Asia Decoded: 6 Books to Travel Through the Continent

Poignant reads on life in Tibet, Thailand, Korea, and more.  
Maya Bay Beach Danny Boyle Alex Garland
In Danny Boyle’s film based on Alex Garland’s book, "The Beach", the setting for the protagonist’s idyllic island is Maya Bay at Koh Phi Phi. Photo: Andy Selinger/Age Fotostock/Dinodia

The Beach

By Alex Garland (Viking, 1996)

A Thai island utopia turns foul in this satirical novel that nevertheless sparked a real-life tourist rush to Koh Phi Phi near Phuket, where the movie adapted from the book was shot.

The Calligrapher’s Daughter

By Eugenia Kim (Henry Holt & Company, 2009)

“I learned I had no name on the same day I learned fear.” So starts this soulful novel about a woman’s journey through a dying aristocratic culture within Japanese-occupied Korea in the decades leading to WWII.

River Town: Two Years On The Yangtze

By Peter Hessler (Harper Perennial, 2001)

As a Peace Corps volunteer, Hessler taught English in China’s Yangtze River valley, immersing himself in local life and decoding the Orwellian red state doctrine.


By Timothy Mo (Turnaround, 2012)

Thailand Hotel Food Ladyboy

Timothy Mo’s “Pure” takes the reader into the world of Thailand’s ladyboys who are a respected, prominent presence in the country’s nightlife and entertainment circuit. Photo: Manca Juvan/In Pictures/Corbis/Imagelibrary

Snooky, a Muslim-born kathoey (ladyboy) in Thailand, is coerced into spying on a local Islamist school in this fictional study of rising extremism in Southeast Asia—with side trips to the Philippines, Singapore, and beyond.

Seven Years In Tibet

By Heinrich Harrer (Dutton, 1953)

During WWII, an unlikely friendship develops between the Dalai Lama and an Austrian mountaineer who has escaped a British prisoner-of-war camp in India.

The Quiet American

By Graham Greene (Heinemann, 1955)

The British author portrays Western blundering in the powder keg that was French Indochina (now Vietnam) in this classic wartime novel.

Appeared in the October 2015 issue as “Asia, Decoded”. 

  • GEORGE W STONE is Editor-in-Chief, National Geographic Travel. He tweets as @travelerstone.


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