21 books directly related to Southeast Asia 📚

All 21 Southeast Asia books as recommended by authors and experts. Updated weekly.

Dog Soldiers

By Robert Stone,

Book cover of Dog Soldiers

Why this book?

This book is set partly in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and partly in the U.S. and revolves around the Vietnam War and drug smuggling. The book deals with the pervasive sense of individual and institutional corruption which Vietnam seemed to embody. A corrupt society with no avenues of redemption, except in the individual’s code of honor, usually invented after the fact. A code that might perhaps save the individual, but not society. Dog Soldiers won the National Book Award. The first novel on the Vietnam War to be so honored. The story focuses on Ray Hicks, a sailor on the way home from Vietnam, and John Converse, a hapless war correspondent. If the most bizarre and outrageous behavior seems rational and acceptable to the majority of society, do individuals adjust their abilities and beliefs to determine what is right and wrong, or do they accept they accept the behaviors of the corrupt society in which they find themselves? It is a moral dilemma that Robert Stone has shined a brilliant light on in this epic novel on Vietnam.


A Fortune-Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East

By Tiziano Terzani,

Book cover of A Fortune-Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East

Why this book?

Warned by a Hong-Kong fortune-teller not to risk flying for a whole year, the author – a vastly experienced Far East war and revolutions correspondent of the German Der Spiegel – took what he called “the first step into an unknown world.” It turned out to be one of the most extraordinary years he ever spent: he was marked by death and instead he was reborn. Geography expanded under his feet. Magnificently written in the best traditions of travel literature. A full immersion into the invisible world and belief systems that shape Southeast Asian cultures.


Three Came Home

By Agnes Keith,

Book cover of Three Came Home

Why this book?

Again, it’s Agnes Keith, but this time using her gentle voice to describe the trials that she, her husband, and their son and their neighbors and friends endured during their stays in Japanese World War II prison camps in tropical Borneo. One critic wonderingly comments about this book that it “records but never renders pain, observes human nature but never attacks any individual” and concludes “the author’s writing is restrained and touching.”


Rivers of Iron: Railroads and Chinese Power in Southeast Asia

By David M. Lampton, Selina Ho, Cheng-Chwee Kuik

Book cover of Rivers of Iron: Railroads and Chinese Power in Southeast Asia

Why this book?

Two prominent aspects of China’s recent economic development are its mushrooming network of high-speed rail and its efforts to encourage infrastructure in its neighbors and beyond through the Belt and Road Initiative. The careful research of this book brings the two together. In exploring the different attitudes toward China among its southern neighbors the authors give a concrete account of how involvement is shaped by the prospects, concerns, and politics of each country. Meanwhile, it is clear that China is achieving a new centrality and connectivity in mainland Asia. What remains to be seen is whether a connected Asia is also a unified one.


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.


The Beach

By Alex Garland,

Book cover of The Beach

Why this book?

This is the only book on the list that’s not actually a romance. There is romance in it, though, so I think it counts. Regardless, I love this book and will always recommend it. I just happened to read it before I did my first big backpacking trip alone, and it totally influenced the way I approached those three months. In the book, the main character is obsessed with not just being a tourist but really experiencing the world in an adventurous way. It’s been years since I read it, and I still think about it all the time. If I was stranded on a deserted island and could only have one book with me, it would be this one. 


Slavery, Bondage, and Dependency in Southeast Asia

By Anthony Reid (editor), Jennifer Brewster (editor),

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

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.


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

By Salvador Santino Fulo Regilme,

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

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 abuse in Thaksin and Arroyo administrations. The book helps us understand how authoritarian aid recipients can manipulate foreign aid to seek political survival. 


Cold War Monks: Buddhism and America's Secret Strategy in Southeast Asia

By Eugene Ford,

Book cover of Cold War Monks: Buddhism and America's Secret Strategy in Southeast Asia

Why this book?

To be honest, I didn't like this book when I was reading early chapters, which focus solely on American efforts to utilize Buddhism as a sort of “spiritual weapon” to counter the appeal of Communism in Southeast Asia, notably in Thailand. I thought it too U.S.-centric and an overly top-down narrative. However, my doubts dispelled when I continued to read the middle and, particularly, the last two chapters, where the author discusses how Thai Buddhist monks also used Cold War politics and U.S. support in their attempts to expand their roles in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and to safeguard the three pillars of Thai’s traditional order: nation, religion, and king. 

What is most interesting is that, at the height of fears of communism in the early 1970s (that is, the time of the Vietnam War and U.S. withdrawal from it), the right-wing faction of Thai Buddhist monks embraced militant anti-communism, justifying the killing of communists and vindicating war and confrontation with communism—a war that the author names “Thailand’s Holy War.” This book can be seen as part of growing literature in recent years that explores linkages between religion and the Cold War, but what distinguish it is its depiction of religion not just as a target of mobilization and propaganda, but as the core platform of “social cohesion” and, thus, as a key player in Cold War anti-communist politics in its attempt to maintain social and cultural order at home.


South Southeast

By Steve McCurry,

Book cover of South Southeast

Why this book?

Legendary travel photog Steve McCurry has developed a bad reputation over the decades for reportedly mistreating his subjects (notably “Afghan Girl” Sharbat Gula), for allegedly staging and digitally manipulating images (as opposed to the candid shots he claims they are), and for profiting handsomely from it all. But gosh dang if his photographs aren’t gorgeous! In light of his purported misdeeds, I do not intend on dropping any more money on his newest retrospective books, but 2000’s South Southeast – based on his early work in Asia – will always remain on my bookshelf.


Eden in the East: The Drowned Continent of Southeast Asia

By Stephen Oppenheimer,

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

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.  


Thai Home Cooking from Kamolmal's Kitchen

By William Crawford, Kamolmal Pootaraksa,

Book cover of Thai Home Cooking from Kamolmal's Kitchen

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 Sauce. Never again will you use a curry sauce from a can. It’s been through 9 printings, and you’ll have to buy a used copy.


Every Man a Menace

By Patrick Hoffman,

Book cover of Every Man a Menace

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 bit of it makes sense.


Bangkok Wakes to Rain

By Pitchaya Sudbanthad,

Book cover of Bangkok Wakes to Rain

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. 


Song of Survival: Women Interned

By Helen Colijn,

Book cover of Song of Survival: Women Interned

Why this book?

A little-known aspect of the Pacific War was the imprisonment of Allied civilians. While these Japanese-run prison camps were not deliberate death machines, as were the Nazi-run concentration camps, large numbers of women and children died of starvation and disease there, or at least had their health permanently ruined. Many stories would come out of these camps, both horrific and inspiring. Perhaps the most brilliantly creative story of the latter category was the vocal orchestra, a group of imprisoned women who sought to recreate symphonic music with their voices. Colijn’s memoir was made into the film, Paradise Road.


Viet Nam: A History from Earliest Times to the Present

By Ben Kiernan,

Book cover of Viet Nam: A History from Earliest Times to the Present

Why this book?

This work is thorough and informative on the US invasion and defeat but unlike many books on the war also provides extensive discussion of Vietnam’s long history, which dates back more than two millennia. It covers Vietnam’s contentious relations with China and France.


The Sulu Zone, 1768-1898: The Dynamics of External Trade, Slavery and Ethnicity in the Transformation of a Southeast Asian Maritime State

By James F. Warren,

Book cover of The Sulu Zone, 1768-1898: The Dynamics of External Trade, Slavery and Ethnicity in the Transformation of a Southeast Asian Maritime State

Why this book?

This book explains how a powerful sultanate located on an archipel in the South China Sea maintained its independence until the very end of the nineteenth century. Being the centre of a ferocious slave-raiding network, it played a pivotal role in supplying the slave labour for commodity production both for China and the West. Warren’s book links an upsurge of slave raiding in Southeast Asia at the end of the eighteenth century with imperial expansion of the West and the economic resurrection of China. It questions the dominant perception that piracy and slavery in Asia were antithetical to economic growth.

I find Warren’s thesis tremendously valuable to understand processes of globalisation and a source of inspiration for my own research and teaching on slavery in the Indonesian archipelago in the nineteenth century. It also opened my eyes to the fact that the upsurge of slave-raiding was fed by illicit arms sales by traders from Europe.


The Jewel in the Crown: The Raj Quartet, Volume 1

By Paul Scott,

Book cover of The Jewel in the Crown: The Raj Quartet, Volume 1

Why this book?

Four books means a major investment of time, but you’ll be rewarded. And it’s stretching a bit to call this Southeast Asia fiction—the setting is India, but one character has a bad dream about being sent to Malaya. But I had to fit this one in. The time is World War II and the early years of Indian independence. I wouldn’t try to count how many characters, British and Indian, inhabit the pages. They’re so lifelike that you see them as family and worry over mundane things like whether they should go somewhere by road or train. Along the way, the story explores nationalist pride, class divisions, military culture (Scott served in India during the war), sexuality, and the universe of Indian culture. I would call this one of the great psychological novels of the twentieth century.


Prisna

By Princess Vibhavadi Rangsit, Tulachandra (translator),

Book cover of Prisna

Why this book?

Life and love among the Siamese well-off in the late 1930s. Broken hearts, vacations at the beach, flirtation on a tennis court. The story is driven by the return of a sister (Prisna) who has grown up in America and acquired shocking cosmopolitan ways—wearing shorts to the movies, for instance. It’s an entertaining read, yet deep in its own way, a favorite for someone (me) who lived in Thailand for six years. The book is well known there, but hardly gets noticed abroad. Prisna was written by a member of the Thai royal family, drawing from the world she inhabited. You should always be careful comparing things to Jane Austen, but this has many of the same classic attributes: a domestic focus, the search for a husband, characters drawn with poise and sympathy, prose that never contains a word more than needed.


Simple Art of Vietnamese Cooking

By Binh Duong, Marcia Kiesel,

Book cover of Simple Art of Vietnamese Cooking

Why this book?

This book is written by Binh Duong, the owner and chef of a Vietnamese restaurant in Hartford, CT, and Marcia Kiesel, who was a food and wine magazine journalist and tester. I once opened and ran a popular pho restaurant in Cambridge and I relied heavily, almost fully, on this cookbook. Its recipes are almost never off-tune (and I highly recommend the dipping sauces and condiments chapter). Its recipes are easy to follow and every detail is clearly spelled out. Some ingredients may be foreign (tree ears, tiger lily buds) but nothing a decent Asian market would not have.


Slavery as an Industrial System: Ethnological Researches

By H.J. Nieboer,

Book cover of Slavery as an Industrial System: Ethnological Researches

Why this book?

Nieboer did groundbreaking research on slavery outside the Atlantic world, and not the least on Southeast Asia. He was the first to propose a universal economic theory for the occurrence of slavery, namely that its existence was the result of a scarcity of labour in relation to the availability of land. After Evsey Domar expanded this argument to serfdom, it became known as the Nieboer-Domar hypothesis and has been widely cited both by historians and economic historians. In any talk about slavery and bondage in Southeast Asia I refer to this thesis to explain why slavery had practically disappeared in densely populated Java in the eighteenth century whereas it probably increased almost everywhere else in the Indonesian archipelago.