The best books on Southeast Asia 📚

Browse the best books on Southeast Asia as recommended by authors, experts, and creators. Along with notes on why they recommend those books.

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Book cover of Eden in the East: The Drowned Continent of Southeast Asia

Eden in the East: The Drowned Continent of Southeast Asia

By Stephen Oppenheimer

Why this book?

In the late 1990s when this book was published, it seems no scientist had ever given serious thought to the consequences for human evolution of the submergence of Sundaland in the aftermath of the last ice age. There is compelling scientific evidence, compiled and analyzed here in compendious detail, that Sundaland was a heartland of human innovation and that its drowning may have led to the spread of rice agriculture, pottery making, and even tales of lands being ‘fished up’ (as by the Pacific demigod Maui). An astonishing read that today I still regard as largely credible.  

From the list:

The best books on submerged lands

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Book cover of Bangkok Wakes to Rain

Bangkok Wakes to Rain

By Pitchaya Sudbanthad

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. 

From the list:

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

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Book cover of Aid Imperium: United States Foreign Policy and Human Rights in Post-Cold War Southeast Asia

Aid Imperium: United States Foreign Policy and Human Rights in Post-Cold War Southeast Asia

By Salvador Santino Fulo Regilme

Why this book?

Regilme studies the negative impact of US foreign aid on Philippines’s and Thailand’s human rights. He argues that the shared policy expectations between the donors and recipient governments and the domestic legitimacy of recipient regime jointly determine the extent of human rights abuse. The recipients with strong domestic legitimacy need only use the foreign aid on legitimate military threats. This was the case for the Philippines and Thailand in the 1990s. When the domestic legitimacy of the recipient regime is weak, that foreign aid is strategically repurposed to include the repression of the political opposition. This explains the human rights…

From the list:

The best books on using foreign aid to do good in a realistic way

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Book cover of Thai Home Cooking from Kamolmal's Kitchen

Thai Home Cooking from Kamolmal's Kitchen

By William Crawford, Kamolmal Pootaraksa

Why this book?

Written 35 years ago by a UCLA professor and a Bangkok-born female chef who owned a highly lauded restaurant near LA, this photo-less book explains Thai cuisine well, as well as the culture of food in Thailand, and its recipes never miss the mark and generally are short. This book is in no small part responsible for the success of Veggie Planet, a pizza restaurant I owned in Harvard Square, Cambridge, for 6 years. One of the most popular pizzas was called “Red Curry” pizza and was layered with coconut rice, broccoli, pan-fried tofu, and this book’s Red Curry Peanut…

From the list:

The best Southeast Asian cookbooks from a Chef who uses them daily

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Book cover of Every Man a Menace

Every Man a Menace

By Patrick Hoffman

Why this book?

This is only Patrick Hoffman’s second book, but it is a wonderful model of how to write a complex and controlled work without leaving loose ends, lingering too long in one phase, or letting the reader lose interest. The novel presents us with a drug cartel that stretches around the world like a giant organism. A single disturbance in one location causes violent and self-protective reactions in each of the other locations, like reflexes of the giant organism’s body. The novel is a brilliant study of cause and effect. Hoffman portrays a world that is dangerous and dark, but every…

From the list:

The best novels for learning how to write crime fiction

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Book cover of Slavery, Bondage, and Dependency in Southeast Asia

Slavery, Bondage, and Dependency in Southeast Asia

By Anthony Reid, Jennifer Brewster

Why this book?

This book became the starting point for many publications on slavery in Southeast Asia. It is a collection of essays that not only provides us with an overview of the entire region over the past 700 years but also suggests how we can study the multifarious forms of slavery and bondage in the region in a comparative manner. Although almost forty years old it is still indispensable reading for any course on slavery in Southeast Asia, including my own course.

From the list:

The best books about slavery in Asia

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