It’s fair to say that this may be the hardest “best books” list we’ve written. Why? Well, because there are a ton of books about Thailand but many of them are… well… not very good at all. You can find endless tales of expats being ruined or shacking up with bar girls or ladyboys but there’s not as much on Thai culture or history.
The good news is that Thailand is home to the two best publishers of Southeast Asian material – River Books (based in Bangkok) and Silkworm Books (based in Chiang Mai) and thus there is a supply of well-researched and informative titles if you’re willing to look for them.
Our best books of Thailand include both fiction and non-fiction as most of our lists do.
Bangkok 8 by John Burdett
This is probably my favorite fiction series set in Thailand, well that is until it completely lost its way around about book 5. Up to that point, you can kick off with Bangkok 8 and its sequels and enjoy the tale of a Thai-American police officer with a deep-seated faith in Buddhism tackling murder and corruption in the capital.
This is a very dark series, so if you prefer happy tales this one’s not for you, but otherwise, it’s brilliantly written and does a good job of getting inside of “Thai think” which can really help explain the country’s peculiarities to a first-timer.
Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind by Carol Hollinger
This is a nice piece of travel history. Carol Hollinger was an American housewife who arrived in Bangkok back in the 1960s and it’s a wonderful account of the insanity of moving to a developing nation before technology had arrived to solve most expat’s problems.
The book is out of print but it’s easy to find secondhand copies on Amazon and don’t let the dated cover put you off, it’s a fabulous book.
Travelers’ Tales Thailand: True Stories edited by James O’Reilly
This is a decent collection of shorts told by different travelers each examining a different part of life in Thailand. If you’ve ever wanted to know what it might be like to become a monk for a while or spend a lot of time on Bangkok’s river system – this is the book for you.
We’re big fans of travel literature at NomadTalk and while we don’t think that every story in this collection is well told, as a whole it’s worth your time.
Bangkok Found: Reflections On The City by Alex Kerr
If you’re thinking about moving to Bangkok and setting up an actual business, you might want to read Alex Kerr’s interesting account of his love of the city and his own journey from setting up his business in Thailand to watching it all fall apart.
It is not designed as a cautionary tale but rather to explain the realities of working in a culture that is not your own and thus the differences between a Western business environment and a Thai one.
The Beach by Alex Garland
I haven’t read The Beach since before the movie came out, but this very adult version of Lord of the Flies was one of the books that inspired me to get the heck out of England and explore the world. It’s a dark tale of seeking paradise and the kind of society that absolute freedom might bring about.
It also has a fairly “rave generation” message stamped across it which may deter some readers. However, I’m not into that scene (and never was) and I didn’t find that it interfered with my enjoyment of this book at all. The movie, however, was truly awful.
Private Dancer by Stephen Leather
Ladies, you can probably skip this book unless you have a particular fascination with Thai prostitutes and their clients. Gentlemen, if you’re thinking of making a go of things with a bar girl – this ought to be mandatory reading before you do.
By moving back and forth between the perspective of Pete, a young English expat in Thailand, and Joy, a “go-go dancer” – you can see clearly why the “white knight” is rarely the hero he thinks he is. Pete learns the hardest possible way that Joy wasn’t waiting to be saved and in turn, earns his own damnation.
Anna And The King Of Siam by Margaret Landon
It is a bad idea to take a copy of The King & I to Thailand because it’s deemed insulting to the royal family and rightly so. However, if you’d like to know the real story that inspired the movie and musical – you can find it in Anna And The King Of Siam.
It details the arrival of a young woman, Anna, who has been assigned to be the governess of the King of Siam (which is what Thailand used to be called until 1949) and her adventures and tribulations.
A Prayer Before Dawn by Billy Moore
If you’re thinking about doing something stupid in Thailand and risking a run-in with the law, you might want to pick this book up and read it before you do. Billy Moore was drug addict who got himself a ticket to the Bangkok Hilton (Klong Krem Prison).
It’s a true story of the horrors of the Thai prison system and one man’s eventual redemption. Prepared to be scared straight.
Jim Thompson the Legendary American of Thailand by William Warren
Jim Thompson is something of a legend in Thailand. An American businessman and possibly a spy who opened up the silk trade and helped Thailand emerge as an economic power. His home is now an art museum in Bangkok near the popular MBK center mall.
What happened to Jim is unknown. He disappeared on a sailing trip and has never been seen since. Was it pirates or something more sinister? Nobody knows. William Warren tells the whole story of this figure of national importance.
Thailand Confidential by Jerry Hopkins
Most people seem to agree that this is the best expat-written tome on Thailand and all its modern-day peculiarities. We feel, having spent more than 5 years (combined) in Thailand that much of Hopkins’ account has been gleefully embellished to make the book more interesting.
However, it’s fair to say that Thailand Confidential is a good and readable book and there’s a recognizable picture of Thailand underneath it all.
Sacred Tattoos of Thailand: Exploring The Magic, Masters and Mystery of Sak Yan by Joe Cummings
Thai-style tattoos are as common on backpackers as Celtic bands used to be. However, unlike the Celtic band, Thai tattoos are reported to have “mystical properties”. While we don’t believe this for a moment, Joe Cummings’ study of these tattoos and their place in Thai culture is quite fascinating.
If you love your ink or are thinking of getting a Sak Yan for yourself, you might want to read this book and learn a little about the cultural importance of tattoos in Thai society.
Fear And Loathing in Bangkok by Christopher G Moore
There may be no more prolific writer of all things Thai. Christopher G Moore’s fiction is well-loved throughout the region and it’s on our “to read” pile but as we already own (and have read) all of his non-fiction – it’s a non-fiction title which makes our list.
Fear and Loathing in Bangkok is a collection of short columns by the author which attempt to make sense of specific aspects of Thai culture and politics. This is a very fine line to walk if you want to keep your visa and stay in the region and Moore does it very well, indeed.
We will probably come back and expand this list at a later date, we’ve read a lot of books on Thailand over the years and we’ve probably left out a ton of deserving entries but for now, this is our 12 best books about Thailand and we hope that you will enjoy them.