Whenever I travel somewhere new, I always try to read a couple of books or novels about the country before I go. While travel guides are great, I find that novels really help to rev-up my excitement and increase my understanding of a place. You don't have to spend a fortune either – there are lots of second-hand copies available online and, particularly with the older titles, I managed to pick up many of the books below for just a few pounds each. I even found a few in my local library.
Whether you've been there or not, everyone has a picture of Thailand in their minds: perhaps an idyllic beach; a peaceful hill tribe; or even a seedy Bangkok street. Before visiting, I was keen to find out more about the backstory behind some of these stereotypes. I also wanted to find out a bit more country's history, and to read about other people's experiences of living, working and travelling here, so I put together a reading list:
Books I've read so far...
by Alex Garland (1996)
In short: Backpacker discovers a community of travellers living on a Thai island paradise. Life is perfect until things start to go horribly wrong.
More detail: A young English backpacker goes to Thailand and discovers a perfect island, inhabited by an isolated community of travellers. Life is idyllic but problems occur when members get ill, injured or feel threatened by others. Clashes with local cannabis farmers mean that paradise starts to fall apart.
Why read it: Inspiring generations of travellers to head to Thailand in search of their own perfect beach, Garland's book and the subsequent 2003 film by Danny Boyle were, ironically, partly blamed for causing overcrowding and environmental damage to the idyllic locations they were set and filmed in. Nonetheless, The Beach certainly captures the beauty of untouched Thailand, the perils of mass tourism and the regret of paradise lost.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North
by Richard Flanagan (2013)
In short: Former WWII Prisoner of War recounts his life before, during and after his time on the Thailand-Burma "Death Railway."
More detail: A tribute to Flanagan's father (who survived the Death Railway), this book is about the life and loves of a fictional Australian Surgeon, Dorrigo Evans. Living in a Japanese PoW camp, Evans struggles to save the men under his command from disease, starvation and abuse. After the war, despite surviving the horrors of the railway, he leads an unfulfilling and unsettled life.
Why read it: Winner of the 2014 Man Booker prize, this hard-hitting read gives a harrowing insight into PoW camps on the Death Railway, revealing through one man's story how it claimed the lives of those who worked on it – even those who survived. Intense, informative and unsettling, it's essential reading if you want to appreciate the realities of the Death Railway, or if you plan on visiting Kanchanaburi.
Next on my list...
by Rattawut Lapcharoensap (2004)
In short: A collection of seven short stories set in contemporary Thailand.
More detail: Each of these seven stories covers a different element of daily Thai life. Revealing the real lives beyond the tourist hotels and beaches, the stories include:
- Sightseeing – A son and his partially sighted mother tour Thailand as tourists.
- Priscilla the Cambodian – A boy learns about the hostility towards migrants.
- Cockfighter – A family suffers due to the father's obsession with cockfighting.
Why it's on my list: An Asian American who grew up in Bangkok, Lapcharoensap understands the perspective of both Thais and Western tourists. It covers lots of socio-political issues, such as Americanised Thai teenagers and local interactions with Farangs (Thai slang for tourists).
by Kukrit Pramoj (1953; translated in 1981 and 1998)
In short: A history of Thailand from the 1890s to the second world war, told through the life of a Thai woman who lived under the reign of four different kings.
More detail: This epic novel covers almost 80 years of Thai history, following one woman's life (Phloi) through two world wars. Born in the 1890s Phloi lived under the reign of the four Chakri Kings (Rama V to Rama VIII) in the Bangkok era. As a child, she goes to live in the Royal Palace in Bangkok with her mother, a minor courtier. Her life follows the fundamental changes taking place in Siam, from the palace revolution to the Japanese occupation.
Why it's on my list: Originally written in 1953 by a revered Thai author (Pramoj), Four Reigns was first translated in 1981. Regarded as a classic, it's been staged and serialised on Thai TV several times.
Other books to check-out...
Letters from Thailand
by Boton (author); Susan Fulop Kepner (translator)
Chinese migrant moves his family to Thailand after WWII. Living in Chinatown, Bangkok, he sends letters home to his mother, describing the successes and failures of a Chinese immigrant in Thailand. (Translated from the 1969 Thai novel).
by Stephen Leather (2005)
Englishman falls in love with a Thai pole dancer in Pattaya. Things turn nasty when he discovers the truth about his lover who, along with her Thai boyfriend, makes Pete's life hell.
A History of Thailand
by Chris Baker and Pauk Phongpaichit (2005)
Focuses on the social and political forces that shaped contemporary Thailand, from ruling nobles and Chinese migrants, to Buddhism, WWII and the Japanese occupation
by SP Somtow (1994)
Coming-of-age novel set in 1960s Bangkok. Growing-up, surrounded by both Eastern and Western influences, a young boy refuses to accept he's Thai – instead, he speaks English and responds to an English name.
Pok Pok: Food and Stories from the Streets, Homes, and Roadside Restaurants of Thailand
by Andy Ricker (2013)
Written by an American chef, this anecdotal cookbook details Ricker's travels in Thailand and features 70 of his favourite Thai recipes, along with notes on the history, culture and traditions associated with Thai food.