In terms of my ever-lengthening life, I didn’t spend much time in Southeast Asia. Not much time in Thailand, not much time in Vietnam, barely any time in Laos. And the time I spent there was so long ago. But once I returned, I had such a craving for those places, such an urge to understand more, to experience more, to revisit and linger. One way to do that is by writing. So I wrote stories, and essays, and then, endlessly, a novel set in Thailand. Another way to learn and to visit, of course, is by reading. Here are a few of my favorite books that have taken me back to Thailand and its borders regions. I recommend them to anyone gearing up to go or anyone who wants to remember.
A great read for anyone interested in Northern Thailand, this story within a story explores the tensions between a hill tribe based on the Lisu, an anthropologist who sets up permanent residence with them, and missionaries who have worked in the golden triangle region for generations. There’s a murder mystery and a mysterious cross-cultural romance, a dysfunctional-family back story and an expatriot’s-dilemma frame story, and through it all, Berlinski demonstrates a depth of knowledge about multitudes of different worlds with a grace that left me awe-struck. I’m fascinated by Southeast Asia’s cultural complexity and America’s recentish involvement in it, and I’m aware that my fascination—or any outsider’s—raises issues of its own. He gets at all that, wraps it around a riveting plot, and makes you feel like you’re there. Man, I want to go read this book again right now.
If you, like me, enjoy reading about people who are as brave, cool, and morally pure as you are in your dreams, well, Edith Mirante is just such a person. She’s written a book that should be of interest to any intrepid traveler with a conscious, and especially those who’ve been to the Thai-Burmese border region and have wondered about what they saw. Mirante is a real-life “human-rights pirate” who visited Thailand as an artist in the 80s and became radicalized when she learned how the Burmese were suffering under their oppressive government. She took huge personal risks to document the situation of the hill tribes living close to the Thai-Burmese border, sneaking between countries, traveling deep into the jungle, and visiting dangerous characters in an attempt to get at a truth that she could share, even when people didn’t want to hear it. (She implicates the U.S. to some degree.) Since she did her work around the time that much of Fieldwork takes place, this is a good nonfiction counterpart to that novel. It’s also a thrilling book on its own, and it’s a tonic to read about someone who managed to take dramatic action in the face of the kinds of entrenched misery that can make many travelers feel hopeless.
The suffering of hill tribe groups seems to know no bounds. In this artful and heart-wrenching memoir, Yang tells the story of her Hmong family, who escaped Laos to find themselves in a series of refugee camps in Thailand before eventually moving to the United States. Yang depicts clearly and tenderly life in Hmong villages before, during, and after the Vietnam war; life in the refugee camps where she spent her first seven years; and life as an immigrant. The description of her family crossing the Mae Kong river was particularly harrowing for me. I read it while nursing my infant daughter, and when they made the crossing, Yang’s sister was newborn and sick, and her mother was nursing and infected. I remember sitting on the banks of that same river very near where they crossed, drinking beer and admiring the romantic view. I remember riding down that river in an inner tube, laughing, playing on a mud bank. How little most Americans know about Hmong involvement in the Vietnam war, and what a high price those involved have paid for it. But Yang’s book is about so much more than this. I can almost guarantee that anyone would love it.
Well, Thailand is not all hill tribes and jungle trails. This novel about a gay Thai expatriot who returns to Bangkok to heal from a heartbreak and becomes enthralled with a male prostitute is both stylistically sophisticated and as drug-strew, dimly lid, and lurid as you’d expect a novel about Bangkok nightlife and sex-selling to be. And it hits the themes close to my heart: the grey areas around cultural imperialism, the economic subtext of so much, the complexity of sexual transactions, and the intersection of the personal and political. Not everyone’s idea of beach-reading because of its challenging prose and bleak world-view, it’s an interesting lens through which to view Bangkok.