Books are a must-have for any bold travelers and adventurers. Having something to read in your travels can change your perception of people, places, and even experiences. Whether you travel overseas for work or leisure, learning about the country and its people is essential for an enriched and well-rounded trip.
(Travel experiences are important–read why in this Project Bold Life story!)
They act as guides that more or less give historical and cultural insights into different tourist spots. Moreover, books offer an emotional experience of the stories and characters set in the country you’re visiting, especially in Southeast Asian countries. While not all historical events in these countries are happy and easy to read, reading books set in these places helps travelers better understand and appreciate them. Here are the top ten books to read while traveling across Southeast Asia.
1. The Beach – Alex Garland
The Beach is a classic addition to any travel book must-read list. You may not be a fan of the book or its movie adaptation, but you’ve heard about it one way or another. Alex Garland’s popular 1996 novel is set in Thailand.
It tells the story of Richard, a young backpacker searching for a legendary beach paradise that has been untouched by any form of tourism. While the novel’s ending is not the most desirable outcome for travelers, it captures the essence and sense of adventure many tourists in Thailand have.
2. Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam – Andrew X. Pham
This 1999 multi-awarded novel by Andrew X. Pham is a great addition to your reading list of the best books about travel and self-discovery. Catfish and Mandala focus on the story of Pham, a young Vietnamese-American in search of his cultural identity.
After the death of his transsexual sister, Pham sold all his possessions and started his year-long bicycle journey around the world. He recounts his experiences during his visits to several countries until he returns to his homeland, Saigon, in Vietnam. There he encounters alienation and realizes that going back to his roots is the only way to rediscover his identity.
3. First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers – Loung Ung
No visit to Cambodia is complete without learning about the history of the Khmer Rouge and their leader, Pol Pot, in 1975. First They Killed My Father is a true account of the author’s experiences during the Khmer Rouge regime. It follows Loung Ung’s tale as a five-year-old separated from her family, her getting sent to the training camps to become a child soldier while her siblings stayed at the labor camps.
Although distressing, Loung Ung’s story is a great read to educate everyone about the Cambodian genocide and highlight the Cambodian’s courage, strength, and resilience.
4. River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma – Thant Myint-U
Burma or Myanmar is the most misunderstood but intriguing country in Southeast Asia. The River of Lost Footsteps may not and will never be one of the uplifting books to read, but it holds rich information on all the country’s historical events.
This book provides a historical insight into Myanmar and a certain level of Burmese perspective, which are essential when you’re planning to travel to Myanmar.
5. Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam – Fredrik Logevall
Embers of War is a unique and eye-opening book that examines the people, places, and events that eventually led to the Vietnam War. It shows a different and better perspective of how a series of poor decisions and policies ended the French occupation and the conditions that led to the American’s loss.
6. The Bridge Over the River Kwai – Pierre Boulle
For travelers interested in going to Kanchanaburi in Thailand, this novel by Pierre Boulle is a must-read. The Bridge Over the River Kwai tells the story of three prisoners of war during the Japanese regime and how they helped build the Burma-Siam Railway.
7. Crazy Rich Asians – Kevin Kwan
If you’re looking for a rom-com novel from a different perspective, Crazy Rich Asians should rank no. 1 in your reading choices. This best-selling novel by Kevin Kwan gives readers a peek into the lives of the Singaporean elite. Aside from the riches, the gossip, and the scheming, the book also notes remarkable places in Singapore that tourists can visit during their stay.
8. Ilustrado – Miguel Syjuco
This 2008 experimental novel by Miguel Syjuco tells the tale of a Filipino author, Miguel, and his investigations on the death of his mentor, Crispin Salvador, whose last, unpublished work exposes the widespread political corruption in the Philippines.
Unconvinced of his mentor’s suicide, Miguel set out to find the truth about Salvador’s death. In doing so, he unravels a dramatic family saga tracing 150 years of Philippine history. Illustrado is a funny and moving story about hidden family secrets and truths. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in knowing more about the Philippines.
9. Eat, Pray, Love – Elizabeth Gilbert
All the best travel books to read on vacation lists are incomplete without Elizabeth Gilbert’s classic travel novel, Eat, Pray, Love. One of the more light-hearted novels on this list, Eat, Pray, Love is a beautiful journey of love and self-discovery. Starting from Italy, India, and Bali, Elizabeth’s journey is both culturally insightful and noteworthy.
This moving memoir is proof that anything can happen when you take charge of your happiness and stop living in the ideals of society.
10. The Sympathizer – Viet Thanh Nguyen
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel, The Sympathizer, was the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction Winner in 2015. A well-crafted book, the story focuses on the American evacuation in Saigon during the end of the Vietnam War. It tells the story of a Vietnamese captain who earns his place on one of the boats bound for the US, who is a spy for the Viet Cong.
An appreciation, understanding, and educated insight into a country’s history and culture is a must for all bold travelers in any Southeast Asian country. These ten book recommendations depict significant historical events and people that shaped each SEA country into who they are today. Traveling in Southeast Asia is an amazing, holistic experience, and reading books related to any Southeast Asian country will help you gain an in-depth perspective on its people, places, and culture.
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