I know I may be in the minority now, but I still like guide books. Whatever arguments people make that they’re outdated as soon as they’re published and blogs or websites have more up-to-date is not necessarily true – I have plenty of posts on this site that haven’t been updated in years – and often bloggers or writers who haven’t spent significant time in a place don’t share any true insight into a destination’s history, culture and lifestyle.
Unlike a blogger writing their list of “best restaurants” in a place they just spent five days (the amount of times I’ve seen posts like these for Chiang Mai is real annoying), guidebooks are actually thoroughly researched and include a lot of information about a region to try and give a more complete picture of where you’re exploring.
But, if you’re still off the guide book bandwagon, there are other books to help dig a little deeper into a place.
When it comes to Thailand, I’ve found the books below incredibly insightful (plus most of them are simply interesting to flip through).
The links in the titles and cover images take you directly to where you can buy the books on Amazon.
Author Jody Houton paints a vivid picture of Thailand as seen through the eyes of a young Western expat. His essays, interviews and sidebars touch on all aspects of Thailand and Thai culture, from useful do’s and don’ts to deeper dives into regional and national history and the quirks of what makes Thais tick. It’s an easy and quick read, useful for both visitors and long-term residents of the Kingdom. When I have visitors, I make sure this book is out along with other Thailand guides, Chiang Mai maps (yes, maps) and magazines I’ve collected over the years.
Going beyond the usual lore and traditions, author Philip Cornwel-Smith puts Thai pop culture front and center in the second edit of his coffee table volume. Packed with pictures, this is a fun one to turn to a page at random and see what you land on. You’ll also get excellent descriptions and explanations of all Thai culture and society’s charming/confusing nuances and contradictions.
Written by longtime resident Oliver Hargreaves, this text starts with a historical account of Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city and the former seat of the Lanna Kingdom. An insightful travel guide, most of the book is dedicated to photos and useful tips for traveling through the north’s scenic hills and valleys yet weaves in way more history and cultural insight than typical guidebooks. I literally read it cover to cover to learn more about where I’ve chosen to call home.
Known for blending Lanna Thai architectural elements with contemporary styles, architect Ong-Ard Satrabhandhu’s homes, resorts and hotels are beautifully captured by photographer Francois Halard in this doorstopper of a book. If you’ve been to Chiang Mai, there’s a good chance you’ve seen some of Ong-Ard Satrabhandhu’s work – he designed the elegant Rachamankha hotel in the Old City as well as the One Nimman shopping centre. I personally love his style and flipping through the pages of this architecture book is as soothing and inspiring as actually wandering the halls of the gorgeous buildings pictured.
An expert on Southeast Asia lifestyle and design, Kim Inglis has teamed up with photographer Michael Freeman to deliver this ode to all things beautiful in contemporary Thai design. From luxury properties to inventive furnishings, they capture the artful blending of traditional craftmanship and design with modern techniques and sensibilities. It’s a beautiful book to flip through and might just prompt you to splurge on a boutique stay somewhere in this stunning country. (Actually, now that I’m looking at the cover again, I’m realising it’s a shot of the incredible pool suites at The Siam hotel in Bangkok – LOVE!)
The Thai tradition of sak yan, or inking protective charms on the body, is one that’s a mystery, even to many Thais, and fascinating to all. Joe Cummings has long been based in Thailand and knows what he’s talking about (he wrote the first Lonely Planet guide to Thailand…and has continued traveling and writing ever since!). In Sacred Tattoos of Thailand, he traces the history of these sacred tattoos from tribal societies, capturing the unique rituals which surround the practice and telling the stories of the master ajarns who keep this ancient practice alive.
You may have heard that it’s illegal to use the Buddha’s image as decoration in Thailand. Well, Angela S. Chiu’s book goes some way to explaining exactly why that is. A ubiquitous symbol of Buddhism, the veneration of Buddha’s image plays a huge part in the religious and symbolic life of Thais and this book draws deep into the legends and texts that form the basis of modern beliefs.
Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit draw out the threads that connect Thailand’s history and heritage with the modern day in this highly readable text. Yes, it’s a textbook, but if you have any interest whatsoever in Thailand’s history and politics, you’ll quickly latch on to their explanations of how the country transformed from sparse jungles to villages and rice paddies and into the globalized nation it is today.
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Hey! I'm Alana and I've spent nearly the past decade living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, working as a writer and photographer. I started Paper Planes as a place to share local insight, special places, and how to travel well through a range of experiences — from hostels to high-end hotels, street meat to multi-course meals.