Offbeat destination in Laos

20 Books to read before Planning a trip to Luang Prabang, Laos

About this books: Essential reading list on Laos for the first time visitors. These books are mostly based on politics in Laos, especially during the era of Indo-China retreat, the covert air-war by America and Vietnam War and written by American writers. Some of the books are fictional accounts and set in Laos.

Muang Ngoi Neua on Nam Ou river at Nong Khiaw

Read all my travel blogs on Laos PDR!

Laos PDR. A landlocked country soaked in the warmth of incessant flow of the Mekong river. The mountain monolith, dense forests, sugar cane plantations and idyllic rural life shower Laos with an abundance of natural resources, even after the country has been subjected to unjust warfare, brutal colonist forces for a larger part of the history.

Only a handful of books have been written about Laos, compared to its neighbours, say Vietnam or Thailand. Let alone be China.

I am specifically talking about books on fiction, emphasising on Laos people, their culture, food, everyday struggle, aspiration and politics. More number of books based on Laos actually discuss western war strategy. Life in Laos come in myriad glimpses, what you can compare with the Hollywood style of blink and you miss performances!

I have mined the world of world wide web and collected a handful of fictions set in Laos. These books are available for Kindle readers as well as a paperback version. Mostly written from a western perspective, these books on Laos paint an almost realistic picture of the country for the first time visitors! I did take some of the descriptions with a pinch of salt though since I am an Asian and our lifestyle matches to an unprecedented extent that is hard to grasp for a western writer. I wish someday I would be able to compile a list of books on Laos by the Laos writers of repute.

A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Cambodia, Laos & Vietnam by Norman Lewis

One of the oldest books of the region, the Dragon apparent is an honest account of exploring Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos during the last days of French colonist power. He talks in details about the impressions that colonist time imprinted in his mind. His description of food is flawless (and remains true till date). His spontaneous free flowing way of travels, hitching a ride, adjusting to any situation given, strike a chord with me as a traveler. He narrates his experiences with the right amount of cultural anecdotes. Soon after, the revolution followed, the countries attained independence albeit after a massive bloodbath. But Lewis meets the last few kings and emperors of the region, taking you back to a world we all heard of but know only a little about.

It is said Graham Greene was inspired by reading this book to visit Vietnam and subsequently write the famous travel memoir, the Quiet American.

One Foot in Laos by Dervla Murphy

A travel memoir on Laos written by Dervla Murphy. The 60 something Irish writer puts her heart and soul to describe the traditional beauty of Laos, coupled with her incredibly warm and kind population. She leaves no stone unturned to critique the covert operation by the USA. The live bombs haunt the nameless mountains far off the tourist trails in Laos, taking a life or two even till date very casually. the secret war and waves of Globalization are to leave perilous aftermath for the country. There is an imminent threat of changing the existing value of Laos and traditional lifestyle, she predicts as the country opened its gate to international travellers in 90s. She traveled in Laos in 1996. “Were I to return in a few years I would not find the same Laos.” She laments. Seating by the river Nam Ou in Nong Khiaw, I echo her thoughts. Two decades and many changes later, i could instantly recognize the country through her books!

Also read: Complete Travel guide to Luang Prabang, Laos!

The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill

A ghost story with the right amount of satire and thrill, Coroner’s Lunch was written a while back but still catches attention for a great light read before you visit Laos. Dr Siri, a clinical lab technician by education and member of the communist party, has been forced to assume the office of coroner in Laos after Communist regime takes over in the country. The story starts as a dead body of a politician’s wife arrive. Soon after another man’s body floats in the lake nearby. You will chuckle through the read thanks to the great humors and will be assured to be right to cling to hope through oppressive regimes. The fiction fits in the genre of magic-mystery.

Also read: 3 days in Luang Prabang, Laos!

Ant Egg Soup: The Adventures of A Food Tourist in Laos by Natacha Du Pont De Bie

Imagine a gourmand trekking through the perilous mountains in search of the most authentic food that nature provides for her human family. That is Natacha Du Pont’s book Ant Egg Soup for you! A fascinating travel memoir on Laos, mostly explored through the hot plates served, Ant Egg Soup is probably the only book that takes you in the interior of a Laos kitchen. It opens the door for a world of Asian cuisine relatively hidden under the shadow of its Vietnamese or Thai counterpart.

It is a fun and culturally immersive travel memoir with occasional mention of the aftermath of covert US war in Laos, which is bound to catch your attention off guard as you explore the country beyond Luang Prabang, as it did for me. In a cohesive tone, the author assimilates the mountain tribes to the royal court through illegible connecting threads of gastronomy.

I found almost every airport in Laos had this book on sale.

Also read: Nong Khiaw travel guide!

Crescent Moon Over Laos by Mark Boyter

Crescent Moon over Laos was written immediately after the country reopened its door to tourism in the 90s. That is the time when Mark Boyter traveled in Laos for 18 days. His account of a new found love for a land and its human and laments over an unjust war finds an eloquent expression in the book. It is one of the best examples of travel writing on Laos. There are fleeting glimpses on deep philosophical questions as he explores Laos, often not knowing what exactly he is looking for!

One reason I find this book intriguing is because mark visited Laos when the country was blind to the perils of tourism, about to plague Laos in coming years. He found a rather empty canvas to leave an impression, that he sure did!

Also read: Celebrate a Baci ceremony with the locals of Laos!

Another Quiet American by Brett Dakin

Brett Dakin went to live in Laos for a couple of years to consult with the National Tourism Authority. He came back home as a changed man.

In the book, “Another quiet American” he narrates the “Stories of life in Laos.” Attuned to melancholy and a deep love for the land, his stories are weaved inside the corridor of Laos homes, rich and poor alike, presented with a sharp contrast as a foreign expat trying to make it to Laos.

It is a mellow comfortable read that narrates the story of Laos after the war was over, and its people trying to rebuild the broken society with everyday efforts. It is a beautiful read with many nuanced expressions typical to Laos. If war wears you off, read this book. It gave me solace!

Also read: 11 alternate cultural experiences in Luang Prabang, Laos!

I, Little Slave: A Prison Memoir from Communist Laos by Bounsang Khamkeo

Khamkeo went to France to study politics in his youth. He came back to Laos, a country riles up with politics and a covert war. A communist regime was established soon. Khamkeo goes to a large extent to establish the political background in Laos.

Things changed drastically as his equation with the boss went astray and he was imprisoned. He was sent to a reeducation camp, a gulag of sorts and the actual story starts afterwards. It was more poignant since I believe I live in a free world and the depiction of the political prison was playing a stark contrast to the world as I know it!

Also read: Handmade souvenirs to buy from Luang Prabang, Laos!

Shooting at the Moon: The Story of America’s Clandestine War in Laos by Roger Warner

Quintessentially the best book to read on American war on Laos, Shooting at the Moon is on of the earliest account of Laos war in the region. Told from an American perspective, Shooting at the Moon tells the story of the covert war while the Vietnam war and related story garnered road and protests worldwide. Laos remains shrouded in the mist of secrecy, more so as the Americans had recruited her own people to fight against each other. what happened to them once the war was over and the US troops left remains another heartbreaking narrative. the author Roger Warner is a war historian of South Asia. His account of the military coup aided with CIA is something that gave me goosebumps!

Also read: Day trip to the Kuang Si Fall, Luang Prabang, Laos!

Here There are Tigers: The Secret Air War in Laos, 1968-69 by Reginald Hathorn

This books chronicles the covert air operation of a US air controller who went on to bomb the Ho Chi Minh Trail and bombed the northern mountains of Laos several times in a war that the world had not an iota of information about. It is a great war book, taking you back to the time and making you seat in the cockpit as the bombs went off.

Also read: How to score a visa for Laos!

Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans, and the Secret Wars for Laos, 1942-1992 by Jane Hamilton-Merritt

Till the former US president Barack Obama visited Laos, posed with a bamboo straw and green coconut and publicly acknowledged the american warfare on the Laos mountains, not many in the world knew the plight of the country.

The Tragic mountains details the story of Hmong tribesmen and their endless suffering as the war ended. Originally from south of China, the Hmongs shifted to the south defying authoritarian regimes. The process panned over centuries and definitely has more nuances to it. During the Vietnam war, Hmongs sided with CIA and the US without any written agreement (except for age old Baci ceremony, a ritual of the land to honor oral commitments but the US did not care enough to honor).

The war ended. Communist rule took over Laos. It is imperative to detail the suffering unleashed on the Hmong tribe who were forced to leave the country to seek refuge at refugee camps of Thailand. A few had the good fortune of immigrating to the US, mostly the families of the fighters. Tragic Mountains tells the story of bravery, betrayal and hope of the Hmong tribesmen of Laos.

To continue reading on the struggle of a Hmong family who immigrated to the US, read The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. Another suggestion is to pick up The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir. the struggles of Hmong regufee family is told from the perspective of a woman.

Also read: A photo blog on Luang Prabang, Laos!

A Great Place To Have A War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA by Joshua Kurlantzick

A Great Place to Have a War starts with a detailed account of Baci ceremony. It was an instantaneous connection with me as a reader who experienced Baci while traveling in Laos. However it soon went on 

A lot has been discussed about the Hmong way of life in Laos mountains, their community structure and how the USA used the Hmongs to fight the rise of Communism in Indo-China. 

The book details the start of Operation Momentum, a paramilitary operation by the CIA, which went on to kill one tenth of the total population of Laos apart from bringing in brutal aftermath of a war. I tasted blood in my mouth while reading the book. That was also a stepping stone for American foreign policies which continues to conduct covert operations worldwide, take for example the war against Terrorism. 

The book heavily narrates the tale of the CIA, and instills a fear against American foreign policy (at least it did to me) while the chapters on Hmong community were described earnestly. If you are into war literature, this book might be just the one you wanted to read before traveling to Laos! 

The Ravens is another book on Laos based on the same theme and particularly appealing to the airplane aficionados.

Also read: Reasons to visit Luang Prabang, Laos!

Stalking the Elephant Kings: In Search of Laos by Christopher Kremmer

Luang Prabang is one of the prettiest towns, a UNESCO world heritage site, of Indochina. Underneath the prettiness, hidden buried is a grim history of conflict between American clandestine war and the rise of Asian communism. 

This is by no means an easy read. For a student of history and anyone earnest to learn about the change of Laos and how it turned into a Communist state from archaic monarchy, Stalking the Elephant Kings is a must read. 

The author begins his journey from Luang Prabang, and finds his way through the bomb craters of north and the UNESCO Plain of Jars in South, while unearthing many secrets and bringing out nuances of Laos culture to life! His attempts to trace down the last monarchs of Laos results in rediscovering the Asian society of this small landlocked country. A lot of research has gone into it to build the narrative and the book caters perfectly to those with a penchant for politics of Indo-China. 

This book on Laos is also an updated version of Bamboo Palace: Discovering the Lost Dynasty of Laos. I have found expats in Laos recommending this book every-time life in Laos has been discussed.

Also read: Sofitel Luang Prabang, an eco-luxury stay in Luang Prabang, Laos!

The River’s Tale: A Year on the Mekong by Edward A. Gargan

The mighty Mekong snakes her way down six countries and nourishes millions of people on her shore. She is “Mother Mekong”, “a universal river”, to a large portion of world population. Gargan explores many nuances of vivid human stories unfurling by her shore as he takes his sojourn through the course of the river. It is an excellent travelogue depicting everyday life of the children of Mekong, their accomplishments, defeats and victories. This book takes its course along the course of Mekong river, not just one specific country ie, Laos. You get a peak into the world of Tibet and reach the mouth of Mekong at her complex delta system in Vietnam and touch Cambodia, Laos on the way. It is a profound and personal account.

Also read: The night market of Luang Prabang, Laos!

Escaping the Tiger by Laura Manivong

This book chronicles about the perils that refugees faced while crossing the majestic Mekong river. Armed guards patrol the river bank. The evocative story takes you from Laos to Thailand to finally the US with a family who escaped their homeland at the dark of the night as oppressive political regime threatened life otherwise. This book touched my heart, specially the accounts of the refugee camp are thought-provoking.

Love Began in Laos: The Story of an Extraordinary Life by Penelope Khounta

Remember the Bengali book named “Kabuliwalar Bangali Bou” which was later adapted to a Bollywood movie starring Monisha Kairala? Love Began in Laos almost chimes in with similar experiences. Exception lies with that the book ends on a happy note, reinstating Happily ever afters are a thing!

Penelope is an American. She studied in France. She came to volunteer at Nakhon Phanom as Peace Corps. Across the bridge was Laos, which she fell in love with first. Then came a Laos man in her life. 

Rest is as they say history! She married a Laos man, a high ranking official in Laos bureaucratic system. 

Penelope soon discovered the marriage came with a lot of caveat mainly emerging from clashes based on cultural value. A sea of misunderstanding, confusing and lost cause later, the couple’s commencement triumphed. Love began in Laos is a heartfelt personal account of an American expat woman from Southeast Asia. The book serves as an eye-opener to more intricately nuanced and complex human connection that exists beyond perceived borders.

Another book by an expat living in Laos is the Merit Bird, narrated by a teenager American.

Lost in Laos by Lydia Laube

A very informative travel memoir from Laos. A first hand account by Lydia who explores the land of million elephants by the banks of majestic Mekong river! It is a fun and light read.

Run Me to Earth by Paul Yoon

Written in lucid English, this book takes you through the lives of three orphaned boys in Laos during 1960s. The young boys struggles to live, meets a doctor eventually, and joins hands with him to serve the war torn country and civilians. they bike journeys though fields laden with landmines evoke an inexplicable sadness. The book takes you to various parts of the country, one of them being the plain of Jars whose history dates back to 5000 BC.

Spirit of the Saola by Melody Kemp illustrated by Hoang Van Dao

I picked up this graphic novel from the Lunag Prabang night market. Saola is also known as the Asian unicorn. A rare species discovered only in the 1992, Saola is a mammal whose number ranges within 250 only. Sadly, the endangered animal is found only along the Annamite mountains bordering Laos and Vietnam. this book is a tribute to Saola and a family who has dedicated their life to safeguard the ancient forest, a treasure to the locals.

A Short History of Laos, the Land in between by Grant Evans, Milton E. Osborne

This book takes you through a journey of Laos from time immemorial. There are dynasties, monarchs ruling the land, mountain tribes living in harmony with nature. The first disruption came with the advent of the French as colonizing power. The Vietnam war erupted. Time had more in store as the Communist regime started in Laos once the colonists left. this is an intriguing take on Laos history for a traveler or an enthusiast in Asian history. A History of Laos is another great choice in regards to know about Laos better.

The Edge of Tomorrow by Tom Dooley

American physician Tom Dooley had written this book back in 1958 based on his experience to provide nutritional and medical aid to the remote corners of Laos. He visited Laos with the US navy. After his tenure was over, instead of returning home, he stayed back in Laos and started a mobile medical unit that aimed to serve the needy populace. Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Luang Nam Tha are some of the areas he regularly visited. This book has become an icon among the US Information Agency, since a copy of it will be invariably sent to reinstate cultural diplomacy effort by the US.

A few other books to read on Laos:

  • Villa Incognito by Tom Robbins
  • The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father by Kao Kalia Yang

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