The best books about Thailand from some unique perspectives

Who am I?

I’m a writer and journalist with an eye on South and Southeast Asia. I first worked in Thailand in 1999, researching the Thailand chapter for the first edition of the Rough Guides Southeast Asia Guide. Since 2001, I’ve been a Thailand correspondent for German publisher Reise Know How. For the past decade, I have worked as Thailand Destination Expert for The Daily Telegraph. I co-wrote the bestselling Sacred Skin – Thailand’s Spirit Tattoos with photographer Aroon Thaewchatturat, and have written countless articles about Thai culture, politics and tourism. It took 20 years to write a novel set in Thailand – The Monsoon Ghost Image – a testament to the complexities of Thai society. 

I wrote...

The Monsoon Ghost Image

By Tom Vater,

Book cover of The Monsoon Ghost Image

What is my book about?

When conflict photographer Martin Ritter disappears in Thailand post 9/11, Germany mourns the loss of a cultural icon. A few weeks later, Detective Maier’s agency gets a call from Ritter’s wife. Her husband has been seen alive on the streets of Bangkok. Traveling to Thailand, all Maier finds is a photograph. As soon as the detective puts his hands on the Monsoon Ghost Image, the CIA, a mad doctor and a woman known as the Wicked Witch of the East all want a piece of Ritter's most important piece of work – visual proof that the US is in the torture business.

Maier and his sidekick Mikhail race against formidable foes to discover some of the darkest truths of our time - and save their lives.

The books I picked & why

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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. 


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. 

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


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. 

Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture

By Philip Cornwel-Smith, John Goss (photographer),

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. 

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Thailand, Southeast Asia, and pop culture?

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

Thailand Explore 24 books about Thailand
Southeast Asia Explore 22 books about Southeast Asia
Pop Culture Explore 80 books about pop culture

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Player Piano, Zero History, and Never Let Me Go if you like this list.