Five classic books from Thailand (เมืองไทย)

May is Asian and Pacific Islander heritage month! So this month I’m going to share reading recommendations from across Asia and the Pacific Islands.

I love this part of the world and I’m excited to be sharing books from here. I think books are a great way to gain insight into peoples’ lives and their culture. You may not be able to travel or live everywhere you’re interested in, but you can definitely read from anywhere in the world.

I currently live in Thailand and I’m always learning new things about the country and the people.

I’ve been trying to learn the Thai language and it’s incredibly difficult. But the more I learn, the more I understand that there’s so much culture embedded in the language and it’s a reflection of the nation’s history.

For instance, a lot of the Thai language has been influenced by Indian languages, both Sanskrit and Pali. Sanskrit is more associated with Hinduism and social hierarchies, whereas Pali is associated with Buddhism and the language used by commoners.

So, Thai words used in connection with the monarchy tend to come from Sanskrit, whereas words used for going to the Buddhist temple are more likely to come from Pali. These two languages tend to have distinct spelling patterns or use certain Thai letters, so the difference is still visible to this day.

Photo by Mos on Unsplash

I know the Thai language often poses a barrier to translating works to English, as it can be difficult to translate all the nuances embedded in the language.

But I think a the greater barrier is that most publishing houses don’t see Thailand as a priority, actually I think most of Southeast Asia is not seen as a priority.

One of the best ways to improve that is to show an interest in Southeast Asian/Thai literature. The more people buy and seek out books from this area, the more the corporations will see it as an opportunity for monetary growth.

So in order to promote Thai literature, and also to share a bit more about Thailand, I’ve put together a list of some classic Thai literature.

This list is obviously not extensive, but serves as an introduction to a few areas of Thai literature that have been translated into English.

Five classic books from Thailand

Here’s a list of five classic books with authors from Thailand.

  1. Ramakien / รามเกียรติ์ (13th century)
  2. Phra Aphai Mani / พระอภัยมณี (1822-1844)
  3. Four Reigns / สี่แผ่นดิน (1953)
  4. A Child of the Northeast / ลูกอีสาน (1976)
  5. The Happiness of Kati / ความสุขของกะทิ (2006)

Keep reading to find out more about each one. I’ve listed them in order of when they were published.

Ramakien / รามเกียรติ์ (13th century)

(Thai: รามเกียรติ์ meaning ‘Glory of Rama’; sometimes also spelled Ramakian)

  • Year Published: 13th century
  • Language: Thai
  • One of Thailand’s epic poems and
  • It is considered Thailand’s version of the Ramayana as it shares most of same the tales, but has been adjusted to the culture of Ayutthaya

Ramakien tells the story of the battle between Tosakanth (king of the demons) and a human, King Rama. Tosakanth kidnaps Queen Sida, wife of King Rama, with the hope that she will fall in love with him. The battle over Queen Sida has Tosakanth and his relatives and friends on one side, against King Rama, his loyal brother Phra Lak and an army of monkey warriors, including Hanuman the demi-god white monkey.


Phra Aphai Mani / พระอภัยมณี (1822-1844)

by Sunthorn Phu / สุนทรภู่ (who is known as “the Bard of Rattanakosin” / ”กวีเอกแห่งกรุงรัตนโกสินทร์”)

  • Year Published: 1822-1844
  • Storygraph Categories: poetry, adventurous, challenging, reflective, medium-paced
  • As a 48,700-line epic poem, it is considered to be one of Thailand’s national epics, and the world’s second longest epic poem written by a single poet

At the very beginning, Phra Abhai Mani and his younger brother Sri Suvarna set out to acquire knowledge. The kind of knowledge that was thought fit for princes in Thai stories then was the silpasat, which is equivalent to general knowledge or liberal education. The two Princes took up special studies instead. Phra Abhai Mani mastered the art of music, especially flute-playing, while Sri Suvarna was trained in the art of self-defence, in particular cudgel-fighting. Such specialisations were not known or appreciated then and, as a result, the two Princes were turned out of the kingdom by their own father.

Afterwards, the two Princes met three Brahmins who also professed special sciences. One of them could shoot seven arrows at the same time and make them all hit the mark. They exhibited their special excellences of which Phra Abhai Mani’s outshone the rest. At this point, Phra Abhai Mani and Sri Suvarna were separated from each other and had different adventures. But they kept themselves from harm by virtue of their special knowledge. Their lives were also shaped by what they had learnt.


Four Reigns / สี่แผ่นดิน (1953)

by Kukrit Pramoj / คึกฤทธิ์ ปราโมช, translated from the Thai by Tulachandra

  • Year Published: 1953
  • Storygraph Categories: fiction, historical, challenging, informative, slow-paced
  • One of the most influential Thai novels, widely regarded as a classic and the Encyclopaedia Britannica described it as “probably the best-selling Thai novel of all time”

This English version of the Thai novel Si Phaendin tells the rich and entertaining story of one woman’s life both inside and outside the royal palace in Bangkok. Spanning a period of four reigns, from King Chulalongkorn to the reign of his grandson King Ananda, this popular modern classic gives insight into the social and political issues facing Thailand from the 1890s through the turbulent years of World War II.


A Child of the Northeast / ลูกอีสาน (1976)

by Kampoon Boonthavee / คำพูน บุญทวี, translated from the Thai by Susan Fulop Kepner

  • Year Published: 1976
  • Storygraph Categories: fiction, classics, emotional, reflective, slow-paced
  • Won the SEA Write Award

A novel about a year in the life of a village in Northeast Thailand during the 1930’s. It is also a tale about a world scarcely known in the West: the world of “Isan”, which is what the natives call their corner of Thailand.

Kampoon Boontawee based this award-winning novel on memories of his own childhood in Isan during the depths of the Depression. The loving, courageous family at the center of the novel include a boy named Koon, who is about eight years old; his sisters Yee-soon, five, and Boonlai, two; and their parents, whose names we never learn. They are simply “Koon’s mother” and “Koon’s father”, even by their friends and family.

Kampoon also introduces his readers to a wider, equally unforgettable family: the relatives and neighbors who live in Koon’s village. It is their bravery, their goodness of heart, and above all, their indestructible, earthy sense of humor, that shape the boy Koon’s perception of the world, and his purpose in it.


The Happiness of Kati / ความสุขของกะทิ (2006)

by Ngarmpun (Jane) Vejjajiva / งามพรรณ เวชชาชีวะ, translated from the Thai by Prudence Borthwick

  • Year Published: 2006
  • Storygraph Categories: fiction, contemporary, middle grade, emotional, medium-paced
  • Won the SEA Write Award

When the mother she hasn’t seen in five years is stricken with Lou Gehrig’s disease, nine-year-old Kati travels to the house by the sea to spend the last weeks of her mother’s life with her, in this touching story of love, hope, and renewal set in Thailand.


Final thoughts

I hope you found something of interest in this list of books.

I’m always looking for more suggestions of books to read. I’d love to know which books you love or that you would recommend. Let me know in a comment below!

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of it?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.