Asia travel books are our favourite kind of books over here at Mad Monkey! Nothing helps you put your new surroundings in context quite like taking in the stories of the local people and their history. Or if your trip hasn’t started yet, a book set in your destination is the perfect thing to hype up your anticipation. Either way, the books on this list will transport you!
If you’re about to take off and you’re considering stuffing these titles into your backpack, have a gander at our Tips for What NOT To Pack for Southeast Asia – a Kindle will save you lots of space, keep you endlessly occupied, and save your back!
We know some of you paperback die-hards are going to ignore our advice. Whatever. What matters most is that you read these books!
Whichever way you prefer to delve into this diverse literary world, here’s the most compelling must-read books for traveling in Asia that we’ve come across.
1. First They Killed My Father and After They Killed My Father – Loung Ung
Anyone who plans on stopping off in Cambodia for any length of time during their travels needs, and I repeat, NEEDS to read this book. The Khmer Rouge regime and its genocide of the Cambodian people is unfortunately still all-too-recent history for the vast majority of the population here. It’s a very sensitive topic, and it can be difficult to gain a full understanding of exactly what happened just from the guided tours that are available.
First They Killed My Father is told from the point of view of a child growing up between 1975-1979 (yes, it happened THAT recently). The novel details the true story of the Ung family, their experiences, and their profound suffering under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, capturing the full extent of the tragedies and hardship experienced by the Khmer people like nothing else I’ve come across. It’s poignantly told, so that the reader is really able to empathize with the country as it stands today for having the strength and courage to continue and rebuild what was lost.
After They Killed My Father is a sequel that details the subsequent lives of the family and their separation due to the war, and is equally as compelling.
Actress and humanitarian Angelina Jolie was deeply moved by First They Killed My Father and the Cambodian people’s struggle. She recently adapted the book into a film. It had its premier screening in Siem Reap earlier this year and will be released to Netflix soon!
2. Empress Orchid – Anchee Min
Again an important read for history-nerds, ‘Empress Orchid’ is the tantalizing account of the life of the last Empress of Imperial China. This novel details Orchid’s life: from her humble beginnings and the hardship of her life in a peasant farming family, through to her selection as one of the royal concubines of the Emperor of China, and beyond.
It’s a fascinating read if you (like me) have barely a vague understanding of this period in China’s history. It’s very rare to gain such raw and real insight into the inner workings of the Imperial courts of this era. From mental illness, to war, to disease, to romance, ‘Empress Orchid’ deals with everything an Empress in the Imperial court of China at this time would be expected to deal with…and more.
A sequel called ‘The Last Empress’ carries on where ‘Empress Orchid’ leaves off and is also definitely a great option and a must-read book for traveling in Asia.
Buy Empress Orchid on: Amazon / Kindle
3. Eat. Pray. Love. – Elizabeth Gilbert
This list of must-read Asia travel books would not be complete without Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling and (of course) blockbuster movie of a novel ‘Eat. Pray. Love’. So it might as well come early in the list.
Any girl (or guy) out there who’s considered packing up everything and leaving home to ‘find themselves’ will inevitably find something in this book to relate to; be it a cheesy quote, life lesson, or an embarrassing anecdote of a dodgy romantic encounter with an Italian man….
There really is a lot to be said for this book, and as cynical as I am I won’t hear a word against it! Learning to love yourself, your life, and your talents for what they are is definitely becoming more of a trend these days, and for those who choose to do so by traveling – I salute you! Follow Gilbert’s journey through the diverse landscapes of Italy, India, and Indonesia as she puts the ‘I’ first for once and follows a dream that many presume impossible.
This is definitely a more light-hearted option than the previous two novels, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t numerous meaningful messages hidden inside.
Buy Eat. Pray. Love. on: Amazon / Kindle
4. Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts
If you’re planning on tackling the intense and overwhelmingly vast subcontinent of India on your journey, the least you can do to prepare before you leave is tackle this novel. ‘Shantaram’ is a lengthy investment yet intensely detailed and rewarding real-life account of an escaped convict’s journey through India. Having escaped prison in Australia, and ‘Shantaram’ describes Roberts’ experiences and misfortunes beginning in Bombay where he lands with a fake passport and new identity to build upon. Befriending local families and expats alike, the novel follows his attempt to rebuild a life lost to drugs and crime in a country and culture far away from anything he’s ever experienced before.
‘Shantaram’ gives unique and fascinating insights into Mumbai culture and life in the slums, as well as the intense personal journey of the author as he navigates through wealth, poverty, crime, love, violence, and beginning again in a culture completely alien to him. It perfectly captures the hectic, incessant yet beautifully overwhelming nature of traveling through India. It’s a valuable insight for anyone interested in, but wary of, traveling there.
A solid investment that will keep you going through a long flight or stint of traveling, whilst also a fascinating read.
Buy Shantaram on: Amazon / Kindle
5. Questions of Travel – Michelle de Kretser
What I love about this book is that as well as being set in numerous different locations, it spans a turbulent, unsettled, 40-year period in the lives and journeys of its two main traveling protagonists. Laura and Ravi lead seemingly unconnected lives, yet as the novel unfolds and their lives change and blend with the unique cultures they expose themselves to, we begin to draw similarities between their experiences. An array of other characters hail from other countries near and far, all intertwining somehow to produce the brilliant tapestry of cultural experience that makes up the backdrop of this story.
Spanning from Australia, to Europe, Africa, Sri Lanka and India, ‘Questions of Travel’ is an account of an Australian girl’s travel journey and a traditional Sinhalese family’s struggles, which somehow become connected in the silent but powerful way that only synchronicity can explain. Both lives appear separate, distant, and contrasting in their trials, tribulations, and personal battles. Yet as we delve further into their journeys, more universal and recognizable elements of the characters’ lives become apparent.
This novel calls into question many of the issues that have become associated with incessant and permanent travel, such as culture-spoiling, Western influence, and the evolution of numerous other travel experiences since the 1960s. Definitely a great contender on our list of Asia travel books that you need to read.
Buy Questions of Travel on: Amazon / Kindle
6. Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
Although hardly new or unknown on the scene of must-read books for travelling in Asia, Arthur Golden’s ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ is certainly a classic. Whether you’re a film-nerd or a literary junkie, both versions of this unforgettable text are a stunning representation of geisha culture in Japan (and it’s not often you can say that a film lives up to a book like this)!
The story is set in the 1920s, when the lives of two young girls get turned upside down after the death of their mother. Like so many other poverty-stricken youngsters of Japan in their situation, they find themselves thrown mercilessly into the realm of servitude. For them this is disguised as an ‘honourable’ position helping in a geisha house hundreds of miles from their rural home.
Through injustice, blatant exploitation, and integration into a movement far larger than the she can comprehend, Chiyo (later Sayuri)’s life is detailed in a fascinating and heart-wrenching journey. Culture, beauty, and horrible misfortune combine to produce a life of bittersweet judgement. Her talents, potential, and good nature lead only to difficulty as the envious head geisha in the house prevents her every step toward their idea of success. The coming of World War II as the book develops proves the catalyst for the destruction not only of their country, but the entire world to which circumstance has bound them.
Buy Memoirs of a Geisha on: Amazon/Kindle
7. The Beach – Alex Garland
Another highly acclaimed book-turned-movie, ‘The Beach’ is every veteran backpackers’ idea of a nostalgic dive back into that first taste of exciting, endless possibility and freedom that any traveler experiences on their maiden journey.
An even better-known movie adaptation, directed by Danny Boyle, was released in 2000.
The protagonist Richard’s quest to find some meaning and purpose in life is still to this day inspiring wanderlusters everywhere to take the plunge and go exploring. It’s a timeless sensation that Garland captures perfectly in his writings, made all the more poignant by the unexpected events and tainted side of the seemingly picture-perfect lifestyle Richard (played by Leo Di Caprio, *swoon*) finds himself a part of.
A metaphor for the good and bad in everything and successfully debunking the illusion of ‘paradise’, ‘The Beach’ came at a time when tourism in Southeast Asia and backpacking was really on the upsurge. Richard’s journey and unique experiences are told in such a way that has inspired similar journeys the world over, and yet also succeeds in warning about the dangers of assuming ‘paradise’ on earth can be found in a place, and not a mindset.
Laden in hidden metaphors, stunning images and an intriguing storyline to boot, “The Beach’ is a no-brainer to put on your list of must-read books for traveling in Asia.
Buy The Beach on: Amazon/Kindle
Did we miss your favourite Asia travel book?
What are your favourite books you’ve read whilst travelling? We’d love to hear your recommendations! Tweet them to @madmonkeyhostel
Here are some other places to research additions to your travel reading list if there’s not enough here for you already!
- 12 of the Best Books to Inspire Travel – GoAbroad
- 7 Books to Get you Out of the Cube and Travelling – Landing Standing
- 13 Travel Books that Will Give You Serious Wanderlust – Nomadic Matt
- 10 Best New Travel Books – The Guardian
By Jenny Ní Ruiséil