The best books about Thailand from some unique perspectives

The Books I Picked & Why

The Windup Girl

By Paolo Bacigalupi

Book cover of The Windup Girl

Why this book?

Bacigalupi’s dystopian thriller draws a fascinating picture of a future Bangkok threatened by climate change and rising sea levels at the heart of a thrilling mystery. Anderson Lake, an American agro-business rep, teams up with the Windup Girl, Emiko, an engineered sex slave designed for wealthy Japanese who’s been abandoned on the streets of Bangkok, as he searches for the world’s last food bank amidst beautifully observed Southeast Asian cultural oddities and local politics, while bio-engineered plagues run rampant across the globe. 

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By Rattawut Lapcharoensap

Book cover of Sightseeing

Why this book?

This quirky collection of short stories, first published in 2005, was the first book I read by a Thai author that really captured essential cultural aspects of the country and conveyed them in brilliant prose. A fantastic cast of characters explores generational conflict, East-West relations, social injustice, and the way things are rarely glimpsed by visiting tourists. Poignant and perhaps occasionally a little too light-hearted, these well-rendered tales offer a portrait of contemporary Thailand, far from the usual clichés of monks, elephants, prostitutes, and pad thai. 

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The Beach

By Alex Garland

Book cover of The Beach

Why this book?

The Beach encapsulates the Zeitgeist of the late 90s Lonely Planet heydays, and the subsequent movie adaptation with Leonardo DiCaprio made Garland’s text a backpacker accessory for at least a decade. Lord of the Flies meets The Heart of Darkness amongst free-wheeling hippie travelers in search of utopia in eastern lands and remote, forbidden islands. Paradise, once found by its traveler protagonists, is soon lost again amidst internal confusion and shifting morality coming up against the harsh realities of life in Southeast Asia. A classic thriller, very much of its time, though it’s likely to outlive the 100s of other pulp thrillers based in The Land of Smiles

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By Michel Houellebecq

Book cover of Platform

Why this book?

I felt I needed to include one title about Thailand’s endlessly discussed, sordid sex industry. Houellebecq’s acidic 2004 novel takes the country’s massive sleaze trade head-on, crammed with self-loathing observations of its male protagonist, his world eventually smashed to pieces by a terrorist attack and a heart-breaking ending in the country’s Gomorra-by-the-sea beach resort Pattaya. Audacious, cynical, yet nonetheless filled with humanity, and there’s plenty of sex, Viagra, fun, and despair as well. Platform puts all other fiction covering the country’s exploitative underbelly to shame. 

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Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture

By Philip Cornwel-Smith, John Goss

Book cover of Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture

Why this book?

A brilliant reference book on all aspects (and yes, this book is very thorough) of Thai popular culture. Concise chapters on anything from spirit tattoos to meat on a stick illuminate the far corners of contemporary Thai society, illustrated by hundreds of great photographs. This is a standard work for anyone interested in how Thai society ticks. Cornwel-Smith has served up a second title recently – Very Bangkok – which offers a similarly thorough picture of the Thai capital. 

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