For an English-speaker, shopping for books in Thailand is no treat. In the tourist markets that cluster around guesthouses, most bookstalls sell the same thing; copied Lonely Planets, some Dan Brown, some Ben Elton, some Western classics. But in the midst of these books, there are always Thailand-specific novels, memoirs and nonfiction pieces. These become backpacker classics because the author is just the voice you’re looking for; a smart, specific glimpse into Thailand from a western point of view. Some are light, some are gritty, but all of them shed light on Thai culture, especially in relation to Westerners. Here, khaosanroad.com wades through the usual fare in Thailand-themed literature, giving you an easy guide to the books that have become backpacker favourites.
The Beach by Alex Garland
Yes, this novel inspired the movie of the same name, an eye-candy film of lush beaches and lush Leo DiCaprio which likely caused a hefty climb in Thai tourism when it was released in the nineties. But before the clutch of Hollywood, Garland’s novel stood firmly on it’s own feet; a Heart of Darkness meets Lord of the Flies meets Lonely Planet’s Guide to Thailand’s Beaches medley. Amid Garland’s sexy vagabond characters and Edenic beach descriptions, there’s a psychological story that’s both glossy and gritty. With a twisting plot and an immediately likeable wrong-place-wrong-time protagonist, this suspenseful book will leave you grateful for another quiet, lazy day on the beach. A good story told with good style. Plus, your copy might have Leo on the cover.
Phra Farang: An English Monk in Thailand by Phra Peter Pannapadipo
At the age of 45, successful English businessman Peter Robinson gave up the rat-race and moved to Thailand and joined a Buddhist monastery. Peter, a likeable, witty narrator to the memoir, has to un-learn all his fast-paced Western tendencies and adjust to the monk lifestyle, tackling barriers in culture, language, and upbringing. The author’s tender sense of humour weaves personal stories with the theories of Buddhism the he picked up in temple. It narrates his journey of spiritual enlightenment in a down-to-earth way, with witty observations about eastern-western differences, and tales of culture shock that any visitor to Thailand can instantly relate to.
Backpack by Emily Barr
While the book may strike you as generic chick-lit, and the main character might strike you (in the first few chapters at least) as being immensely dislikeable, Emily Barr has taught me that first impressions can be faulty. As we follow selfish, shallow Tansy as she pouts her way along the backpacker trail, we watch her experience those wonderful epiphanies of introspection and self-awareness that come with being in a foreign land. By the time she finds herself in a burgeoning backpacker romance, you’ll be cheering for the reformed snob.
There’s a subplot with a string of murders, each victim a cute white backpacker. It moves the plot along, but the meatiest parts of the story are in the small moments when Tansy, piece-by-piece, shakes off her layers of insecurity and gains a better sense of self. This book is a great read for those who are traveling on a soul-searching life journey. Plus, you’ll laugh out loud at her spot-on descriptions of every hippie-snob backpacker who’s ever joined you at a beach bar.
The Damage Done: Twelve Years of Hell in a Bangkok Prison by Warren Fellows
This book will have you on the edge of your seat (albeit, semi-nauseous) as you see the author go from a dislikeable criminal to sympathetic, suicidal prisoner. Fellows’ memoir is brash and honest; he doesn’t ask the reader for sympathy as he narrates his jail term for trafficking. Rather, his anecdotes range from suffocation-by-sewage to death-by-elephant, are all narrated with a grim honesty. The book is graphic and shocking, the type of story whose hellish details will stay in your mind for ages. The squeamish may find the vivid details difficult to take, but be sure to pass it on to any travelmates lacking in self-control.
Bridget Jones; Edge of Reason by Helen Fielding
Though Fielding’s beloved title character may only spend a third of the book in Thailand, it gives you a hearty taste of the Thai tourist experience, gone comically awry. Though Bridget Jones may not be the first person to go to Thailand as an escape from life’s complexities, her fussy, honest reactions to the land of smiles will have you laughing on the outside and guiltily agreeing with her on the inside. As an endearing fish-out-of-water, Bridget calls to attention all the foreigner reactions you’re embarrassed to share out loud.
Though Bridget’s stint in Thai prison may come across as summer-camp fluffy, it makes for a funny, sympathetic story. This book may not be the best resource for Thailand-related facts, but for smart, relatable observations expressed in all the wrong ways, Bridget Jones is the master. As a writer of guilty-pleasure reads, Helen Fielding is the master. Ladies, prepare to laugh out loud.
Thai Girl by Andrew Hicks
Hicks addresses the age old question that crosses the mind of every single visitor to Thailand; in a white-guy-meets-Thai-girl relationship, who’s really holding the chips? When a tourist splits with his girlfriend on a holiday in Thailand, he finds himself enraptured by a charming-yet-mysterious local woman. The novel’s Thai heroine is a multilayered character, at times passive and helpless, at times wry and controlling.
What comes across as a couple wrapped up in mind games will get you thinking about power dynamics in general, and how gender, age, ethnic and economic differences all factor together. The endlessly complex characters will leave you guessing until the very end. Feminists may find this relationship hard to handle, men who date Thai women may find it instantly relatable. Regardless of your opinions on the falang/Thai romance phenomenon, Hicks’ honest dialogues and relatable themes makes this book an absorbing read.
Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.