Some great books to read in Asia (or at home!)

When we were in Asia, as part of our round the world trip, we tried to learn as much as we could about the diverse and fascinating cultures we came across.

One thing that we loved doing was reading both fiction and non-fiction books about the countries we were visiting. Even though there’s no replacement for being there in person and feeling, smelling and seeing things for yourself, a good book will entertain you and, at the same time, enhance your understanding of a place.

Books can tell you things that local people may not be willing to talk about openly. They can also answer questions about behaviours and customs that may otherwise be left unexplained – how many times did we ask locals about how a certain tradition may have originated, or what was the meaning of some rituals, just to find out they didn’t have a clue? 🙂

Below is a list with some of our favorite reading while we were travelling in Asia:

Shantaram

Romana says: I left Dublin with this 920 pages book on my backpack. I started reading Shantaram in Dublin before our trip and I finished it at the end of a troubled trip to Mumbai, as our train approached Mumbai’s chaotic and overcrowded slums.

Romana finishing Shantaram as we approach Mumbai's train station going through the slums.
Romana finishing Shantaram as we approach Mumbai’s train station going through the slums.

This book tells the seemingly semi-true story of a convicted Australian heroin addict and bank robber who escaped prison and fled to Mumbai, India, where he got involved in organized crime and other nasty business. In the first half of the book, which I found the most interesting and entertaining, Gregory David Roberts, author and main character, tells about his daily life in the slums of Mumbai.

Not only did I smile and cry alongside with the characters of the book, but I also got an invaluable amount of insights on the Indian national psyche. The second half of the book was in my opinion a bit less interesting and even a tad boring at some stage. However this is still one of the most entertaining books I’ve read and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good reading.

Also, because many people travelling in India are still reading this book, reading Shantaram will provide you with one or two good conversation-starting lines if you’re travelling solo 🙂

The White Tiger

Emanuele says: Far away from a clichĂ©-image of India as a colourful and exotic destination, Aravind Adiga‘s fictional story brings you into the dark side of the subcontinent south of the Himalayas. A great story that delves into the gap between the filthy-rich and the animal-like poor, the corruption and the other underlying mechanisms of the Indian society.

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers

Romana says: No other book (or movie) made me shed so many tears as First They Killed My Father. I still remember being on an old bus somewhere in Cambodia and having to stop reading the book because some people started to look at me wondering if I was feeling well as they could ear me crying.

Loung Ung, Cambodia-born author and human-rights activist, tells the story of her family and herself as a child, under the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, between 1975 and 1979. I believe this book is a MUST read if you want to learn more about Cambodia‘s recent, tragic history.

Lucky Child

Romana says: Lucky Child is a sort of sequel of First They Killed My Father and I read it because I wanted to follow the story of Loung and her older brother after they fled Cambodia to live as refugees in the USA. In Lucky Child Loung also tells the story of the other three siblings they left behind in Cambodia and all the difficulties they went through in the aftermath of Pol Pot’s regime.

The Girl in the Picture: The Remarkable Story of Vietnam’s Most Famous Casualty

Romana says: Do you remember the most famous picture of the Vietnam war? A young girl, naked, runs out of a smoke cloud with her arms open and a terrified expression on her face, after having been hit by a napalm bomb.

War photoreporter Nick Ut captured one of the most famous images of the Vietnam war. Kim Phuc's photo is currently exhibited among other images of the war, at the War Remnant Museum in Saigon.
War photoreporter Nick Ut captured one of the most famous images of the Vietnam war. Kim Phuc’s photo is currently exhibited among other images of the war, at the War Remnant Museum in Saigon.

Even though the Vietnam war ended a few years before I was born I remembered that picture very well, so when I saw it on the cover of a book in a shop in Vietnam I almost immediately knew I wanted to buy and read that book.

The author narrates the story of this little girl called Kim Phuc and how the Napalm attack changed her life forever, turning her into Vietnam’s most famous casualty. As you go through Kim Phuc’s life, a rich historical context emerges, which makes you learn more about the war, the communist regime and its propaganda, as well as the local traditions and the culture of Southern Vietnamese people.

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

Romana says: Even though it’s always been at the top of the list of the countries I want to visit, I didn’t go to China yet – and I read this book at home, so for consistency’s sake Wild Swans shouldn’t be in this list 🙂 Still, I loved Wild Swans so much that I had to share it here too. Wild Swans is such an absorbing story that once you start it becomes hard to put the book down. Emanuele bought this book years ago for himself but I managed to put my hands on it first and once I read the first page I just couldn’t let it go. I told him so much of the story that in the end he never ready it 🙂

Jung Chang, the author of the book, tells here the story of three generations of her family: her grandmother, her mother and herself.

An extraordinary reading at the end of which you’ll learn so much about China, the communism, Mao Tse Tung and the Chinese culture in general.

My final verdict: A MUST READ even if China is not in your travel plans 🙂

A Fortune-Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East

Emanuele says: Another book which shouldn’t be on the list: I read this book a couple of years before the round the world journey. But my wanderlust levels increased dramatically ever since, so I had to share it here 🙂 Italian travellers already know journalist Tiziano Terzani‘s powerful and compelling narrative, but I believe not many international travellers have read this author – so this may be a chance for you, non-Italian reader, to widen your literary horizons and discover new exciting reading material.

In 1976 a Hong-Kong fortune-teller warns Tiziano Terzani that he shouldn’t fly in 1993 or he’ll risk his life. Despite the demands of a life as a correspondent covering Asia for European newspapers, Terzani decides to take the warning seriously and, in 1993, he spends a whole year travelling overland (including a 13,000 miles train journey to Florence!) Terzani will spend one of the most extraordinary years of his life, while keeping his commitments as a journalist, meeting many fortune-tellers (and their prophecies) along the way and witnessing the constant tension between tradition and modernity in the Asian societies.

What about you? Have you ever read a book about a country you were visiting, during your trip? Were they fiction or non-fiction books? Any book you particularly liked? Do you have a recommendation for us? Share your thoughts with us – we love your feedback 🙂