Thailand & Laos: Pre-trip reading and viewing suggestions

Textile Reading

Lao-Tai Textiles: The Textiles of Xam Nuea and Muang Phuan by Patricia Cheesman (of Studio Naenna).   This book was the result of the author’s 30 years of fieldwork in Laos and Thailand and a long involvement with the textiles and their creators.  An exhaustive study of the costume and household textiles from two provinces of northeast Laos, covering history, use, weaving techniques, dyes and motifs.

Lao Textiles and Traditions by Mary F Connors. Lao Textiles and Traditions focuses on the historical and cultural background of the Lao-Tai, whose exquisitely woven textiles with rich natural dyes and intricately fashioned designs have amazed and intrigued textile connoisseurs for years. Beautifully illustrated, the book tells the story of the people who created these masterpieces and who are still living lives that are intimately bound to their traditions and textiles. 

Silk Weavers of Hill Tribes Laos, Textiles, Tradition, and Well-being by Joshua Hirschstein & Maren Beck.  A beautiful book, offering a rare and intimate view of Lao artisans and their time-honoured silk-weaving and natural dyeing traditions. This charming travel narrative chronicles a family’s adventures in Laos as they navigate landscape, language and culture to discover rich craft traditions and a deep sense of well-being. Weavers, spinners, and natural dyers, as well as armchair travellers will delight in the stories and the in-depth exploration of Lao textiles. Highly recommended.

Textiles of South-East Asia by Robyn Maxell and Mattiebelle Gittinger.  South East Asia covers the textiles of the vast region that includes the northern mountain terrain of the ‘Golden Triangle’ – the tropical forests, plains and rivers of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, the rice paddies of Vietnam and Cambodia, and the historic Spice Islands of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.  Textiles are used to fashion everything from everyday clothing to sacred and ceremonial costumes, shrouds and wrapping cloths, hangings, banners, and ritual regalia. This text focuses on the changing relationship between indigenous Southeast Asian traditions and the outside influences, which continue to change the nature of the region’s textile traditions. 

Thai Textiles by Susan Conway.  This book surveys the products of weavers from China, Burma, Laos and Cambodia who have migrated into Thailand.  It includes an ethnic and historical survey of the people, a discussion of religious and social traditions and notes on the role textiles play in the lives of the weavers. The author traces the evolution of costume styles and patterns and describes the various textile processes, many of which still flourish.

Laos – General Reading

CultureShock! Laos: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette by Robert Cooper.  Laos can be a confusing and contradictory place. This easy-to-read guide is from the perspective of an Englishman who runs a book shop in Vientiane and has lived in South East Asia for more than 30 years. It answers questions about Buddhism, the heavy drinking culture in Laos, Lao people’s relationship with the truth, strong family relationships and more. Cooper discusses the connection between the Thai and Lao people, their similarities and also what makes them distinct. 

The Edge of Tomorrow by Tom Dooley.   Written in 1958, this is an American physician’s first-hand account of his humanitarian work in Laos. After leaving the navy in 1956, Dooley started a private, mobile medical unit in Laos in an effort to provide medical and nutritional aid for the Lao people. Widely circulated by the U.S. Information Agency as part of cultural diplomacy efforts, The Edge of Tomorrow is one of three books he wrote about his life’s work fighting for human rights. Dooley was awarded the Legion of Merit, the National Order of Vietnam, for his work in this country (recounted in his book Deliver Us from Evil: The Story of Vietnam’s Flight to Freedom), and was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. 

Crescent Moon Over Laos by Mark Boyter.  A travel memoir from Boyter’s 18-day trip to Laos in 1990, not long after the border was re-opened for foreign visitors. The author taught English and studied meditation in Japan, then spent time in Thailand before heading towards Laos. Throughout the book, Boyter reflects on his life, and considers what he wants for the future. He travels from Vientiane to the south on local buses and cargo trucks. He then visits Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang in the North, speaking with monks and guesthouse owners who have been studying English in anticipation of the border opening. He hears American pop and reconsiders his place in a poor county that is already catering to Western tourists with food, music and communication. 

Another Quiet American by Brett Dakin.  After graduating from Princeton in 1997 with a Bachelor’s degree in East Asian Studies, Dakin sets out as the first-ever Laos volunteer in the ‘Princeton in Asia’ program, which pays for recent graduates from college and universities all over the U.S. to volunteer in Asia. This memoir, follows his two years working as a language and marketing consultant for Laos’s National Tourism Authority. Dakin’s collections of vignettes focus on the people he meets including power-hungry Lao military personnel, his colleagues, Lao royalty, and other ex-pats living in Vientiane. He describes his experience in the Lao capital in fine detail, making the minutiae come alive. 

Lost in Laos by Lydia Laube.  Comprising twenty-six informative and amusing short stories, this is the 8th book by Australian writer, Lydia Laube.  After enduring a close call with Thai immigration officials, Laube arrives in Laos (the Land of a Million Elephants) and discovers a people and land easy to love. Travelling by boat, tuk tuk or any other means possible, she experiences the majesty of the Mekong River, the awe-inspiring Caves of the Buddha and the mysterious Plains of Jars. 

Love Began in Laos: The Story of an Extraordinary Life by Penelope Khounta.  There are plenty of stereotypes of western men marrying Southeast Asian women. This memoir turns that narrative on its head with a Western women falling in love with a Lao man. Khounta and a friend take a ferry across the Mekong River in the 1960s while serving as Peace Corps volunteers in a remote area of Thailand, which faces Thakek, Laos. She meets, falls in love with and eventually marries a French-educated Lao man. After her Peace Corps service ends, Khounta takes a job teaching in Laos. Recalling the first 7 years of their marriage, Khounta, now widowed, reflects on not knowing the culture, language or customs of Laos and how she learned and adapted, eventually raising children and splitting her time between California and Vientiane. 

The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Coterill.   This is the first in the delightful Dr. Siri Paiboun murder mystery series, The Coroner’s Lunch is set in 1975 post-revolutionary Laos. With the help of a nurse and a morgue assistant, Dr. Siri works to investigate suspicious deaths that the communist party would rather keep under wraps. A percentage of profits from sales of these books goes towards supporting COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) ensuring that people in Laos with physical disabilities have local and affordable access to a quality, nationally-managed rehabilitation service.

To Asia with Love edited by Kim Fay.  A connoisseurs guide to Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

Naga Cities of Mekong by Martin Stuart-Fox.  Early legends and history of Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champasak.

Ant Egg Soup: The Adventures of a Food Tourist in Laos by Natacha Du Pont De Bie.  Food is a very important part of Lao culture, with “have you eaten yet?” being a common greeting. A culinary feast, as well as a feast for the eyes, Ant Egg Soup includes drawings and recipes in each chapter. The French-born author spent five months trekking in both big cities and small villages after being inspired by Phia Sing (chef to the Laos royal family) and his book Traditional Recipes of Laos. She describes the people she encounters, the places she goes and the myriad of bizarre, delicious and unique things she eats along the way. 

One Foot in Laos by Dervla Murphy.  Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy is no stranger to writing about her adventures, having travelled by bicycle, train, foot and flight to far-reaching corners of the world. Chronicling her 1997 visit to the most heavily bombed nation on earth, Murphy’s anti-globalisation views and criticism of Western tourists are on full display in this book as she describes the welcoming and kind Lao people she encounters on her journey. The writer speeds through Laos on her beat-up bicycle with no breaks—she only slows down to sit, drink and chat with locals off the beaten track of tourists.

Thailand – General Reading

Bangkok 8 by John Burdett.  The first novel in a series of six. This thriller takes you roaming the back streets of Bangkok as Sonchai Jitpleecheep, the main character, seeks revenge for his murdered partner. Learn more about the city, Buddhism and much more in this violent, edgy, and exotic novel.

Bangkok Found: Reflections on the City – by Alex Kerr. Evocative and incisive, this book about Bangkok looks deep within traditional culture to discover how Bangkok is like no other contemporary city. It’s the book you read after you’ve seen the temples and enjoyed the nightlife – and then start to wonder where the mysterious appeal of Bangkok really lies.

Culture Shock! Thailand: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette.   This book about Thailand explains the customs, traditions, social and business etiquette in a lively and informative style. The books in this series have a friendly and honest writing style and are full of personal experiences, practical advice and useful information. It contains: insights into the people and their culture and traditions; advice on adapting into the local environment; linguistic help and hints on how to learn the language and do business.

Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski.   A deep and rich novel set among the hill tribes of Northern Thailand. A suspense story blending anthropology and Christian missionaries, it almost feels autobiographical. It tells the story of a young American reporter’s almost obsessive attempt to unravel the mystery of an anthropologist’s apparent suicide after being imprisoned for murder, while working with the animist Dyalo hill tribe in Northern Thailand.

Next Life in the Afternoon: A Journey through Thailand  by Carl Weaver.  This reads like a novel but is the true story of what happens when the author’s plans to ordain as a Buddhist monk in Thailand are derailed after he has arrived in the country. Spiritual, funny and at times irreverent, this memoir is full of personal lessons learned along the way.

Selected Short Stories of Thailand by William Peskett.  The stories in this selection are taken from William Peskett’s four collections: Mango and Sticky Rice, Mist on the Jungle, Sweet Song of the Siren and The Day of the Tiger. Each explores the different ways in which people view the world and how it works. 

Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap.  A collection of short stories set in present day Thailand that break the stereotypical box that tourists and visitors to Thailand often impose on this nation. 

Thai Ways – by Denis Segaller.  This is a delightful collection of nearly everything you’ve ever wanted to know about Thai customs and beliefs. Engagingly explained in a grandfatherly way, by a long-time English resident of Thailand, the stories demystify constructs such as the system of royal ranks, the Thai musical scale and customs such as the Loi Krathong festival.

The Beach by Alex Garland.  Trying to escape his normal routine and find adventure, a privileged British man finds himself in Bangkok. After receiving a hand drawn map from a madman, the protaganist decides he must follow its instructions to find the secret island it describes. This book was made into a movie in 2000 starring Leonardo Dicaprio.

The Bridge Over the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle.  Published in 1942, the story follows the internal struggle of a prisoner of war during World War II. It was during this time that POWs were forced to work on the railway that was intended to help the Japanese get to Burma from Thailand. This book was also been made into a movie in 1957. 

Travelers’ Tales Thailand: True Stories Edited by James O’Reilly.  This collection of personal stories paint a unique portrait of Thailand. One contributor lives as a monk for a month, another discovers Bangkok’s riverine pleasures which are a world away from its car-choked streets. Yet another finds refuge as the houseguest of an isolated tribesman. Through these engaging personal stories, readers witness how Thailand satisfies just about any traveller’s hunger for the exotic and the beautiful.

Viewing

Anthony Bourdain: No reservations: Collection 4, Disc 2 – chef, Anthony Bourdain visits northern Laos, the Plain of jars and Luang Prabang to savour the culture and cuisine. 

The Betrayal (Film 2008): There’s a Lao prophecy says, “A time will come when the universe will break, piece by piece, the world will change beyond what we know.” The Betrayal tells the epic story of a family forced to emigrate from Laos after the chaos of the secret air war waged by the U.S. during the Vietnam War. Director, Ellen Kuras spent 23 years chronicling the extraordinary journey of the family of Laotian co-director Thavisouk Phrasavath in this deeply personal, poetic, and emotional film.

The Mekong River with Sue Perkins: (Episode 3 is set in Laos) BBC documentary exploring the lives of the people who reside beside and on the Mekong as well as the impending changes to traditional life imposed by such things as the building of hydro-electric dams. 

Note: The above list is by no means exhaustive.  If you’d like to recommend a book or movie that you’ve enjoyed or found informative and inspiring, please email us at retreatrecreate@gmail.com