The best books about exotic Asian travel and adventures

The Books I Picked & Why

The Last Wild Men of Borneo: A True Story of Death and Treasure

By Carl Hoffman

The Last Wild Men of Borneo: A True Story of Death and Treasure

Why this book?

Carl Hoffman’s book is a compelling read of other Westerners in Borneo. It’s a well-written account of a Swiss environmentalist and an American entrepreneur, both of my generation, who had vastly different experiences—and so different from mine. The former “goes native” while trying to save the forest and finally disappears without a trace. The latter manages to find the cultural treasures he is looking for but is blamed for exploiting the native tribes who produced them. The author learned all this by extensive travel to the region and up the rivers and jungles these men journeyed. The phrase “Wild Men of Borneo” originated from P.T. Barnum’s exploitation of mentally disabled dwarfs from Ohio, which adds clever and ironic twist to the author’s choice of title.


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Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

By Paul Theroux

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

Why this book?

When I retired from my 45-year career as an international filmmaker and multimedia producer, I decided to concentrate on creative nonfiction writing, using my experiences and memories as a basis for the many stories I wanted to tell. I began to read and listen to travel memoirs to learn how to write in a captivating and entertaining way. Paul Theroux is one of the top writers in this genre and Ghost Train to the Eastern Star is one of his best. He doesn’t make it to Borneo, but reaches many familiar places I traveled to during my years in Southeast Asia. I love his style, full of descriptions of those old haunts, and his dialog with the people he encounters on his journey.


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Land Below the Wind

By Agnes Keith

Land Below the Wind

Why this book?

This book gives readers a clear picture of what it was like for an American woman, married to a British colonial, to live in North Borneo just before the Japanese Army invaded in 1942. It was truly an innocent place so far from the cares of the world. I read it in 1968, just before my first sojourn in Sabah, Malaysia. Much had changed by then, but it helped me understand the experiences of some of the older people I met. Today, Sabah remains a land “below the wind” (located south of the annual tropical cyclone belt.) But, as I mention in my book, it is no longer below the “political storms” as China battles the US and five other nations over the rights to the South China Sea.


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The White Rajahs of Sarawak

By Robert Payne

The White Rajahs of Sarawak

Why this book?

Sarawak is the neighboring East Malaysian state of Sabah. It would be difficult to understand how northern Borneo evolved without understanding its colonial history. James Brooke, a British man born in India, became the Rajah of Sarawak when he helped the Sultan of Brunei put down pirates that threatened his kingdom. The Brooke dynasty brought many reforms and established an orderly form of colonial government. It lasted for a hundred years through succeeding generations until the territory was handed over to the UK after the Japanese were defeated in World War II. But it is interesting that piracy was never totally controlled in the waters around northern Borneo. It remains a problem to this day. Fortunately, I was never captured!


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A Brief History of Bali: Piracy, Slavery, Opium and Guns: The Story of an Island Paradise

By Willard A. Hanna

A Brief History of Bali: Piracy, Slavery, Opium and Guns: The Story of an Island Paradise

Why this book?

Bali is known as a peaceful Hindu "paradise” in Asia. But today most tourists are ignorant of its tumultuous history. In my book I travel by sea on a freighter from Singapore to Jakarta, and journey through Java to Bali. Before reading Hanna’s book, I too was largely ignorant of the invasions Bali had experienced before tourists came: centuries of domination by Muslim sultanates; then early 1800s, the Dutch alongside the French; then the British, followed by the Dutch again in 1816. Next, Bali’s people joined the fight for independence before Japan invaded in 1942. The Dutch returned in 1945, so back to the struggle for independence 1945-1949. Within Indonesia, Bali had to fight hard to maintain its Hindu religion and culture. A peaceful paradise?


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