Top Southeast Asia Books
- This collection by Somerset Maugham, issued in 1993, features some of Maugham's best short stories, and as such, they are nice, digestible snippets of colonial life in Malaya, Borneo and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. This collection offers an outsiders view of many of the same things you might be seeing today—only a hundred years ago—and a testament of its colonial past. There is the story of Mabel, related by a narrator who has just come to visit the temple city of Pagan in Burma or the story of Neil MacAdam, a biologist gets dragged into a fatal expedition by his employers wife.
- A good introduction to Southeast Asia is hard to find. Most either focus on ancient history and ignore contemporary Southeast Asia or focus on the conflicts from the Second War War to the post-Vietnam War era. After much angst about which among many to recommend, we came down on the side of A Traveller's History of Southeast Asia by J. M. Barwise and N. J. White. Unfortunately, this book ignores Burma and the Philippines, but otherwise it offers a concise and readable history of the area with its emphasis really on 1500 to present. It is an easy read and goes quickly. For those who might already be familiar with Southeast Asia or are looking for a more academic approach, then The Emergence of Modern Southeast Asia by a collection of academic experts offers a new and up-to-date perspective on this complex region. It describes the long-term impact of global forces on the region and traces the spread and interplay of capitalism, nationalism, and socialism. It acknowledges that modernization has produced substantial gains in such areas as life expectancy and education but has also spread dislocation and misery.
- The Jataka Tales (we suggest the collection by Ellen C. Babbitt) are stories of the Buddha's previous incarnations. These read like Aesop's fables—the Buddha is sometimes an monkey or sometimes a bird, but each story ends in a moral of peace, patience and non-violence, emphasizing the Buddhist message. These stories are popular across Buddhist Southeast Asia and a offer fine, whimsical window into popular Buddhist belief. They are also wonderful bedtime stories for those traveling with children.
When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge by Chanrithy Him is one of many biographies of Khmer Rouge survivors and books on this dark period of Cambodian history. While some have cast into doubt the authenticity of her earliest memories, none doubt that her biography captures the true horrors faced by this brutal ultra-communist regime that worked and starved a fifth of the population to death and executed perhaps hundreds of thousands more. Chanrithy had to watch her mother, father, and five of her brothers and sisters die, murdered by the Khmer Rouge or fatally weakened by malnutrition, disease, and overwork. Now living in Oregon, where she studies posttraumatic stress disorder among Cambodian survivors, Chanrithy has written this first-person account of the killing fields that's remarkable for both its unflinching honesty and its refusal to despair.
- This reader, edited by Michael H. Hunt provides a variety of perspective, both American and Vietnamese, into this conflict that shaped much of the modern history of Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and even Thailand. It also helps one understand better the urgency felt throughout Southeast Asia in combating communism. HistoryNet.Com says of it, “Hunt has put together a first-rate collection of documents. His editorial comments are most helpful and illustrate his broad knowledge of the war in Vietnam. He succeeds in his goal of illustrating the various perspectives of the conflict. . . . Will be a real eye-opener for anyone interested in learning how the Americans and Vietnamese went to war with one another, the nature and impact of the fighting, and the long-term consequences of the conflict on both sides.”
- Letters from Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi provides another moving portrait of a country in conflict. Aung San Suu Kyi is a Burmese opposition politician and the General Secretary of the National League for Democracy. In the 1990 general election, Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won 59% of the national votes and 81% (392 of 485) of the seats in Parliament. She had, however, already been detained under house arrest before the elections. She remained under house arrest in Burma for almost 15 of the 21 years from 20 July 1989 until her release on 13 November 2010. Amazon.Com reviewer Maurizio Giuliano describes it as “vivid, direct, it makes the reader feel as if she/he is listening to Suu Kyi, with her wonderful Asian voice and Oxford accent. Suu Kyi talks about Burma, about her people, about herself. She tells of the tragedies of her people, in the most natural and serene way, as if she were telling of everyday life - because indeed, this is the Burmese everyday life.”
- Another collection of short stories we love is Philippine Folklore Stories by John Maurice Miller. This collection is now in the public domain (there is a free Kindle edition and one can download other formats at The Gutenberg Project), having been originally published in 1904. It reads like the old Dick and Jane books many of us may have grown up with. These stories are lovely and endearing, and the author even warns that “As these stories are only legends that have been handed down from remote times, the teacher must impress upon the minds of the children that they are myths and are not to be given credence; otherwise the imaginative minds of the native children would accept them as truth, and trouble would be caused that might be hard to remedy.” Like The Jakata Tales, they may excellent readings for children as well as the adult seeking a window into the culture around them.
- Just as challenging as finding a solid history of Southeast Asia is finding a book about Islam in Southeast Asia that isn't completely focused on the separatist movements in Ache or Moros Island and terrorism. There are a few very good texts that have appeared in recent years but they tend to be priced at the rate of college textbooks, meaning more than $50 per text. Islam in Southeast Asia by Hussein Mutalib offers a balance of price, depth, and readability. It is an academic text, but not overly scholarly and is accessible to the general reader with no previous knowledge of the subject. It also offers case studies of not only Islamic-majority Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia but also Singapore, Thailand, Philippines, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos which makes it a valuable resource for understanding events like the current conflict in Southern Thailand or the present day Chams of Cambodia and Vietnam.
- And the Rain My Drink is a novel by Han Suyin. It is set against a backdrop of the Malayan Emergency of the late 1940s and 1950s. It is 1948 and the British in Malaya are struggling to put down a Communist uprising and deal with rising nationalism in the colony. Chinese girl Suyin falls in love with a British police officer and is able to see both sides of the war but she sympathizes more with the Communist guerrillas and is critical of the British colonials. A much-loved classic and an important work in the canon of Singapore literature It describes the methods used by the British colonial authorities and the left-wing rebels, and how individual lives were affected. It was republished in 2010 by Monsoon Books, a publishing house that specializing in Southeast Asia fiction in English. There is a less expensive mass-market version available also.
- A clever mystery novel set in contemporary Thailand by ex-pat author Erich Sysak and one of Monsoon Publishing's popular writers, Stage IV: Healing in Thailand Can Also Be Murder is full of twists and turns. American Lawson Banks is terminally ill with stage IV cancer and wants to spend the last days of his life on a beach in Thailand. Where does he get the money? Viatication, also known as death futures. He sells his life insurance benefit to the highest bidder. An investor is waiting for him to die, but thanks to the pleasures of Thailand s well as inexpensive and high-quality healthcare, ahe lives longer than anyone expected, including himself. However, when someone tries to kill him he realizes that he may have outlived his illness but he may not outlive someone else's greed. The pages will turn quickly on this thriller.
- We love Joseph Conrad. In fact, one of us has read Heart of Darkness more than 30 times in the last three years. That is almost once a month. While Lord Jim is probably the better known of his Southeast Asia novels, we also love An Outcast of the Islands and it actually makes our list rather than the better known and much heavier book about the misadventures of Tuan Jim. This is the second book in our list that is in the public domain, and a free Kindle edition is available of it as well as being available free in a variety of formats at gutenberg.org. The novel, Conrad's second, details the undoing of Peter Willems, a disreputable fellow and former trading clerk in Makassar. Now on the run from a scandal in Makassar, he finds refuge and protection in a native village, only to betray his benefactors over lust for the tribal chief's daughter as falls ever more hopelessly into traps set by himself and others. A parable of human frailty, with love and death the major players, this is a story of a man unable to understand others and fated never to possess his own soul. The story features Conrad's recurring character Tom Lingard, who also appears in Almayer's Folly (1895) and The Rescue (1920), in addition to sharing other characters with those novels. Marlowe is sadly not present.
Appendum: Check out our review of Love and the Ghosts of Mount Kinabalu for another great Southeast Asia book!