Traveling in South East Asia? The 10 Books you Should be Reading Now

I don’t know about you but for me, making good reading choices while I travel is imperative. Not only does it become my faithful bus buddy, tanning companion, and snuggle pal, it is also often what inspires me. When chosen carefully, it can help me think about the importance of my own journey, the way in which I am affected by my environment, and possibly even help me to better understand the history and culture of the countries I am visiting. Yes, a well chosen, absorbing, and thought-provoking travel book is an essential part of any trip.

With all this in mind, off I went with the rest of the S.E.A Backpacker Team over to “The Lost Bookstore” in Chiang Mai, which is chock full of a really diverse and extensive selection of both fiction and non-fiction reads. We asked George O’Brien, the charismatic Irish owner of the shop to tell us what has been selling fast, what will make a traveller in South East Asia stop and think – and what books he personally can’t get enough of! So, together, and along with our own personal favourites to boot, we give you our very own bespoke list of the top ten books you should be reading right now!

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1. The Geography of Bliss

– Eric Weiner

Weiner visits ten countries and writes a chapter about each, commenting on how culture can influence our levels of happiness, through the pondering of such questions as ‘does the fact that Thais are more quick to smile mean that they are a happier lot?’/’ does the new found wealth that Qatar has acquired mean the people are also living more emotionally prosperous lives?’ A great travel read, this book will make you think about the qualities that really are most influential on our happiness, how the countries that we travel to may hold some bearing on it, and what qualities actually matter most for our overall well-being. 

2. I of the Sun

– Richard Arthur 

“A journey into SouthEast Asia and the heart of human consciousness.” In George’s opinion this book is the next must-read for all those setting off on the banana pancake trail. When we travel, many of us are struck by the sudden and often intoxicating leap into a world of no responsibilities, no personal identity, and no social obligations. We can get lost or we can get found. In his debut novel, Arthur explores this intriguing and universal traveler’s quandary, exposing both questions and truths that are entirely relatable.

3. Gone Girl

– Gillian Flynn

Amy Dunne is missing, but her diary has been found. Alternating between her husband’s story and her own written words, we slowly begin to understand the history that preceded the current tragedy. Questions begin to arise. Is her husband guilty or innocent? Was Amy herself crazy? Where is she now – is she dead or alive? How did their relationship get to this awful point? Folks, I promise this one is a page-turner – great to begin before a long bus ride or during a relaxing stint lazing on the beach.

4. 1984

– George Orwell

Did you know that George Orwell spent five years of his life living in Myanmar (then Burma)? After his short stint in the British military, he returned home, but Burma never left him, and his most famous novel – 1984 – has often been viewed as eerily similar to the totalitarian and controlling ways of the Burmese government. For an absorbing, insightful, and often disturbing read, get lost in George Orwell’s world of 1984.

5. The Power of Now

– Eckhart Tolle 

I’ve been travelling in South East Asia for close to 9 months now and one thing has become alarmingly clear. Most travellers come here with the partial hope of expanding their spiritual knowledge. Even though it may be a little clichéd, it is still a wildly rewarding goal – to study Buddhism in the land where it originated, to better understand and feel the power of the present, and to practice the art of meditation. If these things have made it onto your travel bucket list, it would be a worthwhile idea to check out this inspirational read. In it, Tolle will teach you how to apply spiritual practices of acceptance and ‘being present’ – so evident in S.E.A culture – into your own daily life.

6. The Bat (series)

– Jo Nesbo

Two years ago there was  “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” phenomenon. Everyone had a copy. Every traveller lying in a hammock, en route to the jungle, or waiting for a train could be seen reading one. Gripping, intelligent, and full of suspense, it was wildly successful – and rightfully so. Now, hot on its heels, we have “The Snowman”. Possessing the same elements that made Stieg Larsson’s books so popular, this Norwegian author has already written a series of ten, giving you plenty of juicy plot turns to sink your teeth into (and what’s more, Book Two takes place in Thailand!).

7. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

– Anne Fadiman

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, 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!

8. Room 

– Emma Donoghue 

I’ve noticed a copy of this book on most hostel bookshelves during my travels; clearly many a backpacker have found themselves absorbed in Donoghue’s haunting world. Without giving away too much, I will say that this is the story of a boy who grows up in a room with his mother. The two of them comprise each other’s worlds. The things that surround them become their friends; book, table, couch – each one providing comfort and a small dose of stimulation. They sleep in a cupboard at night…until one day, when they decide it is time to leave. Strange – but utterly absorbing.

 9. On the Road

– Jack Kerouac

The movie might have been a flop, but the book is still a classic. Young twenty-somethings – passionate, inspired, reckless, and unfathomably restless. It’s a mix of feelings that motivates many of us to hit the road, and Kerouac accurately conveys this ‘gotta go’ sensation that so many of us backpackers have felt in our bones since we were wee ‘uns. Written in stream-of- consciousness narrative form, this novel may just feel like a parallel to your own travel journals.

10. Wild 

– Cheryl Strayed 

This is one of those books that you wish you personally wrote: A beautifully honest memoir about Cheryl Strayed’s solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail (Western United States). Deciding to hike the trail after the premature passing of her mother, Cheryl walks for three months, encountering bears, sickness, a whole slew of interesting characters, and a new sense of self. Told in a clear, blunt, and witty manner, Cheryl’s words will make you think about your own journey and the transformative potential that it has. If Strayed has you hooked, then also check out “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar”, an insightful compilation of Cheryl’s early days as an advice columnist.


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  • Tyler, originally from Massachusetts, became familiar with SEA Backpacker Magazine whilst living and teaching in Chiang Mai. She travelled to South America with the owner of the company to help set up their second magazine, South America Backpacker. Currently back in the US, she continues to document her experiences on her blog, The Thai Chronicles. Interested in becoming a writer for us?