The best books that explore colonialism in Southeast Asia

Who am I?

During 30 years living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I have developed a deep appreciation of Northern Thai culture and a fascination with its 700-year history. Though the region escaped being colonised as were nearby Laos (by the French) and Burma (by the Brits), a teak boom in the late 19th century came close to pulling it under the colonial yoke as Western trading companies muscled in. Teak Lord explores the frequently fragile relationships between circumspect Asians and adventurous Westerners, against a background of shifting borders and impenetrable jungle.


I wrote...

Teak Lord

By Ron Emmons,

Book cover of Teak Lord

What is my book about?

A tale of piety, greed, debauchery, and equanimity in a remote Asian kingdom.

It’s 1875 and Chiang Mai, capital of Lanna, is a cultural crossroads of Buddhist monks and Christian missionaries, of spirit doctors and opium smokers, of seductive dancers and Western adventurers. A sharp rise in teak prices leads to a mad rush for logging concessions, and the forests of Lanna resound to the thwack of axes and the trumpeting of elephants as the mighty trees are felled. Enter Doctor Cheek, a medical missionary and teak trader, whose exploits in this exotic realmsaving the life of the ruler’s wife, setting up a harem of local beauties, and standing triumphant at the kingdom’s highest point—make him a legend in his lifetime.

The books I picked & why

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Siamese White

By Maurice Collis,

Book cover of Siamese White

Why this book?

When I read this gripping biography of Samuel White from Bath in England, who rose from being an interloper in the trade of Southeast Asia to become ruler of a huge tract of land on the Andaman Coast of Siam/Burma, I was smiling and shaking my head at the improbability of it all. White’s outlandish and piratical adventures are comparable to the wild exploits of Pirates of the Caribbean, and at times left me gasping in disbelief. Maurice Collis is little known these days, yet his two decades (1912–1934) as an administrator in Burma made him the ideal candidate to recount this remarkable tale.

Siamese White

By Maurice Collis,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Siamese White as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Foremost among the biographies that Maurice Collis wrote during his wide-ranging literary career is Siamese White - an account of the career of Samuel White of Bath who, during the reign of James II, was appointed by the King of Siam as a mandarin of that country. The book superbly embodies that old adage - truth is stranger than fiction.

'A magnificent story, full of interest and excitement, but there is more to it than that. Collis, who has lived for years on the scene of these high happenings, is able to give us a first-hand picture of a fascinating…

The Glass Palace

By Amitav Ghosh,

Book cover of The Glass Palace

Why this book?

Amitav Ghosh is one of my favourite historical novelists and his ability to bring his characters to life draws readers into the web of this epic tale. The story begins in Burma in the shadow of the "Glass Palace" in Mandalay, from where King Thibaw has recently been exiled by the British. It then spans an entire century, following the lives of several characters, particularly Rajkumar, who begins as a food-stall assistant and after many years working in the teak forests, he manages to buy a timber yard of his own. If you enjoy this novel, don’t miss the Ibis Trilogy, about the opium trade in China and India.

The Glass Palace

By Amitav Ghosh,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Glass Palace as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The International Bestseller from the Man Booker Prize shortlisted author

'An absorbing story of a world in transition' JM Coetzee

'A Doctor Zhivago for the Far East' The Independent

Rajkumar is only another boy, helping on a market stall in the dusty square outside the royal palace, when the British force the Burmese King, Queen and all the Court into exile. He is rescued by the far-seeing Chinese merchant, and with him builds up a logging business in upper Burma. But haunted by his vision of the Royal Family, he journeys to the obscure town in India where they have…


Burmese Days

By George Orwell,

Book cover of Burmese Days

Why this book?

A lifelong hero of mine, George Orwell is best known for his political allegories Animal Farm and 1984, but his first published novel, written after a five-year stint as a policeman in Burma, gave an indication of his direction as a writer, with a vicious swipe at colonial attitudes and manners. The main character, John Flory, is a jaded teak merchant who detests the colonial “lie that we’re here to uplift our Black brothers instead of to rob them”. He has no friends at the local colonial club, is unlucky in love and meets a tragic end—all part of Orwell’s drive to “tell it like it is.”

Burmese Days

By George Orwell,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Burmese Days as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Honest and evocative, George Orwell's first novel is an examination of the debasing effect of empire on occupied and occupier.

Burmese Days focuses on a handful of Englishmen who meet at the European Club to drink whisky and to alleviate the acute and unspoken loneliness of life in 1920s Burma-where Orwell himself served as an imperial policeman-during the waning days of British imperialism.

One of the men, James Flory, a timber merchant, has grown soft, clearly comprehending the futility of England's rule. However, he lacks the fortitude to stand up for his Indian friend, Dr. Veraswami, for admittance into the…

Teak-Wallah: The Adventures of a Young Englishman in Thailand in the 1920s

By Reginald Campbell,

Book cover of Teak-Wallah: The Adventures of a Young Englishman in Thailand in the 1920s

Why this book?

This memoir of a teak inspector working in the forests of North Siam offers a fascinating glimpse into the life of an Englishman coming to terms with an alien culture and environment in the 1920s. Campbell’s sharp observations and dry wit carry the reader through the steps involved in teak logging, from girdling the trees to felling, dragging, and floating them downstream, and offer the chance to share encounters with man-eating tigers and rogue elephants along the way.

Teak-Wallah: The Adventures of a Young Englishman in Thailand in the 1920s

By Reginald Campbell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Teak-Wallah as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Here is a bold and entertaining account of the life of a European teak inspector working in the heart of the Thai countryside in the 1920s. Beginning with a description of his voyage, Campbell conveys the adventure and the loneliness, the beauty and the terror, that was the White Man's lot and sprinkles his narrative with pithy anecdotes about his various encounters. Teak-Wallah is an evocative tale of a world that still exists, but in which the European no longer has a role.

A Single Pilgrim

By Norman Lewis,

Book cover of A Single Pilgrim

Why this book?

Norman Lewis is best known for his non-fiction works such as The Golden Land (about Burma) and A Dragon Apparent (about Vietnam). Yet he also wrote a dozen novels that show a great flair for characterisation, dialogue and plot pacing, in addition to his incisive descriptions. A Single Pilgrim tells the story of John Crane, manager of a teak logging company in North Thailand, who revels in “the voluptuousness of routine and civilized triviality”. However, his company’s leases are about to expire and the thought of an end to his Oriental idyll is more than Crane can bear.

A Single Pilgrim

By Norman Lewis,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Single Pilgrim as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Southeast Asia, Thailand, and colonialism?

6,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Southeast Asia, Thailand, and colonialism.

Southeast Asia Explore 27 books about Southeast Asia
Thailand Explore 27 books about Thailand
Colonialism Explore 64 books about colonialism

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Decline of the English Murder and Other Essays, The Joy Luck Club, and Coonardoo if you like this list.