5 Great Books Set in Thailand That We Love

5 Great Books Set in Thailand That We Love

Thursday, 12 May, 2022

Thailand engages all your senses with vibrant color everywhere you look, delicious things to eat on every corner, the scent of tropical flowers on the breeze, and gong music floating in the air.

Beaches with aquamarine waters and sparkly white sand, vibrant green rice fields, bustling food markets, majestic temples, and everywhere: smiling, friendly people. There’s much to recommend Thailand in real life, and all of that translates into unputdownable stories.

Here are five books set in Thailand that took us there on the page: a tragi-comic coming-of-age story, a dreamy family saga, a gritty murder mystery set in Bangkok, a fresh look at Buddhism, and a beautiful cookbook that’s really a travelogue.

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast Thailand: Come for the Food, Stay for the Spiritual Enlightenment.


Bangkok 8 - John Burdett

Bangkok 8
> John Burdett

Bangkok is a heady blend of monks in saffron-colored robes and sex-trade professionals bustling together on the same streets. Temples and brothels, street food and gangsters. And in the midst of it all, one good man – a police detective — is trying to do the right thing in his steaming, sinister town. This is glorious noir that spares the reader nothing.

Our hero Sonchai Jitpleecheep is seemingly the only detective for the Royal Thai Police who won’t take a bribe. He’s charming, wryly funny, and knows how to handle himself. He’s also a Buddhist who’s reached a certain level of enlightenment — spontaneous meditation is a regular part of his days.

Early in the story, he and his partner (and best friend) are investigating a crime that’s so dangerous, it kills his partner while they’re collecting clues. In the throes of grief, Jitpleecheepon calmly explains that he will find and kill his partner’s murderer. Welcome to a Buddhist revenge story.

This novel moves with violence, adventure, and, surprisingly, insight into what it means to be Buddhist in the modern world. {more}

I had come on a whim, no doubt in my usual pathetic search for a father; he emerged in chains from behind the endless warren of bars into his side of the visitors’ room in the hope of finding a savior who might somehow get him out of there. No two men have ever disappointed each other more; after five minutes we were laughing like drains. — John Burdett


Thai Street Food - David Thompson

Thai Street Food
> David Thompson

If Pad Thai and a comforting bowl of curry are all you know about Thai food, prepare to have your mind blown. Michelin-star chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author David Thompson will take you to the streets. To eat. And it’s sublime.

Should you look for this book at your local bookshop or library, it will definitely be shelved in the cookbook section. But it’s really a coffee table travelogue that also happens to feature expertly written recipes. The pages are packed with gorgeous photos of Thai people and dishes and ingredients in colorful Thai markets. The prose has the urgency of a traveler who fell in love with the place but also has deep knowledge to impart. In short: It will make you want to travel to Thailand immediately.

The heart of this book — and the mecca for street food in any Thai city or town — is the market: cacophonous, vibrant, bustling, it’s where neighbors meet for daily chats, and food vendors serve some of the best food in the world. Passages also take you inside the curry shops and how they function; there’s a primer on noodle dishes and noodle soups.

You will long for scratch-and-sniff pages as you crave a made-to-order stir-fry from a scorchingly-hot wok. {more}

Even a fleeting visit to Thailand can leave you in no doubt of this: Thais are obsessed by food, talking and thinking about it, then ordering it and eating it. Markets brim with produce and snacks. Streets often seem more like busy restaurant corridors than major thoroughfares for traffic. Food sits happily at the center of all occasions and celebrations: births, weddings, making merit, dispensing generosity, and repaying obligations. — David Thompson


The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth - Veeraporn Nitiprapha

The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth
> Veeraporn Nitiprapha, Kong Rithdee (translator)

The author describes this book as a ‘melodrama of shipwrecked romance.’ That’s a pretty strong sales pitch right here. But if you need more, how about this: This novel — winner of the Southeast Asian Writers Award for fiction — stitches together mythology, fantasy, folk stories, 19th-century-style coincidences, and the aforementioned love stories to break your heart and inspire your imagination.

It begins as the coming-of-age tale of two sisters — Chareeya and Chalika — in the 1980s, ’90s, and early 2000s in Bangkok. Although their experiences are at the heart of everything, this is one of those books that weaves stories within stories, branching out like a spiderweb of human experience.

It unspools in dreamy fashion through 27 interconnected vignettes. A sort of homage to Thai soap operas, the story features a love triangle, unrequited love, and orphans. There are secrets and betrayals and sorrow; one character literally dies of a broken heart.

The prose is lush, and the scenes it describes are equally sensuous, infused with references to music and food that underscore what’s happening in the plot. The story follows the characters through the twists and turns of everyday life. Their paths through the labyrinth seem almost inevitable, and we join them for the extraordinary experience. {more}

Once, she took him along a squalid alley in Chinatown so she could beg an old, hostile Chinese grandmother to sell them peanut oil, and then onwards to buy egg noodles from a shophouse factory hidden so impregnably within a maze of nameless alleys that they had to walk through three houses belonging to people they didn’t know, then zigzag some more before reaching shuttered doors through which white clouds of steam billowed when opened and behind which a dozen muscular topless workers were violently flinging dough into long strips — an image that reminded Pran of Shaolin monks in a practice session. — Veeraporn Nitiprapha


Why Buddhism is True - Robert Wright

Why Buddhism is True
> Robert Wright

In this insightful book, journalist Robert Wright explores the basic ideas of Buddhism and shows they not only hold up against modern science but are confirmed by it. In his hands, this information manages to be both illuminating and inspiring.

Lest you worry this might all be too groovy for you, embrace this: The author is a science writer. He’s curious, he writes well, and he wants you to understand what he’s saying — but there’s no agenda here. He doesn’t even claim to be a Buddhist, although he practices Buddhist meditation.

Instead, he grabs hold of somewhat transcendent ideas — something you might hear in a yoga class — and then examines those ideas through the lens of evolutionary biology and psychology. His premise is that the early Buddhists had a solid read on the human condition and what to do about it — and science pretty much backs them up.

Ultimately, this book lands in a good place: a place of gratitude and empathy and togetherness and hope. What could be more rational than that? {more}

These feelings — anxiety, despair, hatred, greed — have elements of delusion, elements you’d be better off without. And if you think you would be better off, imagine how the whole world would be. After all, feelings like despair and hatred and greed can foster wars and atrocities. So if what I’m saying is true — if the basic sources of human suffering and human cruelty are indeed in large part the product of delusion — there is value in exposing this delusion to the light. — Robert Wright


Jasmine Nights - S.P. Somtow

Jasmine Nights
> S.P. Somtow

Infused with magical realism and Thai culture, this is a tragi-comic coming-of-age story set in 1963 Thailand. You might think the American civil rights movement, the Kennedy assassination, and the works of Homer and Virgil wouldn’t mean much to a 12-year-old Thai boy. You’d be gloriously incorrect.

Our narrator and winsome hero is Justin, a name he’s given himself because he prefers it to his formal Thai name (Sornsunthorn) and his family’s diminutive nickname for him: Little Frog.

His parents have been ‘away’ for three years. He doesn’t know if they’re alive or dead, and neither do we. He’s been left in the care of three aunts whom he has dubbed The Fates. The sisters Ning-nong, Nit-nit, and Noi-noi bicker and backstab and love each other the way only sisters can. Wealthy and entitled, they live on a grand estate, along with their social-climbing brother and a wraith-like great-grandmother, with servants to tend to their every whim.

Justin spends his days dreamily reading sci-fi, the classics, and Greek mythology in the faded ruins of a grand library. Lost in his daydreams and visions, he sometimes doesn’t quite know what’s real and what isn’t. It’s a solitary, intellectual existence for a boy on the cusp of adolescence.

Then fate intervenes in spectacular fashion. Through one life-changing year, Justin experiences sorrow, love, friendship, disappointment, and triumph. {more}

In my depression, I open the Botticelli box and gaze at the epic poem I have been composing about my parents’ absence. O Muses! the poem begins, for there is nothing nobler than an apostrophizing opening: O Muses! sing of my parents’ absence inexplicable, Which hath cast a blight upon my wretched soul; Sing of my sorrow, for the Fates are fickle, And furthermore, I’m only twelve years old. — S.P. Somtow

Top image courtesy of Robin Noguier/Unsplash.

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Thailand engages all your senses with vibrant color everywhere you look, delicious things to eat on every corner, the scent of tropical flowers on the breeze, and the music of gongs hovering in the air. Let's go!
There are so many reasons to visit Thailand: dazzling cityscapes and peaceful countryside, vibrant food markets and serene temples, peaceful boats and nighttime scooter rides under Bangkok's neon. Take a look.

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