Reviews on Books

As I see things, a life without TV is an enrichment,
a life without books would be too poor to be worth lived.


The Customs of Cambodia

A Portrait of Zhou Daguan by Asienreisender

Zhou Daguan. Sketch by Asienreisender, 2014

by Zhou Daguan / Chou Ta-Kuan

Zhou Daguan is the author of 'The Customs of Cambodia', what is the only written source we have about the medieval empire of Angkor. 'The Customs of Cambodia' gives an unique insight into the Khmer society in the late 13th century with the eyes of a foreigner. We learn about the Angkorean king as well as about the life of the commoners of the time. Zhou Daguan was a Chinese envoy in Angkor Thom for about a year.

There has never been a Westerner in Angkor when it was a thriving city and empire. Angkor was unknown in the west until it was history already.

Read: 'The Customs of Cambodia' by Zhou Daguan

Literature Index on Southeast Asia

This page provides an ongoing list of books worth to be read on Southeast Asia. Together with personal experiences and many more sources these works feed the website.

Literature on Southeast Asia

Henri Mouhot

Henri Mouhot

Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina

by Henri Mouhot

Henri Mouhot was one of the famous 19th century travellers in Indochina. He became popular in Europe for the description of the ruins of the medieval Angkor nekropolis with famous Angkor Wat in his travel narrative 'Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina'. Here I have a closer look on Henri Mouhot and his travels in mainland Southeast Asia.

Read the review on 'Travels in the Central Parts of Indochina...

Franz Wilhelm Junghuhn, Self Portrait

Franz Wilhelm Junghuhn, Self portrait, 1860

Licht- und Schattenbilder aus dem Innern Javas

by Franz Wilhelm Junghuhn

Junghuhn's 'Licht- und Schattenbilder aus dem Innern Java's' (1854) is still a book worth to be read. It's lively depiction of Java's nature, the Javanese People of the time and the philosophical disputes who are still widely interesting and by no way outdated makes it a balanced and thrilling work reaching over it's time.

Read the review on 'Licht- und Schattenbilder aus dem Innern Java's...

Published on June 28th, 2013


by Friedrich Gerstäcker

Friedrich Gerstaecker

Friedrich Gerstäcker

Friedrich Gerstäcker (*1816 - 1872) was a German travel writer. He became famous after his first journeys to north America and his publications of his adventurous life there. He wrote and published a large number of books.

In later years and aftermath Gerstäcker's writings were a model for adventurous travel novels of the 19th century, inspirating many other authors who followed him, including Karl May.

In 1849 Gerstäcker started a great journey around the globe, starting in south America, followed by California, Tahiti and Australia. In 1851 he arrived in Batavia (Jakarta) on Java. One of his books is exclusively dedicated to his journey on Java.

Read the review on 'Java'...

Published on March 30th, 2013

Siam Smiles

Siam Smile(s)

by Hugh Watson

Siam Smile(s) by Hugh Watson gives a vivid insight into contemporary Thai society in 42 chapters, picking up certain topics of interest which will encounter every western tourist/traveller who spent holidays or a longer time in Thailand. It's thoroughly interesting and amusing to read, not at last because of Watson's good humour.

Read the review on 'Siam Smile(s)'...

Published on February 8th, 2013

Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan

The Dragon in my Garage

by Carl Sagan

The text is a short part out of Carl Sagan's book 'The Demon haunted World', which is about science, pseudoscience, religion and superstition. It's about reality and truth and the methods to find out what is true and what is false.

Since I frequently meet people who are seemingly so convinced of religious and rather more superstitious ideas they can never proof, I uploaded the brief text on my website, because it gives a realy good input on how to think of such ideas.

Read the short excerpt 'The Dragon in my Garage'...

Published on January 13th, 2013

The Plain of Jars

by Nicolas Lombardi

The Plain of Jars is an archeological site, or better a number of sites in the north of Laos, around the town of Phonsavan. It's still quite a mysterious place, for little is known about all these thousands of huge stone jars, scattered around in no clear pattern over square kilometers. It's thousands of years old and I have heared different, sometimes contradicting theories about it.

The Plain of Jars

The Plain of Jars. Image: Asienreisender, 2011

Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars were also showplace of heavy bombing in the American Vietnam War (Second Indochina War). And since very few people know what about the Plain of Jars, also few people know nowadays much about the Vietnam War and particularly the 'secret war in Laos'.

Nicolas Lombardi now is writing a thrilling novel in which the reader get's a deep inside in what was going on in Laos in the 1960's and until 1975. The reader get's to know war action from the view of a Vietnam veteran, an American peace activist of the time and get's additionally a deep insight in the village live of the Laotian peasants, who were for uncounted times the target of heavy bombing. Nicolas Lombardi offers an easy and thrilling approach for the reader to a complex piece of history with profound knowledge. Seems to be one of the books you can't stop reading until you come to the end.

It's particularly interesting for all the tourists who go to Laos these days to get background information about the country, because especially for short-time travellers and tourists Laos appears very strange and one can't make much sense out of many things one hears and sees.

Nicolas recently announced the completition of the novel for January 2013. The first three chapters are free for download as a *.pdf file under the link below.

Download the first three chapters of 'The Plain of Jars'

Published on December 7th, 2012

Simon de la Loubere

Simon de la Loubere

On the Kingdom of Siam

by Simon de la Loubere

Simon de la Loubere was a French envoy on the court of Ayutthaya in 1687/88. He wrote a report for the French king Louis XIV, which is one of the rare documents of this part of Siam/Thailand's history. It gives an interesting glance on Thai society in compare with the 'old times'.

Read the review...

Published on November 8th, 2012

James Clavell

James Clavell

King Rat

by James Clavell

'King Rat', James Clavell's literary debut (Clavell was born 1924 in Australia, died 1994 in Switzerland, and is well known for 'Shogun', 'Noble House' and 'Tai Pan'), was a World War II veteran fighting as a British officer in Malaya against the Japanese Armee, got captured and was first imprisoned in a POW camp on Java, before being transfered to Changi POW camp in Singapore for three years.

Read the review...

Published on October 16th, 2012

Private Dancer

by Stephen Leather

Reading 'Private Dancer' means diving deep into Bangkok's nightlife and particularly into it's sex industries. It's a thrilling story about what's going on in the business which shaped Thailand's image worldwide so much.

Read the whole review...

Published on August 22nd, 2012

Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925 - 2006)

Ananta Toer

The only Javanese author I know, honestly spoken, is Ananta Toer. He is worldwide considered being the most important Indonesian author of the 20th century, if not for all times, at least until another author might top him anyhow. His works were translated into 37 languages.

The both works of him I read personally are the essay 'My Prison Mate', in which he describes his time in a Dutch prison during the Indonesian independence war and the novel 'Gadis Pantai' (English: 'The Girl from the Coast'), in which he describes the live at a traditional Javanese court. It's semi-fictional and based on experiences of his own grandmother.

Toer's writings show the sufferings and hardships of the Indonesian people over a historical time. It explains much of what the traveller faces in Indonesia now: poverty, anomie and cultural loss. He is definitely one, if not the most significant auther of Southeast Asia.

While the independence war between 1945 - 49 he joined nationalistic forces, later he became close to Communist ideas. Years after the war he spent a time in The Netherlands and made journeys to the Soviet Union and China.

Despite he was famous abroad his writings were under censorship in Indonesia itself for a long time until 1999.
Toer was struggeling with the Sukarno regime (due to a publication concerning corruption) and more with the Suharto regime (for being close to the Communists) in Indonesia. In Suharto's dictatorship Toer was imprisoned for 15 years without trial, where he created his main works. It was rather likely that he got killed as at least 500,000 other leftists after Suharto's coup d'état. Despite he was forbidden to work and had no writing materials, he formulated the 'Buru Quartet' in oral form and got it smuggled out with the help of other prisoners.
Ananta Toer was realeased from prison due to an intervention of the Carter administration in 1979; from then until the end of Suharto's dictatorship he was under house arrest.


Published on July 26th, 2012

Passage of Arms

by Eric Ambler

Travelling in Asia means sometimes getting in contact with weird people and getting offered strange business proposals. Here an American Tourist travelling round the world with his wife gets an offer to take part in an arms deal in Singapore. It's all very easy looking, he just has to give his name for the custom service and to deal a handing over. But then things turn unexpected...

Read the whole review...

Published on July 24th, 2012

The Night-Comers

by Eric Ambler

Do you know Eric Ambler? If you see an Ambler, then read it. Don't waste time! You have family? Let them wait. You have a job? Quit it. Other things to do? Forget it. An Ambler is more important. It's really good stuff!

Eric Ambler

Eric Ambler

The Night-Comers (1956) offers a deep view into post-colonial Indonesia. It's about an English engineer at the end of his contract in a fictive (Indonesian) state called Sunda (reminds much to Banda Aceh / north Sumatra). On his way to Jakarta he is going to take a plane in Selampang, Sunda's capital and comes on change into the center of a military coup.

Ambler is brilliant in describing the mentality and way of thinking of Indonesian people. Besides he shows up the manyfold problems a young state in the region had after the Japanese occupation and the bloody fight for independence from the Dutch colonial regime. Islam already shows up as a military crisis ideology, promising strength, power, discipline and a way out of the disaster of the people in a crisis shaken oriental country. The lack of resources, qualified specialists and a ridiculously overwhelming corruption is the reason for the very inefficiency of the state. The only efficient institution is the military. That's still so in contemporary Indonesia.
Above all 'The Night-Comers' is a thrilling polit novel always good for a surprising turn of the events. Eric Ambler was one of the greatest masters of polit thrillers. In his mastership he is comparable with the great master of crime novels, Raymond Chandler. Nowadays Ambler is undeserved widely forgotten.
1965, nine years after 'The Night-Comers' was published, Indonesia's President Soekarno was ousted by a military coup led by General Suharto, who killed between 500,000 to 2,000,000 million people (particularly leftists). His sanguinary regime lasted until 1998, when he was finally pushed out of power by a democratic movement and mass demonstrations.


"Thrillers (...) really say more about the way people think and governments behave than many of the conventional novels. (...) A hundred years from now, if they last, these books may offer some clues to what was going on in our world."

Eric Ambler in an interview with the New York Times, 1981


Read the excerpt by pointing here with your mouse...

"Sundanese officials are peculiarly difficult to deal with, especially if you are an English-speaking European. The first thing you have to realise is that, although they look very spruce and alert and although their shirt pockets glitter with rows of fancy ballpoint pens, they have only the haziest notions of their duties. The language problem is also important. All the forms you have to fill up are printed in English as well as Malay, because English is an official language and the officials are supposed to be bilingual. The trouble is that they will never admit that they are not. If you speak in Malay they feel bound to reply in English. Unfortunately, the few words they have soon run out, and although they may continue to look as if they understand what you have said, they are in fact hopelessly at sea. Their technique for dealing with the resulting impasse is to pretend that they have to consult a colleague, and then go away and forget about you. The form you have completed gets lost. Your only chance is to say and write everything very distinctly both in English and Malay, and to keep fingering your wallet as if you are getting ready to pay. You are, indeed, going to have to pay eventually; and not merely the legal fee for the service in question. When the formalities are almost completed, it will suddenly be discovered that you ought to have produced another 'clearance', and that without it you cannot have whatever it is you want.
A Kafka-like scene ensues. Nobody can tell you precisely what this mysterious clearance is or how you set about obtaining it. The shifty brown eyes peer at you. It is your move now. You ask what the fee for the clearance would be if one knew where to obtain it. A figure is named. You ask if, as a special favour, you may deposit this sum so that, when more is known about it, the clearance may be obtained for you. There is a shrug, then a grudging assent. The eyes watch sullenly as you count the money out. You agreed too quickly. He is wishing he had asked for more and wondering if it is too late. No, it is not. He made a mistake. He forgot the price of the Government stamp. You smile politely and pay that, too. There is no answering smile. Other brown eyes have observed the transaction and there will be a share-out when you have gone. To get out again into the open air is like emerging from a depression.
The granting of an exit visa to a resident European is a big operation. My first visit to the visa section of the police department headquarters lasted an hour. In that time I managed to secure the five different forms that had to be completed, and countersigned by various other authorities, before the formal application could be submitted. This was good going. I went next to the agents for the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, cashed a cheque and had one of the forms countersigned. After I had deposited it, together with another form, at the Internal Revenue Department, I called in at the Indonesian Consulate and applied for a transit visa. By then it was time for lunch."

Out of the 'Night-Comers'

Published on June 4th, 2012

Asian Culture Revealed

Yellow on the outside - Shame on the inside

by Anson Chi.

A great novel about a Californian university student with Japanese family roots who tells us the story about his life - revealing much insight into East Asian mentalities and real life behind the smile and etiquette. You will wonder! Besides it's written with humor and reads fluently. It's a much more intelligent input than you get when talking to 99.9 per cent of the Asians around here. And you can even get it here for free:

Asian Cultures Revealed
by Anson Chi

Asienreisender - Asian Culture Revealed

A History of Thailand

by Chris Baker and Pasuk Pongpaichit. A highly recommendable introduction in the understanding of contemporary Thailand and it's society.

After the fall of Ayuthaya 1767 Siamese Civilization was almost destroyed. The remaining Siamese were regathered under (King) Thaksin...

Read the review...

Burmese Days

by George Orwell

Eric Arthur Blair (George Orwell) was born in 1903 in British India and died in 1950 in London. For five years (1922-1927) he was a police officer in British Burma.

Read the review...