following recent events, this non-fiction book compiled from her letters is an unforgettable read. Through these writings, Suu Kyi documents her fight for freedom in Burma and celebrates the courage of academics, army officers and normal people, who supported the National League for Democracy. After leading her party to power in the 1980s, the existing government refused to let them rule and Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for many years since. Through these letters, she talks about her country honestly and inspires hope for the future. It is a short book but one well worth reading, especially if you are intending on visiting Myanmar.  

42. Miss Burma – Charmaine Craig

Based on the story of Craig’s mother and grandparents, this novel documents the struggle of the long-persecuted ethical minority: the Karen people. Protagonist Benny relocated in Rangoon and falls head over heels for Khin, a woman who is one of the Karen people. Not only does this book give a good insight into the political unrest at the time but it also successfully creates a beautiful love story that you very quickly find yourself invested in. The reviews speak for themselves – just read it!  

43. From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey – Pascal Khoo Thwe

This unbelievable memoir follows a young man’s upbringing in one of Burma’s most remote tribal villages. Pascal’s journey starts in a country full of unrest and ends in the grandiose streets of Cambridge, England. Pascal decides to take on work as a waiter in Mandalay in the hopes that this will fund his studies. However, in the course of his work, he meets Cambridge don John Casey, who is responsible for altering the course of his life. This well-written book is a must for anybody looking to learn more Burmese culture and history.  

44. Finding George Orwell in Burma – Emma Larkin

This political travelogue follows in the footsteps of George Orwell as he travelled around Southeast Asia. Author Emma Larkin is fascinated by Orwell’s time in Burma and wants to see first-hand how it impacted his works of literature that followed. This is surely a must-read for anyone interested in Orwell but also anyone heading to Myanmar. Larkin has learnt to speak Burmese which means she can communicate with locals in a way many of us cannot. The insight into life in Myanmar from a female perspective is utterly illuminating and not to be missed.  


Books about the Philippines

Find out more about the Philippines here.

Boat on water Philippines

45. The Woman Who Had Two Navels – Nick Joaquin

Widely considered to be one of the best Filipino writers ever, Joaquin is relatively unknown outside of his own country. This is particularly surprising considering he actually writes in English. This historical novel is a story about a Filipino woman that believes she has two navels. Although the story sounds a little odd on the surface, the book represents far more than its title implies. As a personal tale, it documents how a young woman attempts to deal with her past and carve out her own identity. This is a reflection of how the country of the Philippines has also had to reconcile its history, in order to form its own identity.  

46. In the Country – Mia Alvar

This book is a compilation of nine fictional tales all set in different locations and across different periods. They document the stories of different Filipinos, all trying to navigate life in and out of the country. This engaging book is well-written and unlike many other short story collections, will serve up a few tales that you will remember for a long time. Each tale is slowly revealed to be one piece of the puzzle and towards the end, you learn that every story gives some insight about the Filipino diaspora (the dispersion of the Filipinos from their homeland) and the economic policies which impact the country to this very day.  

47. The Trial of Maximo Bonga: The Story of the Strangest Guesthouse in Southeast Asia – John Harris

In contrast to the more serious books about the Philippines listed so far, The Trial of Maximo Bonga offers some light relief. This novel, written by the same author as The Backpacker follows disagreeable WWII veteran and guesthouse owner Maximo Bonga when he is accused of murdering a young woman. Although different to The Backpacker (and arguably not as good), this book still hooks you into the story which makes it difficult to put down. There is no doubt that it would make a great film so watch this space!  

48. Illustrado – Miguel Syjuco

This critically acclaimed bestseller follows the story of a dead Filipino author and the final manuscript that he has left behind. The papers are revealed to be an exposé of corruption and it points the finger at the ruling Filipino families. The author’s student Miguel is not convinced by the suicide verdict and intends to get to the bottom of what truly happened. He looks for clues and attempts to piece together his mentor’s past, however, what he finds is not black and white. This book is a  true gateway for those who want to get to know the Philippines.  


Books about Brunei

Find out more about Brunei here.

A man stands outside a building in front of four windows in Brunei

49. Written in Black – KH Lim

This coming of age novel follows ten-year-old Jonathan Lee on his quest to learn the truth about the whereabouts of his AWOL mother. Johnathan is happily reading Huckleberry Finn when he hears the news that his grandfather has died. This is just another blow for our young protagonist, whose mother left the family six months earlier for health reasons and whose brother has also left home. In this time of need more than ever, he becomes desperate to reconnect with his lost family and sneaks away to find his brother, with the eventual aim of meeting his mother again. This leads to one misadventure after another as Jonathan’s journey takes more unexpected twists and turns.

 

50. Some Girls: My Life in a Harem – Jillian Lauren

This jaw-dropping memoir published in 2010 documents the life of its author when she goes to become of the chosen female ‘guests’ of Prince Jefri Bolkiah, the youngest brother of the Sultan of Brunei. Lauren was originally told by a casting director that a wealthy businessman in Singapore was looking for attractive American girls to liven up his parties. The pay was a cool $20,000. Lauren’s decision to seek out this role led to her becoming part of the harem designed to serve the royal family. Although the girls were mostly there to entertain (think Playboy Mansion), sex was involved occasionally, although the author doesn’t say much about this. Whilst some readers have questioned how much of Lauren’s account is true, there is no doubt that regardless of what you believe, this book is a page-turner.  

51. Devil of a State – Anthony Burgess

When many hear the name Anthony Burgess, they automatically think of a Clockwork Orange. However, Burgess is actually renown for a number of other novels, including Devil of a State. The latter is about his experience working in the capital of Brunei back in the 1950s. He renamed Brunei Naraka in the book, which is Malayo-Arabic for hell, though for legal reasons, this name was changed to ‘Dunia’. This is Burgess’ last book in his ‘exotic novel’ series.  

52. A History of Brunei – Graham Saunders

This full-length study is currently the only one on the Brunei Sultanate from the earliest times until the present day. Although this book is going to interest only the most hardcore history fanatics, it documents important events and prominent figures from Brunei’s history well. For those looking to learn about the country, this book will provide a great overview.  


Books about East Timor

Find out more about East Timor here.

A volcano in Timor Leste

53. The Crossing: A Story of East Timor – Luis Cardoso

East Timor is still a largely unknown country in Southeast Asia. This memoir written by Luis Cardoso is a great read for those wanting to learn more about the mysterious country. Although this is first and foremost a memoir of Cardoso’s early life, it also does an incredible job of explaining the history and politics of the country. It is easy to read and surprisingly informative, given that this is not its primary purpose. The book is also short so it is great to read if you want to dip your toes into the country’s history without  committing to a heavy historical text.  

54. If You Leave Us Here, We Will Die: How Genocide Was Stopped in East Timor – Geoffrey B. Robinson

Written by Geoffrey Robinson, a Southeast Asian history expert, there are few more qualified to write on the topic of mass violence around the region. Robinson was actually in East Timor with the UN in 1999 and therefore can provide a first-person account of the suffering. After Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975, a horrific genocide occurred. Before International agencies stepped in, 1,500 people were killed and over half of the population had been displaced from their homes. In 1999, the country voted for independence from Indonesia which threatened a second genocide. This depressing read offers insight into the political climate during this period and how genocide was narrowly avoided the second time around.  

55. Balibo – Jill Jolliffe

This well-researched book by Jill Jolliffe investigates the case of the Balibo Five. These five Australian TV journalists were sent to East Timor to report on civil unrest but were killed. Another journalist who was sent to investigate these deaths was also subsequently killed. The official story is that the men were killed in a cross-fire during a battle. However, Jolliffe’s book reveals that the evidence indicates that they were deliberately taken out by Indonesian special forces. This view was never challenged by Australia or its western allies as they didn’t want to damage Indonesian relations. It is claimed that this cover-up was a deciding factor in Indonesia’s decision to invade East Timor.  


And there you have it, our pick of the best books in Southeast Asia! Choosing just a handful of books for each country was surprisingly difficult as there are so many good ones. However, these books about the region should provide you with plenty of reading for a little while… Got a great book about Southeast Asia that we’ve missed? Let us know in our Facebook community!

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Sheree is the awkward British wanderluster behind wingingtheworld.com, a travel blog designed to show that even the most useless of us can travel. Follow Sheree’s adventures as she blunders around the globe, falling into squat toilets, getting into cars with machete men and running away from angry peacocks.

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Trust us, we can't wait either...

  • Updates on travel in Southeast Asia.
  • A mix of fun & thought-provoking articles.
  • Honest trip planning advice.

Trust us, we can't wait either...

  • Updates on travel in Southeast Asia.
  • A mix of fun & thought-provoking articles.
  • Honest trip planning advice.
A girl on a beach in Asia.