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The nine books you need to pack for a cruise around Asia

Chris Moss
The best way to experience Asia is in person but these books will give you a deeper understanding of the region's deep cultures - GETTY

Asia can be beguiling and, at times, baffling. Whether you’re drifting along the Mekong, docking at one of China’s recently expanded port cities or checking out the European colonial heritage of Singapore or Vietnam, a cruise around Asia will provide an edifying, and enjoyable, education.

You may therefore need a little help from writers to get beneath the skin of this vast continent. Fortunately, you’re in good company. Not only has Asia always tempted the finest talents from abroad, it has produced some superb homegrown literature, too.

Here’s a quick pick of classics and contemporary works sure to enhance your experience of the magnificent region. 

1. The Road to Samarcand (1954) by Patrick O'Brien

The mariner’s favourite author finds a circuitous and salty route to the Silk Road city of Samarkand – his spelling is an old-fashioned alternative – by way of the South China Sea, where orphaned American teenager, Derrick, joins his uncle aboard a sailing ship. Typhoons, bandits and skirmishes at sea don’t prevent the young hero from learning to speak Mongolian, becoming a superb horseman and discovering the noble art of falcon hunting.

2. The Quiet American (1955) by Graham Greene

Lifelong anti-American Greene analyses US arrogance in Vietnam through the strained relationship between cynical British journalist Thomas Fowler, idealistic but ultimately ignorant CIA agent Alden Pyle and Phuong, a young Vietnamese woman – the object of both men’s affections. Despite the clichés and Greeneian sexism, the novel captures the darker side of expatriate existence and the misadventures of diplomats well out of their depth.

Use The Quiet American to see one side of Vietnam's history, but keep the beautiful landscape as something to explore first-hand Credit: GETTY

3. The Malayan Trilogy (1956-59) by Anthony Burgess

PC or not PC, you can’t get away from Britain’s tentacular connections with much of Asia. An officer in the Colonial Service, Burgess was well-positioned to pen this satire on the fag-ends of the colonial era. In The Malayan Trilogy (the dated Carry On-ish individual titles are Time for a Tiger, The Enemy in the Blanket and Beds in the East), Victor Crabbe is a well-intentioned Englishman, let loose in the testing tropics, where he aspires to teach the Malays that West is best.

Against the backdrop of calls for independence, Burgess has great fun with his protagonist’s ineffectuality and cultural myopia, the comedy an entertaining foil for his richly allusive prose.

Let Anthony Burgess guide you through Asia of a different time – though thankfully the beauty has remained in corners of Malaysia Credit: GETTY

4. The Great Railway Bazaar (1975) by Paul Theroux

Theroux’s best travelogue goes from London to Vladivostok and back by train – mainly – but the fast-paced narrative is enjoyable whatever mode of transport you happen to be on. Bookish yet blunt, perceptive and at times priggish, Theroux is an interesting companion on the journey that sweeps south through the Levant and Afghanistan and returns on the Trans-Siberian Express.

5. The Lover (1984) by Marguerite Duras

It’s colonial Vietnam, 1929.  A 15-year-old French girl, on a ferry crossing the Mekong delta, falls for a much older Chinese-Vietnamese businessman. Their love is genuine, but pressures build on all sides as culture and convention collude to determine their destinies. Marguerite Duras’s semi-autobiographical novel was made into a film in 1992. Some Mekong cruises visit the Duras home.

6. Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast (2012) by Samanth Subramanian

Journalist Subramanian follows fishing culture along the coast of India, divulging histories, folklore and traditions, as well as medicinal and culinary uses, while spending time with local artisanal fishermen. He also reflects on the environmental impact of overfishing by trawlers and the sub-continent’s problematic future.

For coastal reportage with an environmental edge, opt for Samanth Subramanian's Following Fish Credit: GETTY

7. The Beach (1996) by Alex Garland

The must-own backpack novel of the Nineties rework’s William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, relocating the drama to an archetypal beach idyll in South East Asia. A satire on gap-year delusion (ostensibly a new version of colonialism) as well as the rapacious tourism industry, it caricatures young global travellers as Ballardian wolves in sheep-like hippie clothing.

8. Waterlife (2012) by Rambharos Jha

This beautiful screen-printed graphic novel was inspired by its author’s youth on the banks of the river Ganga (Ganges), the textured forms echoing traditional Madhubani art practised by women of that Bihar district, which uses twigs, brushes and natural dyes. The wistful text that swims around the images of crabs, lobsters and seahorses evokes folk mythology and childhood memories.

Rambharos Jha's graphic novel brings India's sacred river to life Credit: GETTY

9. Indonesia, Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation (2014) by Elizabeth Pisani

In 1945, the first president of the newly independent Indonesia, Sutan Sjahrir, declared: “The details of the transfer of power etc. will be worked out as soon as possible.” Elizabeth Pisani’s witty and wise travelogue reflects on what the “etc” might really mean in cultural, political and economic terms. During a year-long journey that covers almost 26,000 miles by boat, bus and bike, she sees a lot more of this huge island chain than most people ever see. The “etc” is not really found, as Indonesia remains an intriguing mystery, even unto itself.

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