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15 Best Books to Read Before Travelling South East Asia

15 Best Books to Read Before Travelling South East Asia

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” The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
– Dr. Seuss, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!

Books should be an integral part of any travellers travel kit.

Whether it be in paperback or as an ebook, you will always find wanderers with a word based resource or two for the country they are in. However, many of these books tend to be travel guides. Guides give us a small “history textbook” based perspectives on a country and its people, its present and its past. If you want more than just an objective list of historical facts, then it’s the emotions of real people’s stories that should be in your backpack.

Best books to read about south east asia

While travelling I always like to find out more about the places I visit from the people who live there.

Typically when it comes to South East Asia, these are not necessarily “nice” stories or stories that are easy to stomach. But, they are still an important part of how each country and its people have become what they are today.

We can often forget the important histories while enjoying a beer on a Cambodian beach, or devouring a tasty Pho in Vietnam. People who’ve come from hardship, civil war, crime, corruption and poverty, and are still here, smiling and welcoming us to their country. They are still proud to call their country home.

It is also important to learn from those who have travelled before us. Understanding the stories of expats, journalists, travellers and soldiers who all lived and have been apart of South East Asia’s difficult history.

Those who were inspired to write novels on hidden paradises, been caught up in drug cartels and put in prison. Those who gave up everything, came and then stayed for the love of a country and its people.

This is why we have put together the following selection of must read books to enjoy before (or while) travelling South East Asia. If you really want to learn more about a place that you are visiting, get your head out of the guide books and learn from the locals, what it means to be South East Asian.

In defining South East Asia we will be looking at Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar (Burma).


1. First They Killed My Father
Author: Loung Ung

Books Travelling South East Asia A story of surviving Cambodian genocide during the reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Luang was only a child when Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975. After being separated from her family she was sent to train as a child soldier in the work camps, where her siblings were sent to forced labour camps, many of which would never be seen again. A true story of brutality, courage and survival during the Cambodian civil war.

Our Comments (Megsy):

This is the main book you will see many of the local kids and victims of landmines of Cambodia selling on the streets to tourists. The book I bought (in 2006) was a very bad rip off that had half of the pages missing or were out of order. It was still a great read, and an important insight to the tragic past of the Cambodians. But maybe buy it from a reputable seller if you don’t want to spend time piecing missing info together.


Read the full Amazon blurb and reviews for First They Killed My Father

2. The Lost Road to Innocence
Author: Somaly Mam

Books Travelling South East Asia

Somaly was sold into a child slavery by her grandfather when she was 12 years old, she was then shuffled around different brothels throughout South East Asia until her escape in her early 20’s. Unable to leave others girls behind to endure the same brutality and horror she lived with, Somaly became a leader and spokesperson for child trafficking charities to fight against human trafficking and set about rescuing girls from slavery and offering them new lives full of healing, love and rehabilitation

An inspirational memoir of tragedy and hope by a woman who has been named in Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.




Read the full Amazon blurb and reviews for The Road of Lost Innocence

3. Home Is Where The Heart Is
Author: Geraldine Cox


A brutally honest account of Australian and founder of the Cambodian orphanage – Sunrise Children’s Villages, Geraldine Cox. After working for Foreign Affairs in Cambodia in the 1970’s and 80’s Geraldine found her true purpose, in caring for Cambodian orphans who had been the victims of war and poverty. Here she tells her story of how a girl who grew up in Adelaide came to run her own Cambodian orphanage and how a mother’s love can make a difference.

Our Comments (Megsy):

This book was given to me by my cousin before I visited Cambodia in 2006. I loved reading this story and Geraldine’s no holes barred attitude. A tenacious and inspirational woman.




You can buy directly from the Geraldine Cox site:



(Vietnam War Books)

4. Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam

Author: Nick Turse

Books Travelling South East Asia


Award winning journalist Nick Turse uncovers the truth behind the American war in Vietnam. Turse has gathered information from secret Pentagon files, interviewed American veterans and Vietnamese survivors to reveal the horrifying truth behind the order to “kill anything that moves”. A shocking, devastating and brutally honest book offering Vietnam war facts that will change everything you ever knew about the Vietnam war.





Read the full Amazon blurb and reviews for Kill Anything That Moves

5. Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam
Author: Fredrik Logevall

Books Travelling South East Asia


An eye opening look at two Western nations that both entered and historically failed in Vietnam. A look at the bloody end of French occupation and the circumstances to America’s entry and subsequent demise on Vietnamese soil. A historical record of poor policy choices, deadly miscalculations and gripping intrigue. Winner of numerous literary awards, this book is considered one of the most acclaimed works of history in recent years.

Winner of the Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians • Winner of the American Library in Paris Book Award • Winner of the Council on Foreign Relations Arthur Ross Book Award • Finalist for the Cundill Prize in Historical Literature


Read the full Amazon blurb and reviews for Embers of War

6. Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam
Author: Andrew X. Pham

Books Travelling South East Asia

The story of a young Vietnamese-American who packed up his possessions and embarked on a year long bicycle journey in search of his cultural identity. Born in Vietnam he grew up in California after his family escaped as “boat people”.

Considered still as a foreigner in the United States and confused as Japanese or Korean by his countrymen, this memoir is one man’s tale of adventure and an unforgettable solo bicycle voyage around the Pacific Rim to Vietnam in search of answers.

Winner of the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize / A New York Times Notable Book of the Year / Winner of the Whiting Writers’ Award / A Seattle Post-Intelligencer Best Book of the Year



Read the full Amazon blurb and reviews for Catfish and Mandala

7. The Unwanted: A Memoir of Childhood
Author: Kien Nguyen

Books Travelling South East Asia

The troubled story of a boy and the difficulties of surviving as an illegitimate half-caste (half Vietnamese half American) child during communist rule in Vietnam in the 70’s until his families migration to the United States in 1985. Written as a memorial to the Amerasians who suffered and died, this is a riches to rags story of the poverty, suffering and torture he endured because of his Amerasian heritage. This is the only memoir of an Amerasian who stayed and has told his story of what it was like living in Vietnam after the fall of Saigon.

Our Comments (Megsy):

I once asked a Vietnam vet what was something that made him proud about the Vietnam war. He answered “the day we went back and helped our children. We built homes, schools and playgrounds, but this was years after the war had ended.”

This book is about what happened to one of those children after America pulled out of Saigon and Vietnam fell to the Viet Cong. It can be difficult to read at times, as it is an account of the horrific things humans can do to each other. People who should have protected this boy didn’t, but others fought to try to help him escape and survive. An interesting story about growing up as an Amerasian in the post-Vietnam war era.


Read the full Amazon blurb and reviews for The Unwanted

Read Page 2 to find other great books about SE Asia.