Books can do that magical thing of transporting us to a far-away, mystical part of the world, whetting our appetite to travel somewhere, or perhaps scaring us off that destination entirely. And then there are those books that people read while traveling in a destination to bring them closer to it. On this episode, we’ll share and chat about some of our favorite and most memorable travel books to get you informed and inspired. This is Interesting Books about Asia.
Every other week, we have a special Patron-only episode or video. Recently we shared a video of Scott’s visit to Cambodia and a tour around the Angkor Archaeological park with some history lessons from Trevor, author of the National Geographic Traveler: Cambodia guidebook.
Scott and Trevor banter about books written in or about Asia:
Scott: I think the book that really got me thinking and dreaming of the wild places you could go in the world was The Most Dangerous Places in the World by Robert Young Pelton, which as the name suggests, outlines the most dangerous spots to go then – in the very early 1990s I think? Georgia was on that list and I ended up going a few years ago. That one really got me thinking. As did The Climb and Into Thin Air – I particularly liked the parts about wandering Kathmandu’s Thamel district and imagining what an area of the world like that is like.
Trevor: Interestingly enough, travel books and travel-inspired fiction aren’t really my preferred genre: I’ve read quite a few books about Thailand and Cambodia as research for my own writing but it’s typically non-fiction and often too esoteric to recommend to the average reader –example: translations of 15th century Spanish and Portuguese explorers. Of course, I’m familiar with some other Asia-specific books, Very Thai, Very Bangkok, Sacred Skin, and Joe’s book on Sak Yant
But I don’t think I’ve read a single popular book about the area: Burmese Days, Eat Pray Love, The Beach, The Girl in the Photo all come to mind as books you see travelers carrying but I never had a crack at any of them. I read some Sommerset Maugham back in the day –short stories about Burma and Sri Lanka, probably India, and I enjoyed those. I’m not averse to Asia as a setting for a novel or nonfiction in general, I just haven’t read books of this specific genre though some I should, such as Off the Rails in Phnom Penh.
Trevor’s “Most interesting books about Asia”:
Trevor: Travels by Michael Crichton was one of my favorite travel books back in the day. It’s been decades since I’ve read it so I looked it up to see where in Asia he went: Shangri La and New Guinea, though I don’t recall the specifics. But Chrichton is clearly a great writer and the book is a bit of an autobiography, so that’s interesting too. Otherwise, if Shangri La isn’t a place that conjures up images that date back to yesteryear adventurers writing with quill pens, I don’t know what does. I didn’t make it there myself and heard it had become crazy touristy, but that’s why we read old travel tales I guess.
The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu by our 2 x guest Tom Vater – In 1976, four friends drive a bus along the hippie trail from London to Kathmandu, but everything is not going according to plan: a drug deal goes south, the boys barely escape with their lives, and 25 years later they’re lured back by an anonymous letter to set off on another adventure. A fun read. I should read more books like this: I know quite a few authors who set their work in Asia and I find their insights really interesting. Tom talks about places and people less familiar to me but still conjures up evocative images.
The Ancient Khmer Empire – white Lotus press, Lawrence Palmer Briggs. Over COVID I did that Facebook challenge of my Top Ten books and this made the list. My copy is dog-eared, filled with bookmarks, and covered with notes in pen, pencil, and highlighter. It’s a bit dated as discoveries at Angkor have changed the historical narrative a bit since the book was published in 1951, but it’s one of my go-to resources for everything Angkor: family trees of the Angkorian royal family, floor plans of temples, translations of inscriptions, you name it. It’s a coffee table book with illustrations from the 19th century, so it’s a great book to own but not to travel with.
Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts: tells a semi-true story of an Australian on the run from the law who ends up working in Mumbai’s slum as a doctor and gets involved with the mafia.
Extremely color characters AND descriptions. Funny. Evocative. I’ve never been to India but he paints such a vivid picture you can taste and smell it on the page.
Scott: They go to Leopold’s a lot and I went there. This is one of the most fun travel books I’ve read.
Other fave Cambodia books: Art and Architecture of Cambodia by Hellen Jessup Ibbotson, The Khmer Civilization by Michael Coe, and Angkor – a temple guidebook by Dawn Rooney are three outstanding works to prep you for a trip to Cambodia and provide insight once you’re on the ground here. You could also buy my book National Geographic Traveler: Cambodia. I think there’s some good insight in there too, even if some of the material may be dated.
Chicken 99 was fun a read. I met this guy on the SkyTrain in Bangkok, we kept in touch, and when he finished his novel I bought it and read it. It’s like a Cannonball Run race around Southeast Asia. Moreso than Tom’s book mentioned earlier, I’m very familiar with the destinations in Chicken 99 such as Bangkok and Vang Vieng, and found it fun to read a story that is set somewhere I know well enough to conjure images vividly. I also enjoy this style of story because it features characters that you know from living in Asia, whether it’s a drunken policeman or a naive foreigner, I recognize these types of people and that makes the story fun. I can really put myself into the setting, which is cool.
Elephant Train from Phnom Penh to Bangkok in 1871 – this is the type of non-fiction I tend to read. The jacket cover illustration and the blurb on the back really get you: The English translation of an account by French naval lieutenant Jules Marcel Broussard De Corbigny of his journey in a royal elephant caravan deputized to bring back Khmer princesses held by the Royal Court of Siam. Fortunately short because a bit dry. It’s an actual journal, so that’s cool, and some of his impressions and descriptions are wonderful because of their honesty, but still a bit boring at times. But I guess if you’re on an elephant and then off an elephant over and over it gets old. Otherwise, great beginning and end, with a few interesting stops such as Battambang along the way.
Just remembered one more: Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
Scott’s most interesting books about Asia
- The Beach – Alex Garland: it was fun for what it was – sometimes when a movie gets big it almost ruins the book, but this did a very good job of nailing the backpacker vibe of the 1990s, discovering that ‘unknown’ spot and trying to be part of the cool traveling crowd. In fact, our friend Joe Cummings who’s been on the show apparently ‘outed’ The Sanctuary on Ko Phangna that was the model for The Beach.
- Tiger for Breakfast – Michel Peissel: I need to re-read this but it tells the tale of Boris of Kathmandu, who was in Nepal in the late 1950s, I believe ran The Royal Hotel, befriended the whose-who and it weaves a fascinating tale of the city and country before it really opened to travelers; fun and funny.
- A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry: Set in an unspecified Indian city, it follows the lives of a few characters as they navigate life in India; there is a terrible beggar-master and you really get a sense of how horrible and challenging life can be there, in a country with so many people and trying to get a leg up. It takes about 150 pages to get into and isn’t’ the happiest books, but it sure did paint an accurate picture.
- Thai Stick – Peter Maguire: Not nearly as good as some of the other books we’ve mentioned, but it’s fun and does a pretty good job of telling the true story of some Californians smuggling ‘Thai Stick’ out of Thailand back to the US in the 70s. Paints the time really well. A couple of them were also captured by the Khmer Rouge and died in S21 prison.
- Mad About the Mekong – John Keay: An incredible true story of the Mekong Exploration Commission which set out from Saigon in 1866 to map the Mekong and find its routes into Asia and claim the territory.
- The Great Game – Peter Hopkirk: The Great Game was played between the Russian Empire and British Empire for supremacy in Central Asia. At stake was the preservation of India, key to the wealth of the British Empire. When play began early in the 19th century, the frontiers of the two imperial powers lay two thousand miles apart, across vast deserts and almost impassable mountain ranges; by the end, only 20 miles separated the two rivals.
- The Girl in the Picture – Kim Phuc: On June 8, 1972, nine-year-old Kim Phuc, severely burned by napalm, ran from her blazing village in South Vietnam and into the eye of history. Her photograph-one of the most unforgettable images of the twentieth century-was seen around the world and helped turn public opinion against the Vietnam War. This book is the story of how that photograph came to be-and the story of what happened to that girl after the camera shutter closed.
- The Perfect Police State – Geoffrey Cain: by our guest who shared about his trip to North Korea on Ep. 41, he does an amazing job of detailing the build-up and roll-out of the surveillance state and systems in Xinjiang’s, against its Uyghur population. Truly terrifying this is happening and we’re doing nothing to stop it. I really hope this is not the future of the world and worry states can’t help themselves by monitoring people.
- Ep. 41: Traveling North Korea with Geoffrey Cain
- The Most Dangerous Places in the World by Robert Young Pelton
- Tiger for Breakfast
- Mad about the Mekong
- Very Thai by Phillip Cornwel Smith
- Very Bankgok by Phillip Cornwel Smith
- Sacred Skin by Tom Vater
- The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu by Tom Vater
- Sacred Tattoos of Thailand by Joe Cummings
- Trevor’s Book: National Geographic Traveler, Cambodia
Learn more about Scott and Trevor: