The best fiction set in Southeast Asia—in ancient days, the present, and the future

Who am I?

I first saw Angkor, capital of the Khmer Empire, in 1969 as a teenager and was bowled over by the place. I kept coming back as a journalist and author. They say you should write about things that truly crank your engine, and I found mine—imperial conquest, Hindu and Buddhist spirituality, astounding architecture, and the lives of the millions of people who inhabited and built the place. I’ve now written three non-fiction books and two historical novels set in the civilization’s twelfth-century peak. The novels are an effort to recreate life in the old days. They draw heavily on my years in Southeast Asia, experiencing what life is like in the present day.

I wrote...

A Woman of Angkor

By John Burgess,

Book cover of A Woman of Angkor

What is my book about?

The time is the twelfth century, the place Cambodia, birthplace of the lost Angkor civilization. In a village behind a towering stone temple lives a young woman named Sray, whom neighbors liken to the heroine of a Hindu epic. Hiding a dangerous secret, she is content with quiet obscurity, but one rainy season afternoon is called to a life of prominence in the royal court. There her faith and loyalties are tested by attention from the king. Struggling to keep her devotion is her husband Nol, palace confidante and master of the silk parasols that were symbols of the monarch's rank. The novel evokes the rites and rhythms of the ancient culture that built the temples of Angkor, then abandoned them to nature.

The books I picked & why

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By Princess Vibhavadi Rangsit, Tulachandra (translator),

Book cover of Prisna

Why this book?

Life and love among the Siamese well-off in the late 1930s. Broken hearts, vacations at the beach, flirtation on a tennis court. The story is driven by the return of a sister (Prisna) who has grown up in America and acquired shocking cosmopolitan ways—wearing shorts to the movies, for instance. It’s an entertaining read, yet deep in its own way, a favorite for someone (me) who lived in Thailand for six years. The book is well known there, but hardly gets noticed abroad. Prisna was written by a member of the Thai royal family, drawing from the world she inhabited. You should always be careful comparing things to Jane Austen, but this has many of the same classic attributes: a domestic focus, the search for a husband, characters drawn with poise and sympathy, prose that never contains a word more than needed.

The King's Last Song

By Geoff Ryman,

Book cover of The King's Last Song

Why this book?

Ryman is known mainly as a science fiction and fantasy writer, and there’s a hint of that here, as the story moves back and forth between the twelfth century, the heyday of the Khmer Empire, and present-day, post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia. My own writing has tried to depict life in the ancient days, so I of course wanted to see how someone else would do it. The answer is superbly. Ryman gives us an epic-scale life story of the great king Jayavarman VII, about whom next to nothing is known on a personal level. But now there’s plenty, or so it can seem, because it’s impossible not to buy into this portrait: the king’s inner motivations, his empathy for ordinary people in his realm, his accomplishments that are both military and spiritual. And Ryman’s depiction of a modern society recovering from genocide rings horribly true, peopled by an aging French archaeologist, an emotionally scarred police officer, a motorbike taxi driver struggling to get by. You won’t forget this book.

The Singapore Grip

By J.G. Farrell,

Book cover of The Singapore Grip

Why this book?

I love how this novel veers between the comic (the preening self-importance of a British family that runs a trading company) and the tragic (death and mayhem as Japanese troops set Singapore on fire in 1942). Father cynically manipulates markets; daughter carries on with unsuitable men; approved suitor arrives from Europe to reveal himself as an idealist who spouts praise for the League of Nations. You’ll learn a thing or two about how colonial companies of the time built enormous wealth by squeezing it from impoverished plantation workers, and how the war turned everything upside down.

Bangkok Wakes to Rain

By Pitchaya Sudbanthad,

Book cover of Bangkok Wakes to Rain

Why this book?

I lived in Bangkok for six years. This is the rare novel that captures the sounds, the smells, the spirit, and spirituality of the place. Bangkok in fact is the main character, with supporting roles by humans who make their lives there, from the nineteenth century to the present and into the not-so-distant future, when water lays permanent claim to a city built more or less at sea level. You can expect lyrical writing and engaging characters, whether human or urban. 

The Raj Quartet, Volume 1: The Jewel in the Crown

By Paul Scott,

Book cover of The Raj Quartet, Volume 1: The Jewel in the Crown

Why this book?

Four books means a major investment of time, but you’ll be rewarded. And it’s stretching a bit to call this Southeast Asia fiction—the setting is India, but one character has a bad dream about being sent to Malaya. But I had to fit this one in. The time is World War II and the early years of Indian independence. I wouldn’t try to count how many characters, British and Indian, inhabit the pages. They’re so lifelike that you see them as family and worry over mundane things like whether they should go somewhere by road or train. Along the way, the story explores nationalist pride, class divisions, military culture (Scott served in India during the war), sexuality, and the universe of Indian culture. I would call this one of the great psychological novels of the twentieth century.

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