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...

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.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

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

Tom Vater Why did I love 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.

By Grant Evans,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Laos, perhaps the least known country in mainland Southeast Asia, stands at the region's crossroads. This small 'land in between' is surrounded by China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma-countries that, in pre-modern times, provided Lao kings with a field for territorial expansion. But more often, Laos has been a bridge between these powerful neighbours, and an arena in which they and their allies have interfered.Here, Grant Evans brings Lao history vividly into focus. From ancient times when the dynastic states of the region waxed and waned, to the 20th century and the turmoil of independence from France and the Vietnam…


Book cover of The Coroner's Lunch

Tom Vater Why did I love 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.

By Colin Cotterill,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Coroner's Lunch as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Laos in the year 1976, the monarchy has been deposed, and the Communist Pathet Lao have taken over. Most of the educated class has fled, but Dr Siri Paiboun, a Paris-trained doctor remains. And so this 72-year-old physician is appointed state coroner, despite having no training, equipment, experience or even inclination for the job. But the job's not that bad and Siri quickly settles into a routine of studying outdated medical texts, scrounging scarce supplies, and circumnavigating bureaucratic red tape to arrive at justice. The fact that the recently departed are prone to pay Siri the odd, unwanted nocturnal…


Book cover of Air America

Tom Vater Why did I love 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".

By Christopher Robbins,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The incredible inside story of the world's most extraordinary covert operation.

Air America - a secret airline run by the CIA - flew missions no one else would touch, from General Claire Cennault's legendary Flying Tigers in WW II to two brutal decades cruising over the bomb-savaged jungles of Southeast Asia. Their pilots dared all and did all - a high-rolling, fast-playing bunch of has-beens and hellraisers whose motto was 'Anything, Anywhere, Anytime'. Whether it was delivering food and weapons or spooks and opium, Air America was the one airline where you didn't need reservations - just a hell of…


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

Tom Vater Why did I love 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.

By Fred Branfman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Voices from the Plain of Jars as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

During the Vietnam War the United States government waged a massive, secret air war in neighbouring Laos. Fred Branfman, an educational advisor living in Laos at the time, interviewed over 1,000 Laotian survivors. Shocked by what he heard and saw, he urged them to record their experiences in essays, poems, and pictures. Voices from the Plain of Jars was the result of that effort.

When first published in 1972, this book was instrumental in exposing the bombing. In this expanded edition, Branfman follows the story forward in time, describing the hardships that Laotians faced after the war when they returned…


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

Tom Vater Why did I love 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.

By Norman Lewis,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

a poignant description of Cambodia, Laos & Vietnam in 1950, with all their beauty, gentleness, grandeur and intricate political balance intact - Restores this lost world, like a phoenix, from the ashes of the Vietnam war and its aftermath - shows the Vietnamese guerilla movement in its infancy, ranged against the French colonial powers, and the early affects of imported Western materialism - a best-seller when first published, and venerated by all the Saigon-based war correspondents in the '70s - inspired Graham Greene to go to Vietnam and write The Quiet American


You might also like...

Lethal Legacy

By H R Kemp,

Book cover of Lethal Legacy

H R Kemp

New book alert!

What is my book about?

Buried Secrets. A web of deceit, betrayal, and danger. Can she survive her fight for justice and truth? Laura thought she knew everything about her late husband before he died. Now, her life and the lives of those she loves are in danger. As Laura delves into his previous role in Iraq, she unravels a web of lies and deceit that goes far beyond anything she could have imagined. What was he researching? And why are people willing to kill for it?

Laura turns amateur sleuth. At fifty-nine, she must summon every ounce of strength to expose the truth and navigate a treacherous landscape where the lines between trust and betrayal blur. Every step she takes brings her closer to the truth, but also deeper into the dangerous realm of those who wish to silence her forever.

Can she triumph over the shadows of corruption and finally bring justice to light? Or will she succumb to the deadly grip of those who will stop at nothing to protect their dark legacies?

Lethal Legacy

By H R Kemp,

What is this book about?

Buried Secrets. A web of deceit, betrayal, and danger. Can she survive her fight for justice and truth?

Laura thought she knew everything about her late husband before he died. Now, her life and the lives of those she loves are in danger.

As Laura delves into his previous role in Iraq, she begins to unravel a web of lies and deceit that goes far beyond anything she could have imagined. What was he researching? And why are people willing to kill for it?

Laura turns amateur sleuth. At fifty-nine, she must summon every ounce of strength and relentless determination…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Laos, Southeast Asia, and aviation?

9,000+ 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 15 books about Laos
Southeast Asia Explore 34 books about Southeast Asia
Aviation Explore 34 books about aviation