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8 best books on South-east Asia

South-east Asia has undeniably had its fair share of war and torment through the centuries, from colonisation in Malaysia to communist rule in Cambodia and civil war in Vietnam.

But in the 21st century, the countries are recovering from their pasts and are instead known by nicknames such as Cambodia’s The Land of Smiles and the Philippines’ moniker, The Pearl of the Orient Seas.

There are beautiful beaches, incredible mountains and welcoming people. You have super-modern cities and ancient temples, which combined form the fascinating area we call South-east Asia.

And if you can’t get there to see it for yourself, read about it. We selected eight books covering the region. This list includes a mix of new releases and some older titles that have become classics of their genre.

1. First They Killed my Father by Loung Ung: £7.99, Mainstream Publishing

Loung Ung’s story caught the attention of Angelina Jolie, who is currently directing a film for Netflix of her harrowing early life. Ung was forced to leave the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh to become a child soldier at just five years old when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge army captured the city. This non-fiction book graphically retells the story of a family – and nation – torn apart. She vividly describes the sight and smell of rotting corpses and being forced to eat whatever scraps they could get their hands on, and the terror and loss suffered by so many. It’s a story of survival that will grip you and not let go, even after you’ve turned the final page.

2. Smaller and Smaller Circles by FH Batacan: £7.99, Soho Press

First published in 2002 and released as a film last year, this engrossing, fast-paced tale is considered by many as the first Filipino crime novel. It’s set in Payatas, a vast 50-acre dump north-east of the capital Manila where communities scavenge to survive, and there’s little police protection. When disembowelled bodies of young boys begin to appear among the rubbish, two Catholic priests take up the cause to attempt to bring justice to this corrupt and poor neighbourhood. The cleverly written book won the Philippine National Book Award when it was first published.

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