25 Great Books on Thailand

by Oct 12, 2019Books, Thailand

I’ve been to Thailand many times, but I haven’t really read much on the country. So, I’ve decided that since I’m going back next year (2020), it’s going to be my mission to read more books about Thailand. Here is a lit of books that I’ve read or collected so far. It includes fiction books set in Thailand, books on the history of Thailand, my favorite Thailand travel guides, and Thai cookbooks that I’ve used myself.

I was able to find some gems (Sightseeing and Bangkok Wakes to Rain) by 2 talented Thai writers, Pitchaya Sudbanthad and Rattawut Lapcharoensap. They both present more nuanced characters than the stereotypical ones you see in movies and books on Thailand. Unfortunately, most fiction books about Thailand that are written in English are those by white dudes obsessed with Thai prostitute. I haven’t included all of those ones in this list.

If you’ve read any good books about Thailand and Thai culture and history, comment at the end of this post.

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Table of Contents

Books about Thailand: Fiction

1. Bangkok Wakes to Rain

By Pitchaya Sudbanthad  (2019)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Bangkok Wakes to Rain (love the title) is a beautifully written book by Pitchaya Sudbantha. But it requires a lot of patience. It’s unclear what the book is about at first. Is it a novel (the blurb says it is) or a collection of short stories? Each chapter features new characters unrelated to those in earlier chapters, and each chapter is set in a different period. The only thing they have in common is Bangkok. It’s not until part 2 when the characters converge that the novel becomes more interesting. And then it’s not until part 4 that you understand what the whole book is about: a story of Bangkok from its past through its present and into its future.

What I liked and disliked about Bangkok Wakes to Rain: First, the writing is brilliant. It’s evocative, lyrical, sparse, smooth. Sudbantha writes in a way that makes the scenes, characters, and setting come alive. There are lots of characters who we only get to follow for a few chapters, but Sudbantha makes you feel as if you really understand them.

How he tells his story reminds me of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which I didn’t enjoy. Both books go back and forth between the past, present and future and both have separate and later converging storylines. I’d like to read more from Sudbantha, but something told more linearly. If you need tons of action in your novels, this book might not be for you.

2. The Beach

By Alex Garland (2005)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I’m sure this book needs no introduction, as The Beach is probably the most well-known book on my books about Thailand list. The Beach was written in 2005 by Alex Garland and made into a movie later starting Leonardo DiCaprio. The book is much better than the movie. Alex Garland understands travelers (as opposed to tourists). He knows their fears and fantasies.

British backpacker, Richard, is spending his first night in Thailand in a cheap guesthouse on Bangkok’s Khao San Road (been there, done that). The guy in the room next to him commits suicide, but before dying he hands Richard a map to a beach in a secret lagoon. Richard heads off with a French couple to look for this island. They find it and it’s the paradise of every backpacker’s fantasy. But after a while, Richard realizes that there’s a dark side running through this supposed paradise.

What I liked about The Beach: The Beach is a fun read. The perfect escape on a dreary winter day. Great characters, stunning setting, descriptive prose, and suspenseful plot. It’s a great book to read while on you’re on your plane to Thailand.

3. Fieldwork

By Mischa Berlinski (2008)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of my top 3 favorite books set in Thailand is Fieldwork. The narrator of Fieldwork, Mischa Berlinski, is a freelance journalist living in Thailand. One evening an ex-pat friend tells him a story of an American-Dutch anthropologist’s suicide in a Thai prison. She’d been serving a life sentence for murdering an American missionary. The story sparks Mischa’s curiosity enough that he goes in search of what led Martiya van der Leun to commit murder. He uncovers the complicated family history of Mariya and her victim, the controversial origins of modern anthropology, and the secrets of the Thai hill tribes.

What I loved about Fieldwork: Exotic setting, lots of anthropology, the clash between religion and science, the character-development (I love books that go deep into the characters’ backstories), the mystery, and the author’s observations on life as an ex-pat. And of course, the story. Get a copy and read while on the beach in Thailand.

4. Four Reigns

By Kukrit Pramoj (1953, 1998)

Four Reigns by Kukrit Pramoj is considered a classic in Thailand. It’s been made into a movie and TV series. This historical novel tells the story of Ploy and her family during the reign of four Thai kings starting in the early 1800s to the mid-1940s. Through the eyes of this minor aristocratic family, we see the political and social changes that Thailand went through as it opened itself up to the outside world.

I own this book, but I haven’t started reading it yet. I’ll revise this review when I finish it.

5 – 7. Jimm Juree Mystery Series

By Collin Cotterill (2011)

Colin Cotterill is best known for his Dr. Siri detective series. In the Jimm Juree novels, the setting changes from Lao to Thailand, and the detective isn’t an aging Lao coroner but a young, fearless female Thai crime reporter. What is the same are the whacky but enduring cast of characters and Cotterill’s laugh-out-loud writing. These are the funniest books I’ve read about Thailand.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Killed at the Whim of a Hat is the first in a series starring crime reporter/amateur sleuth, Jimm Juree.

Jimm Juree is a crime reporter from Chiang Mai. Her family (her eccentric mother, former traffic cop grandfather, and her bodybuilding-obsessed brother (her transsexual sister stays in Chain Mai) is forced to move to southern Thailand when her mother rashly sells the family business for an investment in a beach resort. Stuck in the kitchen of a failing resort, she thinks her career is over. But then the remains of two hippies are unearthed and a monk is murdered, and she’s back to her old life of solving crime.

What I liked about the novel: I enjoyed the strong female lead and her quirky family and friends. The mystery was pretty good. Loved the George Bush quotes at the beginning of each chapter. You’ll enjoy this book if you liked Cotterill’s Dr. Siri novels or if you enjoy a good mystery told with a sense of humor.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

In Grandad, There’s a Head on the Beach, the mystery hits closer to home this time. A severed head turns up on the beach of the family’s resort. And Jimm Juree must find out who was murdered and why. Both funny and dark.

What I liked about this book: I loved Cotterill’s creative and witty writing. Here’s an example:

It’s always a bother to decide who to tell when you find a head on the beach. I mean, there is no protocol. And when I say “always” here, I may be exaggerating somewhat because I can’t say I’ve stumbled over too many heads on my morning dog walks. I’d seen body parts in morgues, of course, and accident scenes, but that Wednesday was my first detached head. It upset me that it hadn’t upset me enough.

Another thing I liked about this book is that Cotterill sheds light on the plight of illegal immigrants and the enslavement of the Burmese on Thai fishing boats. It didn’t come across as preachy.

If you’re interested in reading more about the plight of the Burmese working in Thailand, check out my list of books on Myanmar.

Grandad There’s a Head on the Beach is a laugh-out-loud, informative, and fabulously written book.

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

The Axe Factor is the third mystery in the Jimm Juree series. Cotterill hasn’t written any more Jimm Juree books since this one was published in 2014. So, I’m assuming this one is the last. It’s disappointing because I’ve enjoyed reading books starring a fearless female detective.

In the Axe Factor, Jimm Juree is still helping her messed-up but lovable family run their failing Thai beach resort. But Juree has taken on a side job working for the local newspaper. Her assignment is to interview a local British expat, a famous crime writer (yes, ironic) who loves to chop things up with an ax. He seems to have taken a romantic interest in Juree. At the same time, she’s investigating the disappearance of local Thai women. Of course, since this book is a detective novel, there’s gotta be a connection.

What I liked and disliked about the Axe Factor: I liked this one the least. It’s got the same fun characters, exotic setting, and witty prose, but the story wasn’t as engaging as the others. I enjoyed the humorous mistranslations at the beginning of each chapter.

8. The Narrow Road to the Deep North

By Richard Flanagan (2014)

Written by Richard Flanagan, Narrow Road to the Deep North is about the building of the Bridge over the River Kwai (also called the Death Railway) by Australian POWs during World War II. It’s not a book about Thais, but it’s about an important event in world history that took place in Thailand. You can visit the bridge today in Kanchanaburi, about 2.5 hours by bus from Bangkok.

The Japanese captors treated their slave laborers (60,000 Allied POWs and 250,000 Tamils, Chinese, Javanese, Malayans, Thais, and Burmese) horribly—starving them, beating, them, and working them to death. No one is sure how many people died. Some people say 50,000, while others say 100,000 to 200,000.

I just started this book, so I can’t give a review yet. So far, the writing is good:

He believed books has an aura that protected him, that without one beside him he would die. He happily slept without women. He never slept without a book.

9. Sightseeing

By Rattawut Lapcharoensap (2018)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I love, love, love this book. In fact, Sightseeing made my list of best books I’ve read in 2019 and definitely the best books on Thailand. That’s saying something considering I really don’t like short story collections.

Written by Rattawut Lapcharoensap, Sightseeing consists of 7 short stories set in Thailand and except for one story, all feature a Thai protagonist. It’s the perfect book for learning about the real Thailand rather than the eroticized and corrupt one often depicted in books written by westerners. A lot of the stories focus on the complicated relationship between child and parent. And even though Thais have a stronger sense of filial piety than I do, I could still relate.

What I liked about the book: The writing is brilliant. Powerful. Empathetic. I found myself transported into each story. I could feel the shame, sadness, regret, and longing that the characters felt.

BUT all the stories are sad and painful. Here’s a sample of the various themes: parental rejection, death of a parent, illness of a parent, corruption, and bullying.  I could only read one story at a time. And then I needed to read a different book or watch some TV to give me some hope.

Don’t let that scare you off, though. These are moving and important stories.

10 – 15. Sonchai Jitpleecheep Detective Mystery Series

By John Burdett (2003 – 2015)

John Burdett has written 6 novels in the Royal Thai Detective series. The detective is Soncahi Jitpleecheep, a half-Thai and half-caucasian police detective in Bangkok. When Sonchai is a teenager, him and his best friend, Pinchai, murder a yaa baa (meth) dealer. To avoid prison, his mother makes a deal that sends him to a monastery for 6 months. At the end of his stay, the abbot of the monastery tells him that in order to fix his karma, he needs to become a police officer. But there’s a catch: To avoid hell, he has to become an honest cop, harder than it seems.

My Rating: 3 out of 5

Bangkok 8 (Book 1) starts out with an over-the-top, gruesome murder. An American marine is trapped in his Mercedes with a black python and as a swarm of 20 baby cobras. Sonchai teams up with the American FBI to solve the murder of the American.

What I liked and didn’t like: The story is suspenseful. Sonchai is a likable character with a wry sense of humor and an interesting backstory. There’s a lot of fascinating information about Thai culture, especially prostitutes, drugs, prison-life, corruption, etc.

However, the dialogue between Sonchai and the Americans makes me cringe. It’s awkward and unnatural sounding: “You lost a lot of blood, pilgrim, we only just got you in time.” It’s as if Burdett’s knowledge of Americans comes only through bad American movies and TV shows from the 80s.

My Rating: 1 out of 5

Bangkok Tattoo (Book 2) opens up with a murder of an American by a Thai prostitute. Chanya, Sonchai’s mother’s new brothel/bar’s star prostitute, cuts off the penis of one of her customers and then stabs him to death. Sonchai also gets involved in the long-running feud between his boss and the head of the Thai army over control of the drug trade.

What I liked and didn’t like: I have a philosophy about books: life is too short to read crappy books. And this was was one hell of a crappy book. I couldn’t finish it.

I liked Sonchai in Bangkok 8, but in Bangkok Tattoo he’s become a bitter, angry man. Instead of the honest cop from book 1, he’s now running his mother’s whorehouse and helping his corrupt boss run his illegal businesses. Sonchai has this irritating way of addressing his reader as “farang” (foreigner). He doesn’t use it with humor or kindness but rather with a sneer.

Too many things I hated about this book. A boring plot, awkward dialogue, and a screwed up perspective on prostitution. Burdett tries to make the Thais appear superior to farangs, but instead, the Thais come across as unlikeable, rude, and cruel.

In Bangkok Haunts (Book 3), Sonchai receives a snuff film featuring the murder of an ex-lover. He teams up with the FBI again (I can assume more awkward dialogue and stereotypes) to solve the mystery. His corrupt boss also assigns him to help start a porn film business.

I was so turned off by Burdett’s Bangkok Tattoo that I haven’t read this one.

 

My Starting: 2 out of 5 stars

In Godfather of Kathmandu (Book 4), Sonchai is sent to Kathmandu to mediate a dispute between his boss and his boss’s arch-rival over his illegal businesses. However, Sonchai’s personal life has taken a turn for the worse and he’s more interested in following a Tibetan lama than taking care of business or solving crime.

What I liked and disliked about it: I read Godfather of Kathmandu before Bangkok Tattoo. Like the latter, I didn’t finish it. The mystery seemed to take secondary importance to Sonchai’s search for spiritual enlightenment and never moves forward. I wish I liked this book more because there are so few good ones set in Nepal and that you can find in English.

In Vulture Peak (Book 5), Sonchai is in charge of putting togther a sting operation targeting the black market world of trafficking in human organs. The investigation takes him to crazy Chinese twins who run a hospital for harvesting body parts. Again Sonchai finds himself in the middle of the rivalry between his corrupt boss and the head of the army.

The topic sounds interesting, but I’m not fond of Burdett’s writing, so probably won’t read it.

 

In Bangkok Asset (Book 6), Sonchai is teamed up with a female partner. They’re up against the CIA and their superhuman creation. Their investigation takes them to the Cambodian jungle compound for American former soldiers where they discover a horrible secret coverup by the American government.

I haven’t read this book, and I probably won’t. It’s also received a lot of negative reviews on Goodreads and Amazon.

 

 

16. The Suspect

By Fiona Barton (2019)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Suspect by Fiona Barton is a book you should read after visiting Thailand and not before. Or else, you might not go. But read it! It’s hard to put down. Once you start, you’ll forget about all the things you should be doing and instead read until you find out what really happened to Rosie and Alex.

Every parents’ worst nightmare comes true. Rosie and Alex, two eighteen-year-old British girls, head off to Thailand. Two weeks into their trip, they fail to call home. A week passes and worried sick, their parents contact the police. They’re told not to worry. The girls are probably too busy having a good time to call. But then gradually we learn the real reason no one has heard from Rosie and Alex.

Why I liked The Suspect: A very suspenseful and fun read! I liked the reporter character, Kate Waters. I found it easy to imagine myself in the position of the characters.

Books on the History of Thailand

17. A History of Thailand

By Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit

Written by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit, History of Thailand focuses mainly on modern Thai history from the early 1800s to modern-day. It briefly covers the history of Sukothai and Ayutthaya. If that’s the period of history that you’re most interested in, then this is a great book for you. It’s gotten great reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

I haven’t read it yet, but I’m really looking forward to reading it.  I’ll update this post when I finish it.

 

18. A History of Ayutthaya: Siam in the Early Modern World

By Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit (2017)

A History of Ayutthaya covers the history of the kingdom from the thirteenth century to its end. The authors drew on both old and new sources to write this comprehensive history of Ayutthaya. They also present a theory on why Ayutthaya collapsed that is different from what traditionally was thought

As a history and archaeology nerd, I’m dying to read this book. I’ve only read a sample of it and I’m intrigued. I’ll keep this post up-to-date when I finish it.

 

Books about Thailand: Cookbooks

19. Hot Thai Kitchen: Demystifying Thai Cuisine with Authentic Recipes to Make at Home

By Pailin Chongchitnant (2016)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Hot Thai Kitchen is one of my top 2 favorite Thai cookbooks. I love using it along with her fantastic videos that you can find on her website, Hot Thai Kitchen. In fact, each recipe in the book has a code you can scan that’ll take you directly to the video.

What the cookbook does is give you lots of background information on the food and recipes. You’ll learn about why a certain ingredient is used and when best to add it to the dish, which ingredients you can get away with substituting or leaving out.

Another reason I love this book is that she’s a great teacher. Her instructions and explanations are super clear.

Finally, every one of her recipes has turned out wonderfully. Especially her curries. Buy it especially if you’re a novice Thai cook or if you want to delve into the cuisine more deeply.

Get this book if you want to learn how to cook Thai food or just learn more about the cuisine.

20. Simple Thai Food: Classic Recipes from the Thai Home Kitchen

By Leela Punyaratabandhu (2014)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Simple Thai Food is my other favorite Thai cookbook. Even if you haven’t cooked Thai food before, you can easily follow the recipes.

Nearly every recipe I’ve used has worked perfectly. She has a Thai Coconut Chicken Soup (Thom Kha Gai) and a Green Papaya Salad recipe that are both to die for.

I can also find most of the ingredients (galangal root, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, curry pastes, and coconut milk) at my local Indian-Filippino grocery store in my small town on the central California coast.

21. Bangkok: Recipes and Stories from the Heart of Thailand

By Leela Punyaratabandhu (2017)

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Leela Punyaratabandhu’s second cookbook, Bangkok: Food and Stories from the Heart of Thailand, focuses solely on Thai cuisine from Bangkok. You’ll find recipes for street food, royal Thai cuisine, classic dishes, and dishes unfamiliar to the average non-Thai.

The recipes here are much more complex than those found in Punyaratabandhu’s first cookbook, Simple Thai Food. You’ll find recipes with a list of ingredients a mile long and ingredients you’ll have a hard time finding outside of Thailand (pandan leaves and limestone paste). It was the first time I saw a recipe for both coconut cream and coconut milk. It’s easy to find coconut milk but not the cream.

If you have little or no experience cooking Thai food, skip this one and stick with her other book. But for those of you with lots of Thai cooking experience, her second book is fascinating but challenging.

Almost every recipe comes with a photo and a story of the history of the dish or the way her family cooked the dish.

Have you eaten at the popular Pok Pok restaurant in Portland? I have, and it’s the best Thai restaurant I’ve been to in the U.S. The food is northern Thai. You’ll find more than just the typical curries and pad Thais on the menu. This cookbook is based on the dishes from that restaurant.

For home cooks not in Thailand, Pok Pok isn’t so useful. The recipes are too complicated and it’s hard to find some of the ingredients at my local Asian market. I tried two salad dishes, and both flopped.

Amazing photos, though. Food porn at its finest.

Books about Thailand: Travel Guides

23. Lonely Planet Thailand

By Anita Isalska  (2018)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The best travel guide for Thailand is Lonely Planet’s Thailand guide. It’s the perfect guidebook for the curious traveler, the backpacker, the long-term traveler, and the residents of Thailand.

Here’s what I like about Lonely Planet books compared to say Fodor’s: First, Lonely Planet (LP) covers cities and islands more comprehensively than Fodor’s does. Let’s take Ko Chang, an island near the Cambodian border, as an example: Fodor’s devotes 5 pages to Ko Chang, while LP gives it 10 and a half pages. LP also covers more off-the-beaten-path places than Fodor’s does. Let’s look at Ko Chang again. Fodor’s just writes about Ko Chang, but LP also describes the nearby, smaller islands of Ko Kut and Ko Wai. In addition, I prefer how Lonely Planet provides a list of accommodations for every budget level from hostels to luxury resorts. Fodor’s sticks to mid-range and luxury hotels.

Lonely Planet does have some downsides:  I’m not fond of their writing style. I prefer Rough Guides more straightforward writing, but I haven’t used their Thailand guidebook, so I can’t recommend it here. I might be in the minority, but I wish LP gave more background information to individual cities and islands like Rough Guide and Fodor’s do. As a history nerd, some historical information would help me more in deciding whether I want to visit the place. Lonely Planet is not perfect, but it’s the best guidebook for those who want to go beyond the usual tourist destinations.

24. Lonely Planet Bangkok

By Austin Bush (2018)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Lonely Planet Bangkok is an awesome guidebook for those staying in Bangkok longer than two days or those only visiting the city. What I love are all the travel tips, the plethora of cultural information, the walking tours, the lists galore like the best small hotels or places to eat. It feels as if a local wrote it.

I have two complaints: Number one: They need more itineraries. Lonely Planet has only one 4-day itinerary. Why not present a 5-day or 7-day one or itineraries for different types of travelers? Number two: I wish they provided more information on the excursions around Bangkok. Their coverage of places like Ayutthaya and Kanchanaburi is too brief. I’d prefer something more in-depth. Maybe I’m spending 2 weeks in only Bangkok and its surrounding area. To do that well, I’d need to get the 796-page Thailand book.

25. Thailand: Guide to the Temples of Bangkok, Ayutthaya, & Sukhothai

By David Raezer and Jennifer Raezer (2019)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Approach Guides has a terrific series of guidebooks covering the historic and religious monuments of different countries. Along with the Thai guidebook, I’ve used the guide to the temples in Cambodia and the one for Bagan and found them useful when there was no tour guide to explain what I was looking at.

In Approach Guide’s Thailand book, you’ll get background information on the art and architecture of the three Thai kingdoms: Sukhothai, Ayutthaya, and Bangkok. I especially like how they point out the different architectural features, which helps you understand what you’re looking at. It really enhances your experience. Another plus is that it identifies which temples to prioritize. This helps you avoid missing any important temples.

So, there you have it: a review of a collection of books about Thailand. I hope this list helps you decide which books to read and which ones to skip. My 3 favorite books are Fieldwork, The Beach, and Sightseeing. If you know of any books not on this list, let me know in the comment section below. If you’ve read any of these books, let me know what you thought of them.

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12 Comments

  1. Thank you for this great list of books. I love reading books about a place more than I like looking at social media. There is something so grounding about books and this list seems to be a great comprehensive one for Thailand for any kind of traveler.

    Reply
    • Ditto! I’d prefer a book any day to social media.

      Reply
  2. I’m headed to Thailand soon and this list is so helpful! I love reading books that relate to the places I’m visiting. Thanks for this curated list!

    Reply
    • I’m glad to hear that you’ll be visiting Thailand soon. I hope you get a chance to read something from this list.

      Reply
  3. Such a great post, I love this idea 🙂

    I especially loved the idea of reading a cookbook before you enter a new country, so that you know what to expect and what you’re in for. Great tip, thank you!

    Reply
    • Thanks, Ann! You can learn a lot about the food of a country from some cookbooks. Hot Thai Kitchen is especially good for that.

      Reply
  4. This is great! I always like to read before I travel so I’ve pinned this for a trip we’re hoping to take in the next few years

    Reply
    • Thanks! I’m glad to hear that you’re planning on a trip to Thailand. It’s such a beautiful and fascinating place.

      Reply
  5. Nice list. The Beach and Bangkok 8 are great reads. Another three of my favourites (books set in Thailand) that are well worth reading are Private Dancer by Stephen Leather, Triad by Colin Falconer (Triad is out of print but it’s a great read if you can find a copy), and Only Raising Dust On The Road by Raymond Carroll.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the suggestions! I’ll keep these in mind. I’m always looking for more books to read on Thailand.

      Reply
  6. May I suggest A woman of Bangkok by Jack Reynolds. It was initially published in 1956 – yes before most of you were born – as A sort of beauty in English but is also available in Thai. I do not wish to say much about it other than that as the title suggests it is about a relationship between a western man and a Thai woman but it shows a good understanding of the contrasting psychologies. Even though attitudes and behaviours in Thailand started changing radically in the late 70s early 80s this book will help understand that class of Thai.

    I encourage you to read the Four Reigns by Kukrit as you say you have it. He has written widely and some other works have been translated into English. Red Bamboo is by him and is a good depiction of country life then.

    Although it is a sad book you might also like to read the night they burned the mountain by Thomas Dooley about the Hmong (Meo).

    Reply
    • Thank you for the suggestions. I will definitely look them up and put them on my to-read list. Yes, I have Four Reigns on my Kindle, but I have yet to read it. I’m on an Indonesia reading binge. After I’m done with that, I’ll try to finally pick it up.

      Reply

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About The Bamboo Traveler!

Julie Krolak

Hi! I’m Julie, the Bamboo Traveler!  Travel addict and bookworm! This blog is devoted to helping the inquisitive traveler explore the history, heritage, and culture of Asia and beyond. On this site, you’ll find itineraries to help you plan your trip, reviews to help you make better-informed decisions, lots of history and cultural information to help make your travels more meaningful, and book recommendations to help you understand your destination more deeply.

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