Here are the best books about Thailand to delight and distract you:
Southeast Asia can fall between the two stools of China and India, overlooked or viewed merely as a reflection of either or both of these two major historical, political and commercial entities. It is, says Anthony Reid in A History of Southeast Asia: Critical Crossroads, often seen as the awkward residue after the great civilizations of India and China have been studied, or at best the sphere of interaction between the two.
But it is a region with a population that far exceeds that of either the European Union or North America and – in the South China Sea – is currently the focus of one of the world’s most serious strategic confrontations.
Understanding the region is therefore not just a matter of intellectual curiosity but also of considerable topical importance. Despite its textbook-like appearance, History is eminently readable. It succeeds at both providing a broad-brush overview of this complex region, presenting it from within, identifying and tracing major themes, while at the same time delivering a wealth of fascinating and intriguing detail.
Reid is particularly strong on the less regularly covered pre-modern periods. One interesting takeaway about the early history of Southeast Asia is its relative “statelessness:” the majority of the people in the region lived outside formal state structures until quite recently. This was related to a second interesting fact that pre-modern Southeast Asia seems to have been sparsely populated, with population densities in 1,600 of less than five per square kilometer outside only a few sizable concentrations:
… humans had been continuously present in the Asian tropics longer than in most parts of the planet, surviving the last ice age there, and developing agriculture some 5,000 years ago. Why then did Southeast Asia’s demographic catch-up with the denser populations of Europe, India, China, and Japan occur only in the last two centuries?
“Natural disasters,” concludes Reid.
Southeast Asia, he writes, is both “not-China” and “not-India.” Its distinctiveness found expression not just in politics and demographics but even in such everyday items as clothing:
Southeast Asians were much slower than their neighbors to adopt sewn garments that required the production or acquisition of needles… even with the pressure of Islam and Christianity after 1500, the carefully oiled and perfumed skin of the upper body remained in many areas the ultimate sign of cultivation. Order a copy here..
Rattawut was born in Chicago and grew up in Bangkok. He now lives in New York.
In the poignant title story a son and his mother, who is rapidly going blind, go on a trip to see their country as tourists. In Priscilla the Cambodian, a boy learns of the hostility towards migrants. And in the novella-length Cockfighter, a family is almost torn apart by a father’s obsession with betting, bird-fighting and getting even with the town bully.
“Pussy and elephants. That’s all these people want,” says a hotel owner who caters for farangs (Thai for whites). That sets the tone for an east-west culture clash in the opening tale of this lively debut collection of short stories set in contemporary Thailand. It’s a fresh, provocative take on the country’s beauty and bleakness – without a hint of exoticism.
The first-person narration in each of the seven stories immediately draws the reader in, whether it’s about cultural discord, coming of age and the loss of innocence, small-town corruption or social divisions. The narrators, mostly young Thais, are finding their way in an unequal and irrational adult world.
An acute observer, Rattawut makes a candid and witty tour guide to the darker side of the “land of smiles”. And despite an undercurrent of anger and frustration, he avoids pamphleteering.
This engaging and accessible history focuses on the economic, social and political forces that shaped contemporary Thailand. Baker and Pasuk reveal how ruling nobles, unfree labourers, Chinese migrants and Buddhism become part of the mix as the country is transformed from a culturally and linguistically disparate region into a homogenised nation-state under a strong monarchy.
Although Thailand avoids direct colonial rule, it doesn’t escape foreign machinations. French and British territorial ambitions have to be parlayed, the second world war brings Japanese occupation, and the US underwrites dictatorship and recruits Thailand as an ally during the cold war.
The military and Washington also oversee a revival of the monarchy following its partial eclipse in 1932, when it was forced into a constitutional role (today Thailand has severe lese-majesty laws).
The authors recount how, over the years, nationalists, army generals, communist guerrillas, businessmen and civil society movements have all attempted to capture the state and bend it to their beliefs. The right, seeking to impose its formula of nation, religion and king, comes up against reformers pushing for a more liberal, democratic state. The battle remains unresolved, as the recent military coup attests to.
Baker taught Asian history at Cambridge University and has lived in Thailand for more than 20 years. Pasuk teaches at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
Kukrit’s epic novel follows one woman’s life spanning the reigns of four kings – Rama V to Rama VIII – from the 1890s to the second world war.
At the age of 10, Phloi goes to live in the royal palace in Bangkok with her mother, who serves as a minor courtier. Phloi’s eventful life inside and outside the palace – as daughter, sister, wife and mother – reflects the enormous changes taking place in the country. Traditional Siam is buffeted by historic events at home and abroad – a palace revolution, two world wars, Japanese occupation, allied bombing – as it evolves into modern Thailand.
After the absolute monarchs are forced to become constitutional rulers, “the air is thick with politics”. That, along with increasing western influence and the turbulence of the second world war, causes fissures in society that intrude into Phloi’s family.
This leisurely paced novel is both intriguing and entertaining. And despite being bathed in conservative nostalgia, offers a fascinating insight into the country.
Four Reigns is regarded as a classic in Thailand and has often been staged and serialised on TV.
Kukrit was something of a renaissance man – Thai prime minister, journalist and newspaper proprietor, Hollywood film actor and classical dancer. He died in 1995.
In case you’re inspired, here’s a video about books on learning to speak Thai:
More Best Books About Thailand
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