The best books about Laos and the CIA's covert war there

Who am I?

I’m a writer and journalist with an eye on South and Southeast Asia. I first visited beautiful, land-locked, and sleepy Laos in 2000, as the country reluctantly reemerged from post-revolutionary isolation. I researched and co-wrote The Most Secret Place on Earth, a feature documentary on how the CIA created a clandestine army to fight Laotian and Vietnamese communists, rigged elections, and eventually destroyed much of the country with carpet bombing. This slice of secret history forms the narrative backbone of my novel. The Man with the Golden Mind is a spy thriller, as well as an ode to one of the most isolated countries in the world.

I wrote...

The Man With The Golden Mind

By Tom Vater,

Book cover of The Man With The Golden Mind

What is my book about?

Detective Maier is hired to investigate the death of an East German culture attaché killed near a fabled CIA airbase in central Laos in 1976. But before the detective can set off, his client, the attaché’s daughter Julia, is kidnapped. Maier follows Julia's trail to the Laotian capital Vientiane, where he learns different parties are searching for a legendary CIA file crammed with Cold War secrets. The real prize, however, is the file's author: someone codenamed Weltmeister, a former US and Vietnamese spy no one has seen for a quarter-century.

Maier needs to dig deep into the past - including his own - in order to make sense of the present. The Man With The Golden Mind is an action-packed thriller of sex, drugs, assassinations, and double-crosses.

The books I picked & why

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A Short History of Laos: The Land in Between

By Grant Evans,

Book cover of A Short History of Laos: The Land in Between

Why this book?

Historian Grant Evans does a thorough and highly readable if academic job to introduce remote, mysterious, landlocked Laos, the land of a million elephants from its distant beginnings as a conglomeration of waxing and waning city-states to its French colonial era and tragic role in the Vietnam War, its current post-revolutionary stasis and persistent refusal to become a nation serving its citizens. Anyone contemplating a visit to Laos should carry this book in their luggage as it touches on almost all aspects, cultural and economic, historical, and societal of one of the last communist nations surviving today.

The Coroner's Lunch

By Colin Cotterill,

Book cover of The Coroner's Lunch

Why this book?

Colin Cotterill wrote a series of whodunits set in the late 70s newly formed the People's Democratic Republic of Laos, featuring 72-year-old Dr. Siri Paiboun who is appointed coroner by the communist government and sets out to solve crimes that uncover unpleasant truths about the country’s communist utopia. In this first novel, Paiboun investigates the death of a politician’s wife that soon turns into a murder inquiry, but the real joy of this story lies in the challenges the intrepid septuagenarian investigator faces that emerge as a consequence of communist rule. Quirky, gentle, and full of insights of a country rarely depicted in contemporary fiction, The Coroner’s Lunch is a great travel read.

Air America

By Christopher Robbins,

Book cover of Air America

Why this book?

From 1965 onwards, the USA, conducted a covert anti-communist war in Laos. While the CIA created a clandestine hilltribe army, the air support for these troops was provided by Air America, ostensibly a private airline that was owned by the agency. Small spotter planes flew to 100s of airstrips across Laos to distribute troops, aid and weapons while collecting vast amounts of opium grown by the mercenaries the US had hired, later refined into heroin and sold to US troops fighting in Vietnam. Robbins’ book, which is somewhat revisionist, nonetheless brilliantly tracks the history of the airline from its beginnings in 1950s Indochina and demonstrates the courage of its pilots who frequently flew under fire and whose motto was "Anything, Anywhere, Anytime, Professionally".

Voices from the Plain of Jars: Life Under an Air War

By Fred Branfman,

Book cover of Voices from the Plain of Jars: Life Under an Air War

Why this book?

During the CIA’s covert war in Laos between 1964 and 1973, the US dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on the country, a planeload every 8 minutes for 9 years and makes Laos, along with Cambodia, which shared a similar fate, is the most bombed country in the world. To this day, countless people, many of them children, are maimed and killed by unexploded ordinance that remains hidden in the country’s soil. Fred Branfman, a young American stationed in Laos in the late 1960s, discovered the bombing and exposed the CIA’s covert campaign of terror.

Branfman not only interviewed more than 2,000 refugees of the bombing but motivated many survivors to record their experiences in essays, poems, and pictures. This book, an excellent antidote and companion piece to Air America, is the result.

A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Cambodia, Laos & Vietnam

By Norman Lewis,

Book cover of A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Cambodia, Laos & Vietnam

Why this book?

This classic travel book, first published in 1951, is said to have inspired Graham Greene to travel to Vietnam and to write The Quiet American, the greatest piece of fiction on white men in Southeast Asia. It is also a charming and charmed eyewitness account of the dying days of the French colonial occupation of Indochina which makes A Dragon Apparent a document so much of its time that readers might it find quaint, patronizing, and perhaps a little racist. The locals don’t come away very well but neither does the author who barely speaks to them. That said, Lewis’ observations of Luang Prabang are worth revisiting.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Laos, Southeast Asia, and aviation?

5,887 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Laos, Southeast Asia, and aviation.

Laos Explore 10 books about Laos
Southeast Asia Explore 22 books about Southeast Asia
Aviation Explore 17 books about aviation

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Mr. Palomar, Nine Gates, and Nothing Special if you like this list.