Bali (Indonesia) -- Bali Sekala and Nishkala: Essays on Religion, Ritual and Art, by Fred B. Eiseman, Jr., is the seminal text on the labyrinth of beliefs and practices on the island. The last third of Elizabeth Gilbert's bestseller, Eat, Pray, Love, takes place in Bali's Ubud and gives a great sense of the place's people and culture.
Cambodia -- Henry Kamm's Cambodia: Report from a Stricken Land is a good start to finding some context to the country's late troubles. Brother Number One: A Political Biography, by David P. Chandler, provides insight into the insanity of the Khmer Rouge.
There are many personal accounts by survivors of the years of violence and chaos in Cambodia. Stay Alive, My Son, by Pin Yathay, and First They Killed My Father, by Loung Ung, are both heart-wrenching stories of life under genocide in the mid-1970s.
With the reopening of Cambodia's borders to international aid came another era of chaos, this one marked by a general lawlessness and unrestrained vice. The Quality of Mercy, by William Shawcross, examines the international response to Cambodia's post-Khmer Rouge refugee crisis, while Off the Rails in Phnom Penh: Into the Dark Heart of Guns, Girls, and Ganja, by Amit Gilboa, is a portrait of that time.
On film, the best depiction of Cambodia is The Killing Fields, a 1984 movie about the rise of the Khmer Rouge and the last days of freedom in Phnom Penh. City of Ghosts, a moody film by Matt Dillon, captures a certain feel of the country's underbelly, and Tomb Raider is a fanciful romp that was filmed at Angkor in 2000.
Laos -- Stalking the Elephant Kings, by C. Kremmer, is a personal account of travel in Laos and one man's obsession to find the truth about the last dynasty -- it's a good primer to Lao history and culture. Another Quiet American, by Brett Dakin, a witty account of recent travels in the country, paints the state of the nation through the eyes of a young American working as a consultant for the National Tourism Authority in Vientiane.
The Ravens: Pilots of the Secret War of Laos and Air America: The Story of the CIA's Secret Airline, both by C. Robbins, tell the heretofore untold tale of the undeclared war in Laos. And Tragedy in Paradise: A Country Doctor at War in Laos is a memoir by Dr. Charles Weldon, recalling his experiences from 1963 to 1974 working hand-in-hand with Air America as chief of public health for USAID Laos.
Malaysia -- A witty and gripping travelogue, Into the Heart of Borneo by Redmond O'Hanlon follows two inexperienced travelers as they attempt a rugged trek into the deepest forests of Sarawak.
For a deeper look at Malaysian history, try A History of Malaysia by Barbara Watson Andaya, or The Long Day Wanes: A Malaysian Trilogy by Anthony Burgess, each of which mirrors the author's experiences and observations as a British civil servant during Malaysia's transition to independence.
Singapore -- If you're having trouble finding books about Singapore in bookstores where you live, wait until you arrive and then browse local shelves, where you'll find tons of books about the country and its history, culture, arts, food, and local fiction. For interesting and informative reads that you can find (or order) through your neighborhood bookstore, here's a good place to start:
From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000, by Lee Kuan Yew, details the history and policies behind Singapore's remarkable economic success written by the man who was at the helm.
The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew by Lee Kuan Yew offers an intimate account of Minister Mentor Lee's personal journey and will unravel some of the mysteries behind one of the world's most talked-about leaders.
King Rat by James Clavell is a novel set in Singapore during the Japanese Occupation and follows the story of an American POW as he struggles to outwit the system in a harsh prison camp.
Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad is a classic narrative of a man's struggle to find redemption in a Southeast Asian post.
Thailand -- Anna and the King, the original late-19th-century work of Anna Leowens, governess for the children of the progressive King Rama IV, tells of the kingdom's opening to the West. Don't miss the film of the same name starring Jodie Foster (though due to gross historical inaccuracies, the film was banned from public release in Thailand).
Also banned in Thailand is The Revolutionary King, by William Stevenson, a biography of the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Given unprecedented access to the king and royal family, Stevenson shows a side of the monarchy that few have seen. The book treats His Majesty as a real person (referring to him by his nickname, "Lek," meaning small) and delves into taboo subjects, such as the murder of the king's older brother Ananda, making it quite controversial.
The Beach, by Alex Garland, and the popular film of the same name featuring Leonardo DiCaprio, tells the tale of the impossibility of modern Utopia, the very thing that so many Asia adventurers seek. Though not about Thailand exclusively, Tiziano Terzani's A Fortune-Teller Told Me is a well-crafted portrait of the interlocking cultures of Asia and of the Westerner's search for personal destiny.
Carol Hollinger's Mai Pen Rai Means Nevermind is a personal history of time spent in the kingdom some 30 years ago, but the cultural insights are quite current. Patpong Sisters, by Cleo Odzer, and Sex Slaves, by Louise Brown, are both interesting exposés of the Thai sex industry.
Books on Thai Buddhism are many. Try Phra Peter Parrapadipo's Phra Farang, literally "The Foreign Monk," which tells the story of an Englishman turned Thai Buddhist monk. The writings of Jack Kornfield, particularly A Path with Heart, are a good introduction.
Vietnam -- The Quiet American, by Graham Greene, which was made into a Hollywood film starring Michael Caine in 2002, is a classic tale of espionage in the old colony. In fact, much of what is written -- or popular -- about Vietnam chronicles the country's recent strife, particularly the American War years. The list is long; below are but a few.
In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, by former American secretary of defense Robert S. McNamara and Brian DeMark, is quite popular in Vietnam (a copy stands in a glass case at the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City), as it tells the tale of American deceit and misinformation from the perspective of one of its more remorseful arbiters. A Bright Shining Lie, by Neil Sheehan, is a similar explication. Pulitzer Prize-winning Fire in the Lake, by Francis Fitzgerald, is a sociological exploration of the war years and aftermath.
Personal accounts such as Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam, by Bernhard Edelman, or the Vietnamese classic The Sorrow of War, by Bao Ninh, tell of the experiences of soldiers and civilians caught in the fray. The Girl in the Picture: The Story of Kim Phuc and the Photograph That Changed the Course of the Vietnam War, by Denise Chong, is self-explanatory.
Robert Olen Butler won a Pulitzer Prize for A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, a collection of short stories recounting the legacy of war through disparate voices. This book is one of the best you can read while traveling in the country. Catfish and Mandala, by Andrew X. Pham, is a Vietnamese American's travel odyssey and coming to terms with the past.
The Vietnam War was fertile terrain for Hollywood in the 1980s, with award-winning classics such as Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter with Robert DeNiro, and Oliver Stone's Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, a true story about returnee Ron Kovic. The Fog of War is a uniquely candid hindsight look by Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense during the war. Films such as Tran Anh Hung's The Scent of Green Papaya and Cyclo are more tranquil, studied views of Vietnamese culture. And Indochine, starring Catherine Deneuve, is a historic portrait of the tumultuous end of colonialism in Vietnam.
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