Una reading a book sitting on the beach - Best Books on Asia

25 Best Books on Asia, Our Favorites

In Asia by Kaspars MisinsLeave a Comment

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Books about far-away lands. Books about travels and adventures. That’s the type of the books we both with Una have been reading a lot in the last 5 years. And so I thought, why not write down a list of the best ones, the ones we have liked the most. Yes, why not? So here comes the first one, with all of the best books on Asia that we have found. Apart for three that we haven’t yet read, but only seen a movie or read reviews online, and another two that only one of us has read, the rest of them both of us have read and enjoyed.

Why Asia? That’s the part of the world we have read about most. And that’s also, where we have spent quite a lot of time during the last years, traveling and volunteering.

Best Books on Asia

Here they are, best books on Asia, that we have found and most of whom we have read and enjoyed. Books aren’t listed in some particular order. I have partly sorted them by regions and countries. So if you, for example, interested into books on India or China scroll down!

About every one of these books I have written a short comment, plus I have also added the book’s synopsis (summary). As it happens, when you read a lot, some of them I still remember very vividly, while memories about others are fading and almost all I remember myself is that they were very good. That’s where synopsis come in handy. Enjoy!

1. The Backpacker by John Harris

A backpacking adventure, where you’ll be taken from India to Thailand, Australia, Hong Kong and few other Asian countries. Very real for most of the time and funny, and, let’s say, different at a times.

I, personally, didn’t really like the first maybe 20 – 30% of the book. However, I continued to read, as it was easy, and I’m happy that I did. Because it definitely isn’t a book solely about having fun, drinking and partying in Southeast Asia. Even though it might seem like that’s exactly what it will be about. It’s a book about one crazy long term travel adventure.

“John’s trip to India starts badly when his girlfriend, with whom he is traveling, returns home. Left to his own devices, he soon finds himself looking at the sharp end of a knife in a train station cubicle.

But his life is saved—and turned upside down—by Rick, an enigmatic fellow traveler who persuades John to question his mundane plans for the future, risking it all for much, much more. Fast forward to the Thai island of Koh Pha-Ngan, where John, Rick, and their new friend Dave pose as millionaire aristocrats in a hedonistic Eden of beautiful women, free drugs, and wild beach parties.

However, when they find themselves hotly pursued by the Thai Mafia, they embark on adrenaline-fueled journeys to Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, and Hong Kong, facing danger at every turn. This is not travel writing for the faint of heart: this is an unbelievable true story of the hunt for excess, at any cost.”

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2. Burned Alive by Souad

A true story about something unimaginable for many of us, honor killings. A tradition that is still very real and being practiced in some parts of the world. Written by a woman, who survived.

“When Souad was seventeen she fell in love. In her village, as in so many others, sex before marriage was considered a grave dishonour to one’s family and was punishable by death. This was her crime. Her brother-in-law was given the task of arranging her punishment. One morning while Souad was washing the family’s clothes, he crept up on her, poured petrol over her and set her alight.

In the eyes of their community he was a hero. An execution for a ‘crime of honour’ was a respectable duty unlikely to bring about condemnation from others. It certainly would not have provoked calls for his prosecution. More than five thousand cases of such honour killings are reported around the world each year and many more take place that we hear nothing about.

Miraculously, Souad survived rescued by the women of her village, who put out the flames and took her to a local hospital. Horrifically burned, and abandoned by her family and community, it was only the intervention of a European aid worker that enabled Souad to receive the care and sanctuary she so desperately needed and to start her life again. She has now decided to tell her story and uncover the barbarity of honour killings, a practice which continues to this day.

Burned Alive is a shocking testimony, a true story of almost unbelievable cruelty. It speaks of amazing courage and fortitude and of one woman’s determination to survive. It is also a call to break the taboo of silence that surrounds this most brutal of practices and which ignores the plight of so many other women who are also victims of traditional violence.”

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3. Mission Mongolia: Two Men, One Van, No Turning Back by David Treanor

A funny and easy to read story about 2 men’s adventure – a road trip from London to Mongolia in a cheap, old van. Sounds interesting? Sounded to me. And I’m glad I came up to this travel book.

“David and Geoff were two BBC journalists who took voluntary redundancy as their mid-fifties approached.

Deciding there had to be more to life than golf or gardening, they set off on an 8,000 mile drive for charity to the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar. Their trip takes them across Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. Lying in wait are corrupt cops, bent border guards, mountain tracks and the Gobi desert – but there are also welcoming and curious locals keen to help the two men on their mission and keep them supplied with beer.”

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4. Hokkaido Highway Blues. Hitchhiking Japan by Will Ferguson

A book about hitchhiking in Japan. Easy to read and fun.

“The book follows Will Ferguson as he hitchhikes 1,800 miles north through Japan following the Cherry Blossom Front (Sakura Zensen). The arrival of the blossom is a national event in Japan, eagerly tracked on television bulletins, and besides marking the end of winter and the start of the business cycle it facilitates a burst of heavy drinking disguised as a communal meditation on transience.

Surveying the country from the not quite private, not quite public, position of the passenger seat, Ferguson sees the Japan not written about in guide books, but gets to the heart of this intriguing and contradictory country. This is a laugh out loud, warm-hearted account with a generous helping of satire.”

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5. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

Like both other books by Khaled Hosseini, that I’m mentioning here, it’s a simply great book. It’s one of those books, which you read and at some moment start to feel overwhelmed with too many stories and characters. You feel like getting lost in the story. Although an interesting story. And then… at one moment you understand it all. All of it makes sense.

“Khaled Hosseini, the #1 New York Times–bestselling author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, has written a new novel about how we love, how we take care of one another, and how the choices we make resonate through generations.

In this tale revolving around not just parents and children but brothers and sisters, cousins and caretakers, Hosseini explores the many ways in which families nurture, wound, betray, honor, and sacrifice for one another; and how often we are surprised by the actions of those closest to us, at the times that matter most.

Following its characters and the ramifications of their lives and choices and loves around the globe—from Kabul to Paris to San Francisco to the Greek island of Tinos—the story expands gradually outward, becoming more emotionally complex and powerful with each turning page.”

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6. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Highly recommended book. Especially if you want to learn more about Afghanistan and Islamic culture. Easy to read and catches you from the very first pages.

“The unforgettable, heartbreaking story of the unlikely friendship between a wealthy boy and the son of his father’s servant, The Kite Runner is a beautifully crafted novel set in a country that is in the process of being destroyed. It is about the power of reading, the price of betrayal, and the possibility of redemption; and an exploration of the power of fathers over sons—their love, their sacrifices, their lies.

A sweeping story of family, love, and friendship told against the devastating backdrop of the history of Afghanistan over the last thirty years, The Kite Runner is an unusual and powerful novel that has become a beloved, one-of-a-kind classic.”

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7. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

A great book from a great author.

“After 103 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and with four million copies of The Kite Runner shipped, Khaled Hosseini returns with a beautiful, riveting, and haunting novel that confirms his place as one of the most important literary writers today.

Propelled by the same superb instinct for storytelling that made The Kite Runner a beloved classic, A Thousand Splendid Suns is at once an incredible chronicle of thirty years of Afghan history and a deeply moving story of family, friendship, faith, and the salvation to be found in love.

Born a generation apart and with very different ideas about love and family, Mariam and Laila are two women brought jarringly together by war, by loss and by fate. As they endure the ever escalating dangers around them—in their home as well as in the streets of Kabul—they come to form a bond that makes them both sisters and mother-daughter to each other, and that will ultimately alter the course not just of their own lives but of the next generation. With heart-wrenching power and suspense, Hosseini shows how a woman’s love for her family can move her to shocking and heroic acts of self-sacrifice, and that in the end it is love, or even the memory of love, that is often the key to survival.

A stunning accomplishment, A Thousand Splendid Suns is a haunting, heartbreaking, compelling story of an unforgiving time, an unlikely friendship, and an indestructible love.”

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8. The House of the Mosque by Kader Abdolah

A well written book that follows the life of an Iranian family, giving you a glimpse at how the life in Iran was before of 1979. And how it changed after the Iranian revolution and installment of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini government.

“In the house of the mosque, the family of Aqa Jaan has lived for eight centuries. Now it is occupied by three cousins: Aqa Jaan, a merchant and head of the city’s bazaar; Alsaberi, the imam of the mosque; and Aqa Shoja, the mosque’s muezzin. The house itself teems with life, as each of their families grows up with their own triumphs and tragedies.

Sadiq is waiting for a suitor to knock at the door to ask for her hand, while her two grandmothers sweep the floors each morning dreaming of travelling to Mecca. Meanwhile, Shahbal longs only to get hold of a television to watch the first moon landing. All these daily dramas are played out under the watchful eyes of the storks that nest on the minarets above.

But this family will experience upheaval unknown to previous generations. For in Iran, political unrest is brewing. The shah is losing his hold on power; the ayatollah incites rebellion from his exile in France; and one day the ayatollah returns. The consequences will be felt in every corner of Aqa Jaan’s family.”

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9. Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia by Ahmed Rashid

Since the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839–1842) situation in Afghanistan has never been easy. And it became even more complicated after Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and failed (the same as Brits). But the latter lead to a rise of a radical Islamic organization – Taliban. And things go even worse.

How America helped Taliban to become what it is now and much more you’ll learn from this book, that I haven’t yet finished.

It’s definitely not an easy read, although there are few chapters that I found very easy to understand. But all in all it’s a very in depth book about the topic, which means of a lot of numbers, names, tribe names and so on. I have put it aside for a while right now to watch some more videos about Afghanistan and Taliban and to read some other materials. Because I see that all of it helps me to understand this book better.

“Shrouding themselves and their aims in deepest secrecy, the leaders of the Taliban movement control Afghanistan with an inflexible, crushing fundamentalism. The most extreme and radical of all Islamic organizations, the Taliban inspires fascination, controversy, and especially fear in both the Muslim world and the West.

Correspondent Ahmed Rashid brings the shadowy world of the Taliban into sharp focus in this enormously interesting and revealing book. It is the only authoritative account of the Taliban and modern day Afghanistan available to English language readers.

Based on his experiences as a journalist covering the civil war in Afghanistan for twenty years, traveling and living with the Taliban, and interviewing most of the Taliban leaders since their emergence to power in 1994, Rashid offers unparalleled firsthand information. He explains how the growth of Taliban power has already created severe instability in Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and five Central Asian republics.

He describes the Taliban’ s role as a major player in a new “Great Game” – a competition among Western countries and companies to build oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia to Western and Asian markets. The author also discusses the controversial changes in American attitudes toward the Taliban – from early support to recent bombings of Osama Bin Laden’s hideaway and other Taliban-protected terrorist bases and how they have influenced the stability of the region.”

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10. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Yeah, once you finish reading Taliban you can proceed to something easier to read! Jokes aside, I found “Eat, Pray, Love” a very good read for times when you just want to relax. Easy to read, fun, interesting. Two thirds of the book are about events happening in India and Bali, but the story starts in the US and Italy.

“A celebrated writer’s irresistible, candid, and eloquent account of her pursuit of worldly pleasure, spiritual devotion, and what she really wanted out of life.

Around the time Elizabeth Gilbert turned thirty, she went through an early-onslaught midlife crisis. She had everything an educated, ambitious American woman was supposed to want—a husband, a house, a successful career. But instead of feeling happy and fulfilled, she was consumed with panic, grief, and confusion. She went through a divorce, a crushing depression, another failed love, and the eradication of everything she ever thought she was supposed to be.

To recover from all this, Gilbert took a radical step. In order to give herself the time and space to find out who she really was and what she really wanted, she got rid of her belongings, quit her job, and undertook a yearlong journey around the world—all alone. Eat, Pray, Love is the absorbing chronicle of that year. Her aim was to visit three places where she could examine one aspect of her own nature set against the backdrop of a culture that has traditionally done that one thing very well.

In Rome, she studied the art of pleasure, learning to speak Italian and gaining the twenty-three happiest pounds of her life. India was for the art of devotion, and with the help of a native guru and a surprisingly wise cowboy from Texas, she embarked on four uninterrupted months of spiritual exploration. In Bali, she studied the art of balance between worldly enjoyment and divine transcendence. She became the pupil of an elderly medicine man and also fell in love the best way—unexpectedly.

An intensely articulate and moving memoir of self-discovery, Eat, Pray, Love is about what can happen when you claim responsibility for your own contentment and stop trying to live in imitation of society’s ideals. It is certain to touch anyone who has ever woken up to the unrelenting need for change.”

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Cow carriage in Delhi, India - Best Books on India - Best Books on Asia

Cow carriage in Delhi, India – Best Books on India – Best Books on Asia

Best Books on India and Bhutan

12. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

It’s a single best book on India I have read. Even though I was caught from the very beginning it still took me quite a while to finish it, because it’s a very, very long story, there are a lot of characters and a lot of things happening.

A big part of it is about organised crime in India in the last century. But don’t let it stop you from giving this awesome book a try.

It almost stopped me. I had heard A LOT of praises and was interested in it, but then I read the book’s synopsis and learned that it’s a novel about a criminal, who has escaped to India. And I thought, I don’t want to read a crime novel about mafia in India. Luckily I decided to read it, nevertheless. Because, yes, it is about organised crime, but it’s also SO MUCH more.

“It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured.”

So begins this epic, mesmerizing first novel set in the underworld of contemporary Bombay. Shantaram is narrated by Lin, an escaped convict with a false passport who flees maximum security prison in Australia for the teeming streets of a city where he can disappear.

Accompanied by his guide and faithful friend, Prabaker, the two enter Bombay’s hidden society of beggars and gangsters, prostitutes and holy men, soldiers and actors, and Indians and exiles from other countries, who seek in this remarkable place what they cannot find elsewhere.

As a hunted man without a home, family, or identity, Lin searches for love and meaning while running a clinic in one of the city’s poorest slums, and serving his apprenticeship in the dark arts of the Bombay mafia. The search leads him to war, prison torture, murder, and a series of enigmatic and bloody betrayals. The keys to unlock the mysteries and intrigues that bind Lin are held by two people. The first is Khader Khan: mafia godfather, criminal-philosopher-saint, and mentor to Lin in the underworld of the Golden City. The second is Karla: elusive, dangerous, and beautiful, whose passions are driven by secrets that torment her and yet give her a terrible power.

Burning slums and five-star hotels, romantic love and prison agonies, criminal wars and Bollywood films, spiritual gurus and mujaheddin guerrillas—this huge novel has the world of human experience in its reach, and a passionate love for India at its heart. Based on the life of the author, it is by any measure the debut of an extraordinary voice in literature.”

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12. Holy Cow! An Indian Adventure by Sarah MacDonald

A funny and easy to read book that shows you more than a few of India’s most interesting and also weirdest sides.

“In her twenties, journalist Sarah Macdonald backpacked around India and came away with a lasting impression of heat, pollution and poverty. So when an airport beggar read her palm and told her she would return to India—and for love—she screamed, “Never!” and gave the country, and him, the finger.

But eleven years later, the prophecy comes true. When the love of Sarah’s life is posted to India, she quits her dream job to move to the most polluted city on earth, New Delhi. For Sarah this seems like the ultimate sacrifice for love, and it almost kills her, literally. Just settled, she falls dangerously ill with double pneumonia, an experience that compels her to face some serious questions about her own fragile mortality and inner spiritual void. “I must find peace in the only place possible in India,” she concludes. “Within.” Thus begins her journey of discovery through India in search of the meaning of life and death.

Holy Cow is Macdonald’s often hilarious chronicle of her adventures in a land of chaos and contradiction, of encounters with Hinduism, Islam and Jainism, Sufis, Sikhs, Parsis and Christians and a kaleidoscope of yogis, swamis and Bollywood stars. From spiritual retreats and crumbling nirvanas to war zones and New Delhi nightclubs, it is a journey that only a woman on a mission to save her soul, her love life—and her sanity—can survive.”

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13. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach

A group of elderly people from England, who don’t know each other, move into a new retirement home in India, because it seems interesting, exotic and cheaper than to live in England. And the adventures begin… We haven’t yet read the book, but the movie with the same title was a good one and a funny one. The book’s reviews suggest that it must be similar as good, though not exactly the same.

“Now a major motion picture starring Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, Billy Nighy, and Dev Patel

When Ravi Kapoor, an overworked London doctor, reaches the breaking point with his difficult father-in-law, he asks his wife: “Can’t we just send him away somewhere? Somewhere far, far away.” His prayer is seemingly answered when Ravi’s entrepreneurial cousin sets up a retirement home in India, hoping to re-create in Bangalore an elegant lost corner of England.

Several retirees are enticed by the promise of indulgent living at a bargain price, but upon arriving, they are dismayed to find that restoration of the once sophisticated hotel has stalled, and that such amenities as water and electricity are … infrequent. But what their new life lacks in luxury, they come to find, it’s plentiful in adventure, stunning beauty, and unexpected love.”

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14. Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan by Jamie Zeppa

An autobiographical work about young woman’s decision to go and teach English in a country she had never even heard about before. Apart from that it’s also her first time away from North America. What naturally leads to a serious culture shock at first. But then the life in Bhutan changes her.

“Jamie Zeppa was 24 when she left a stagnant life at home and signed a contract to teach for two years in the Buddhist hermit kingdom of Bhutan. Much more than just a travel memoir, Beyond the Sky and the Earth is the story of her time in a Himalayan village, immersed in Bhutanese culture and the wonders of new and lasting love.

Whether you’re travelling to Bhutan, looking for the best travel writing around, or wishing to be transported to a culture, mindset, and spiritual ethos wonderfully different from your own, Beyond the Sky and the Earth is a joyous and lush memoir that will transform the way you think of faith, Western life, and love.”

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15. Radio Shangri-la: What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth by Lisa Napoli

And another interesting book about one woman’s decision to move to Bhutan for some time.

“Lisa Napoli was in the grip of a crisis, dissatisfied with her life and her work as a radio journalist. When a chance encounter with a handsome stranger presented her with an opportunity to move halfway around the world, Lisa left behind cosmopolitan Los Angeles for a new adventure in the ancient Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan—said to be one of the happiest places on earth.

Long isolated from industrialization and just beginning to open its doors to the modern world, Bhutan is a deeply spiritual place, devoted to environmental conservation and committed to the happiness of its people—in fact, Bhutan measures its success in Gross National Happiness rather than in GNP. In a country without a single traffic light, its citizens are believed to be among the most content in the world. To Lisa, it seemed to be a place that offered the opposite of her fast-paced life in the United States, where the noisy din of sound-bite news and cell phones dominate our days, and meaningful conversation is a rare commodity; where everyone is plugged in digitally, yet rarely connects with the people around them.

Thousands of miles away from everything and everyone she knows, Lisa creates a new community for herself. As she helps to start Bhutan’s first youth-oriented radio station, Kuzoo FM, she must come to terms with her conflicting feelings about the impact of the medium on a country that had been shielded from its effects. Immersing herself in Bhutan’s rapidly changing culture, Lisa realizes that her own perspective on life is changing as well—and that she is discovering the sense of purpose and joy that she has been yearning for.

In this smart, heartfelt, and beautifully written book, sure to please fans of transporting travel narratives and personal memoirs alike, Lisa Napoli discovers that the world is a beautiful and complicated place—and comes to appreciate her life for the adventure it is.”

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16. Beneath Blossom Rain: Discovering Bhutan on the Toughest Trek in the World by Kevin Grange

A well-written book about an adventurous trip to Bhutan and Bhutanese culture. What I didn’t like about it were the moments, when you could feel, yes, this man is a good writer, but he isn’t really an adventurer he probably wants to be.

“In a remote kingdom hidden in the Himalayas, there is a trail said to be the toughest trek in the world—twenty-four days, 216 miles, eleven mountain passes, and enough ghost stories to scare an exorcist.

In 2007 Kevin Grange decided to acquaint himself with the country of Bhutan by taking on this infamous trail, the Snowman Trek. He was thirty-three, at a turning point in life, and figured the best way to go at a crossroad was up. Against a backdrop of Buddhist monasteries and soaring mountains, Grange ventured beyond the mapped world to visit time-lost villages and sacred valleys. In the process, recounted here with a blend of laugh-out-loud humor, heartfelt insight, and acute observation, he tested the limits of physical endurance, met a fascinating assortment of characters, and discovered truths about faith, hope, and the shrouded secret of blossom rain.

Beneath Blossom Rain, Grange’s account of his journey, packs an adventure story, a romantic twist, and a celebration of group travel into a single entertaining book. The result is the ultimate journey for any traveler, armchair or otherwise. Along with high adventure, it delivers an engaging look at Bhutan—a country that governs by a policy of Gross National Happiness and that many regard as the last Shangri-La.”

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Street vendor in China - Best Books on China - Best Books on Asia

Street vendor in China – Best Books on China – Best Books on Asia

Best Books on China

17. Jan Wong’s China : Reports from a Not-So-Foreign Correspondent

A well-written, easy to read, funny and informative book about China in the late 80’s and 90’s. Currently my favorite book about the country and the best book on China I’ve read. The author’s another book is on my reading list now.

The book is filled with countless short stories from the Chinese daily life in the end of last century. What helped the author to get all these stories others haven’t been able to learn about is the fact that she is Chinese, although, born in Canada. And that helped her to find her way to places China didn’t want foreigners to know about and to speak with people she couldn’t make a contact with.

“Award-winning journalist and bestselling author Jan Wong looks back on her body of work as a foreign correspondent in China in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Despite the fact that China continues to transform itself, Wong discovers that nothing really changes, and what she wrote then about love, work and living still holds, as do the conflicts over who rules, who survives, and who gets the bigger slice of Peking Duck.

With wry humor and behind-the-scenes detail, Wong incorporates a selection of her articles published in The Globe and Mail into a richly narrated journalistic adventure.”

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18. Red China Blues: My Long March From Mao to Now by Jan Wong

Another book from the same author like the previous one, that we haven’t yet read, but are very interested to do it. The summary looks promising and the reviews are mostly great.

“Jan Wong, a Canadian of Chinese descent, went to China as a starry-eyed Maoist in 1972 at the height of the Cultural Revolution. A true believer–and one of only two Westerners permitted to enroll at Beijing University–her education included wielding a pneumatic drill at the Number One Machine Tool Factory. In the name of the Revolution, she renounced rock & roll, hauled pig manure in the paddy fields, and turned in a fellow student who sought her help in getting to the United States. She also met and married the only American draft dodger from the Vietnam War to seek asylum in China.

Red China Blues is Wong’s startling–and ironic–memoir of her rocky six-year romance with Maoism (which crumbled as she became aware of the harsh realities of Chinese communism); her dramatic firsthand account of the devastating Tiananmen Square uprising; and her engaging portrait of the individuals and events she covered as a correspondent in China during the tumultuous era of capitalist reform under Deng Xiaoping. In a frank, captivating, deeply personal narrative she relates the horrors that led to her disillusionment with the “worker’s paradise.” And through the stories of the people–an unhappy young woman who was sold into marriage, China’s most famous dissident, a doctor who lengthens penises–Wong reveals long-hidden dimensions of the world’s most populous nation.

In setting out to show readers in the Western world what life is like in China, and why we should care, she reacquaints herself with the old friends–and enemies of her radical past, and comes to terms with the legacy of her ancestral homeland.”

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19. Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

An interesting book about very difficult times in China’s history. About the hardships people went through, when fleeing the country for their life and trying to escape to the USA. The book also gives a very good insight into how was the life of immigrants, in particular Chinese immigrants, in the USA in the last century.

“Pearl and May are sisters, living carefree lives in Shanghai, the Paris of Asia. But when Japanese bombs fall on their beloved city, they set out on the journey of a lifetime, one that will take them through the Chinese countryside, in and out of the clutch of brutal soldiers, and across the Pacific to the shores of America.

In 1937, Shanghai is the Paris of Asia, a city of great wealth and glamour, the home of millionaires and beggars, gangsters and gamblers, patriots and revolutionaries, artists and warlords. Thanks to the financial security and material comforts provided by their father’s prosperous rickshaw business, twenty-one-year-old Pearl Chin and her younger sister, May, are having the time of their lives.

Though both sisters wave off authority and tradition, they couldn’t be more different: Pearl is a Dragon sign, strong and stubborn, while May is a true Sheep, adorable and placid. Both are beautiful, modern, and carefree . . . until the day their father tells them that he has gambled away their wealth and that in order to repay his debts he must sell the girls as wives to suitors who have traveled from California to find Chinese brides.

As Japanese bombs fall on their beloved city, Pearl and May set out on the journey of a lifetime, one that will take them through the Chinese countryside, in and out of the clutch of brutal soldiers, and across the Pacific to the shores of America. In Los Angeles they begin a fresh chapter, trying to find love with the strangers they have married, brushing against the seduction of Hollywood, and striving to embrace American life even as they fight against discrimination, brave Communist witch hunts, and find themselves hemmed in by Chinatown’s old ways and rules.”

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20. Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

The second book, a sequel to Shanghai Girls. A book giving us an opportunity to see what China becomes after the World War 2, when Mao Zedong becomes a leader of the country. Same like the first book it may be hard to read at a times, not because of the author, no, but because of the hardship, cruelty and hopelessness it shows.

“In her most powerful novel yet, acclaimed author Lisa See returns to the story of sisters Pearl and May from Shanghai Girls, and Pearl’s strong-willed nineteen-year-old daughter, Joy. Reeling from newly uncovered family secrets, Joy runs away to Shanghai in early 1957 to find her birth father—the artist Z.G. Li, with whom both May and Pearl were once in love.

Dazzled by him, and blinded by idealism and defiance, Joy throws herself into the New Society of Red China, heedless of the dangers in the Communist regime. Devastated by Joy’s flight and terrified for her safety, Pearl is determined to save her daughter, no matter the personal cost. From the crowded city to remote villages, Pearl confronts old demons and almost insurmountable challenges as she follows Joy, hoping for reconciliation. Yet even as Joy’s and Pearl’s separate journeys converge, one of the most tragic episodes in China’s history threatens their very lives.”

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21. Wild Ginger by Anchee Min

China in the times of Mao Zedong, from a teenagers’s perspective. That’s what this book is about.

“The beautiful, iron-willed Wild Ginger is only in elementary school when we first meet her, but already she has been singled out by the Red Guards for her “foreign-colored eyes.” Her classmate Maple is also a target of persecution. It is through the quieter, more skeptical Maple, a less than ardent Maoist whose father is languishing in prison for a minor crime, that we see this story to its tragic end.

The Red Guards have branded Wild Ginger’s deceased father a traitor and eventually drive her mother to a gruesome suicide, but she fervently embraces Maoism to save her spirit. She rises quickly through the ranks and is held up as a national model for Maoism. Wild Ginger now has everything, even a young man who vies for her heart. But Mao’s prohibition on romantic love places her in an untenable position. Into this sexually charged situation steps Maple, creating an uneasy triangle that Min has portrayed with keen psychological insight and her characteristic gift for lyrical eroticism.”

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A girl on the beach in Thailand - Best Books on Southeast Asia - Best Books on Asia

Una on the beach in Thailand – Best Books on Southeast Asia – Best Books on Asia

Best Books on Southeast Asia

22. The Beach by Alex Garland

Have you seen the movie “The Beach” with Leonardo DiCaprio? If you are into travel movies I’m pretty sure you have. Because both the movie and the book are very well known among the backpackers and long term travelers.

If you haven’t heard, this intro is for you – it’s a book (and movie) about backpackers, who get to know, that there is some very special island in Thailand, away from everyone and everything, know only by a very small group of people, who are already living there careless life. And they find it. But is life really there that good as they have imagined? You’ll have to read a book to find it out.

What else I can tell you is that I, personally, read the book first and I liked it more than the movie. I recommend you to do the same.

“After discovering a seemingly Edenic paradise on an island in a Thai national park, Richard soon finds that since civilized behavior tends to dissolve without external restraints, the utopia is hard to maintain. (Nancy Pearl)”

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23. First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung

Khmer Rouge. Genocide in Cambodia in 70’s. It’s something I learned about only a few years ago.

And up until recently, when I watched a movie “First They Killed My Father”, I didn’t know about how big tragedy it really was. I haven’t read the book yet, but its reviews make me think, that it’s a must if you want to better understand Cambodia’s history and what this country and its people have gone through just 40 years ago. It’s insane.


“Chronicles the brutality of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, from the author’s forced ”evacuation” of Phnom Penh in 1975 to her family’s subsequent movements from town to town and eventual separation.”

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24. The Rice Mother by Rani Manicka

A well-written and interesting story shown through the eyes of three generations of women from one family. It’s one of these books, where you don’t want to skip a single sentence, let alone a paragraph.

“At the age of fourteen, Lakshmi leaves behind her childhood among the mango trees of Ceylon for married life across the ocean in Malaysia, and soon finds herself struggling to raise a family in a country that is, by turns, unyielding and amazing, brutal and beautiful. Giving birth to a child every year until she is nineteen, Lakshmi becomes a formidable matriarch, determined to secure a better life for her daughters and sons.

From the Japanese occupation during World War II to the torture of watching some of her children succumb to life’s most terrible temptations, she rises to face every new challenge with almost mythic strength. Dreamy and lyrical, told in the alternating voices of the men and women of this amazing family, The Rice Mother gorgeously evokes a world where small pleasures offset unimaginable horrors, where ghosts and gods walk hand in hand. It marks the triumphant debut of a writer whose wisdom and soaring prose will touch readers, especially women, the world over.”

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25. Backpacker Business: One Girl’s Journey from Wide-Eyed Traveller to Worldwide Entrepreneur by Nikki Scott

As the title suggests, it’s a book about the journey from a traveler to an entrepreneur. A book about backpacking and a backpacker’s built business written by a backpacker. I have chatted with the author myself, and here you can read my interview with Nikki, where we talk about traveling long term, life choices and also this book.

“Written on chicken buses, trains, boats and in beach bars all across Southeast Asia, this is the story of how a 23-year old English backpacker set up the first print magazine for independent travellers in Southeast Asia.

From inexperienced backpacker in Nepal to established publisher in Thailand, via business deals in Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia and the Philippines, Nikki’s story will inspire you to travel and think differently about the type of life you want to lead.

Join her as she discovers eye-opening ways of doing business in Southeast Asia, experiences anti-government riots in Bangkok, meets a host of quirky characters on the paradise island of Koh Phangan and deals with the tragic death of her father amidst a very foreign culture. This real life story is full of the highs and lows of pursuing an alternative path overseas.”

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Have you read any of these books? Any good books on Asia you could recommend to us and others?

Kaspars Misins

Author: Kaspars Misins

Kaspars is a long term traveler and a travel blogger from Latvia. He loves going on long walks, reading non fiction books and spending time outdoors. Together with his girlfriend Una they have been traveling – volunteering – working abroad since 2013. On We Are From Latvia they share their experience and things learned along the way.

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