15 Books on Malaysia That’ll Spark Your Wanderlust

by Jan 4, 2024Books, Malaysia

Malaya, with its mix of Malays, Chinese, and Indians, is full of spirits: a looking-glass world governed by unsettling rules. – The Night Tiger (2019) – By Yangsze Choo

I visited Malaysia for 3 weeks in 2018 and fell in love with the country and its friendly people, delicious food, and unforgettable shophouse architecture. Before, during, and after my travels there, I read about 15 books on Malaysia. Here is my growing list of books set in Malaysia.

If you’re planning on traveling to Penang, the 2 best books are The Gift of Rain and The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng. Both books were long-listed for the Booker Prize.

For travels to the Cameron Highlands, read Eng’s other book, The Garden of Evening Mists.

On a lighter note, The Night Tiger is a mystery romance by Yangsze Choo, an enjoyable read about a Chinese Malay family set in Ipoh. Choo has another book that captures the decaying and eerie atmosphere of Melaka perfectly called The Ghost Bride. Finally, if you want to learn about Peranakan culture, I have added the latest book I’ve read The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds.

For those interested in non-fiction books on Malaysia, there’s one business book about the world’s biggest financial heist, Billion Dollar Whale, and an eye-opening book on Malaysian history, Crossroads, that is a must for anyone wanting to understand why Malaysia is the way it is today.

Almost all of the writers on this list are Chinese-Malaysians. I couldn’t find many good Malay or Indian-Malaysian writers that have been translated into English. If you know of any, let me know in the comments section at the bottom of this post.

If I had to choose my 4 favorite books set in Malaysia, I’d choose these three

  1. The Night Tiger
  2. The Garden of Evening Mists
  3. Crossroads
  4. The House of Doors

If you have any books on Malaysia that you love, please share in the comments section at the bottom of this post.

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Fiction Books on Malaysia

Let’s start with the BEST novels set in Malaysia. There are some gems on here that you won’t regret picking up.

1. The Garden of Evening Mists

By Tan Twan Eng (2012)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

If you’re heading to the Cameron Highlands or Ipoh, you should pick up the Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. The novel takes place in the 1950s during the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960), a guerilla war fought by the Malayan communist party against the British government and wealthy plantation owners.

An interesting fact: the Emergency was not officially called a war because if it had been, then insurance companies wouldn’t have reimbursed the plantation owners for the damages and property loss they suffered during those 12 years. Over 6,000 people died during the Malayan Emergency.

The book starts in current times with the main character, Yun Ling, a judge of Chinese ethnicity, retiring and moving back to the Highlands from Kuala Lumpur.

Then the story jumps back in time to World War II when Yun Ling was imprisoned and tortured by the Japanese. It jumps again to the 1950s when she moves to the Highlands and becomes an apprentice to a Japanese gardener.

Out of all this list of books on Malaysia, this one left me with the deepest impression. I couldn’t stop thinking about how much Yun Ling suffered at the hands of the Japanese, and then to have had such a close relationship with Atomi.

This list of books set in Malaysia includes two by Tan Twan Eng. Both are very well-written, so deciding which one to read depends on where you’re going.

If you’re heading to the Cameron Highlands, read The Garden of Evening Mists. But even if you’re not, READ IT!

I’d also suggest reading the book during your trip and not before. When you see the Highlands for yourself, the story makes more sense.

2. The Ghost Bride

By Yangsze Choo (2013)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Written by Yangsze Choo, The Ghost Bride takes the reader back to 1893 to the city of Malacca.

The book is part adventure and part supernatural. Some will enjoy the story of ghosts and the afterlife; others won’t.

As for me, I surprisingly liked the book a lot even though I don’t usually like unrealistic stories about ghosts and spirits,

The main character is Pan Li Lan, the younger daughter of a bankrupt opium-addicted father. His lack of business skills and his desire to escape from the outside world lead to financial ruin for his family. As a result, Li Lan’s marriage prospects are not so fortunate.

A rich family proposes to her father that his only daughter become the ghost bride of their recently deceased son, Lim Tian Ching. This is a real but rare custom that took place in Chinese overseas communities in Southeast Asia.

After an ominous visit to the mansion of the Lim family, Li Lan is haunted night after night by the ghost of Lim Tian Ching. She eventually journeys into the afterlife—a parallel universe of puppet servants, funeral offerings, corrupt bureaucrats, ghost cities, and hungry ghosts.

Written by Yangsze Choo, The Ghost Bride takes the reader back to 1893 to the city of Malacca.

The book is part adventure and part supernatural. Some will enjoy the story of ghosts and the afterlife; others won’t.

As for me, I surprisingly liked the book a lot even though I don’t usually like unrealistic stories about ghosts and spirits,

The main character is Pan Li Lan, the younger daughter of a bankrupt opium-addicted father. His lack of business skills and his desire to escape from the outside world lead to financial ruin for his family. As a result, Li Lan’s marriage prospects are not so fortunate.

A rich family proposes to her father that his only daughter become the ghost bride of their recently deceased son, Lim Tian Ching. This is a real but rare custom that took place in Chinese overseas communities in Southeast Asia.

After an ominous visit to the mansion of the Lim family, Li Lan is haunted night after night by the ghost of Lim Tian Ching. She eventually journeys into the afterlife—a parallel universe of puppet servants, funeral offerings, corrupt bureaucrats, ghost cities, and hungry ghosts.

I loved how beautifully Choo describes Malacca and the overseas Chinese beliefs of the afterlife. I was in Malacca a few months before reading the book. While reading about Li Lan’s adventures in the world of the dead, I found myself being transported back to Malacca and walking along the dark and lonely potholed streets of the Chinese quarter with its dilapidated and neglected shophouses.

I highly recommend The Ghost Bride even if you’re not traveling to Malacca. It’s a FABULOUS book!

3. The Gift of Rain

By Tan Twan Eng (2009)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Gift of Rain is the perfect book to bring with you on your trip to Penang. Set in George Town, Penang before and during the Second World War, the novel tells the story of Phillip Hutton, the half-British and half-Chinese member of a wealthy and powerful British trading family, and his complicated relationship with his mysterious Japanese aikido teacher, Endo.

The story begins with a visit by a stranger to Phillip’s house that triggers memories of the years before and during World War II. This is when the lonely and confused sixteen-year-old Phillip first meets Endo and becomes his devoted pupil. The two form an instant bond far deeper than Phillip has ever had with his family. His teacher also gives him an identity, a philosophy, a strength, and the self-confidence to believe in himself.

As war breaks out and Japan occupies Malaysia, Phillip must choose where his loyalties lie: with those who have never completely accepted him or with the man who has made him the better person he is.

I loved the book but I was frustrated with Phillip. I hated how blind or willfully ignorant he was when it was so obvious what Endo’s intentions were.

Even if you are not traveling to Malaysia, it’s an interesting story that leaves a deep impression on you.

For those planning on visiting Penang, read The Gift of Rain before your trip or better yet, take it with you as you wander the streets of Georgetown, walking down Campbell Street, and Armenian Street while looking at the beautiful but crumbling shophouses.

4. The House of Doors

By Tan Twan Eng (2023)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Here, on the margins of the desert, it is just gone midnight, but as I turn towards the east, turning with the rotation of the earth, I know that, on an island on the other side of the world, it is already morning.

The House of Doors is the latest book by Tan Twan Eng, and it is, in my very humble opinion, his best. I loved it so much. I wanted to read it slowly and savor every word and vivid image. At the same time, I wanted to get to the end to find out how Lesley’s story would end. Did she have an affair with Sun Yat Sen? Was Ethel found guilty of murder?

The book takes place in Penang and jumps back and forth between 1910 and 1921. The starting point is 1921 when the famous writer, Somerset Maugham (his friends call him Willie but I’ll stick with Maugham) and his secretary/lover Gerald, visit his old school friend, Robert, and his wife Lesley in Penang.

Lesley begins telling Maugham a story that takes place in 1910 about herself and her friend, Ethel, who’s been charged with murdering a man who tried to rape her. Maugham suspects that Lesley had an affair with the revolutionary Sun Yat Sen. However, what Lesley reveals turns out to be different than he expected.

The House of Doors is not a romance. Indeed, it’s more of an anti-romance book. At least an anti-marriage book. Most of the married couples are unhappy and unfaithful. Of course, if you’ve read any Maugham, you’d know anti-marriage was typical of his themes.

There’s a bit of a mystery about Ethel’s murder trial. Was it premeditated? Will she be found guilty? In real life, Maugham had a habit of writing stories based on real people and real events. He wrote a short story, The Letter, based on Ethel’s murder trial, which also was a true story.

I loved everything about this book: the writing is beautiful and evocative. The characters are complex. No one is likable but they are relatable. The plot moves along at a good pace.

The best part is how perfectly Eng captures the feel of Penang. I found myself completely transported back to 1921 Malaysia. It’s been a long time since I had been filled with such a strong wanderlust for a place.

The House of Doors is truly one of the best books on Malaysia.

5. The Casuarina Tree

By W. Somerset Maugham (1926)

My Rating: Haven’t read all the stories yet

If you’ve read The House of Doors, then you should read The Casuarina Tree. This BRILLIANT book of short stories by Somerset Maugham includes the story based on Ethel’s murder case that takes place in Tan Twan Eng’s book. It’s called “The Letter.” It’s fun to read the story and compare it to the novel.

There are in total 6 stories and all of them take place in Malaysia and Singapore in the 1920s. They’re based on the stories he heard when he visited the colony with his secretary/lover Gerald. All 6 are about the British in Malaysia and their interactions and clashes with each other and with the local Malays and Chinese.

  • “Before the Party” – A woman lies to her family about the cause of her husband’s death in Borneo. A Riveting dark story.  I laughed out loud a few times.
  • “P & O” – As a woman travels home to England to get a divorce, she’s faced with loneliness and getting old. Another story that turned out to be better than expected. Maugham writes such complex characters.
  • “The Outstation” – A snobbish and ethnocentric British official is attacked for his classism in Borneo. I loved it! My opinion of the characters did a 180 turn from the beginning to the end of the book. 
  • “The Force of Circumstance” – A newly married wife learns of her husband’s secret past in Sembulu. Loved this story, too! Another story that turned out to be not what I expected.
  • “The Yellow Streak” – Two British men are caught in a tidal bore. One suspects the other of leaving him to drown. Maugham and Gerald were also swept away in one while on a river in Borneo. Interesting story. Not my favorite, though.
  • “The Letter” – A woman goes on trial for murdering a man who tried to rape her. This is the same trial that is in Tan Twan Eng’s House of Doors. It’s based on a true event that took place in 1910.

I have read “The Letter.” It’s very different from the version in The House of Doors. I think I prefer how Tan Twan Eng tells the story.

I don’t usually like short stories. But these are brilliant. Just brilliant. Read them and you’ll realize what a master storyteller Maugham was. No one can create characters as complex as he did. 

The book version of The Casuarina Tree has a lot of typos—annoying but still readable.

6. Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder

By Shamini Flint (2010)

My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder stars Singaporean Inspector Singh as he travels to Kuala Lumpur to help in the investigation of the murder of Alan Lee, a wealthy Malaysian businessperson. A Singaporean citizen and the victim’s ex-wife, Chelsea Lew, is being charged with the murder. Because it’s such a high-profile case involving a famous Singaporean, Singh is sent to Malaysia by his government to ensure that the investigation is done fairly.

After reading the first few chapters, I was excited by the prospects of the rest of the book and series.

The main character: Singh is my favorite kind of police detective—deeply flawed and reviled by those in power.  The Sikh detective is a dysfunctional overweight chain smoker with no sense of fashion (white shoes!). However, he’s got integrity and a strong sense of justice, and he’s also more observant and smarter than all of those around him.

What’s not to love?

The cultural angle: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder is filled with lots of interesting information on Malaysian culture, the Malaysian legal system (there are two legal systems: one for Muslims and one for non-Muslims!), the environmental problems in Sarawak, and the Singapore-Malaysia rivalry.

I found myself laughing out loud a few times at the Singaporean’s sarcastic and biting observations of Malaysia. Singapore and Malaysia are like two cousins who can’t stand each other but because they’re family and they live next door to each other, they have to try to get along.

However, about halfway through the book, the story falls apart and the writing breaks down. The mystery is unoriginal and boring.

The detective work is second-rate. There’s no explanation why Singh thinks Chelsea is innocent beyond the fact that she’s beautiful.

The characters are one-dimensional: either all good or all bad. The point of view bounces from one character to another so that we get inside the heads and motives of nearly everyone in the story.

Unfortunately, despite the book being culturally valuable for understanding Malaysia, the story is just awful, so I suggest saving your money and skipping it. If A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder is available from the library, read the first half for the fascinating cultural information.

7. My Life as a Fake

By Peter Carey (2009)

My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Written by Australian writer, Peter Carey, My Life as a Fake takes the reader on a journey to Kuala Lumpur in the 1970s and then travels back further in time to Penang and Australia in the 1950s.

There are about three or four main characters. The reason I’m not sure about how many is that I don’t know if one character is a figment of another character’s imagination or is real.

There’s Sara, an editor at a poetry magazine, John Slater, a famous poet traveling with Sara, Christopher Chubb, an infamous poet and hoaxer from Australia, and Bob McCorkle, either an imaginary or real poet also from Australia.

Sara and John travel to Kuala Lumpur where they unexpectedly meet Chubb, who has some incredible poems of McCorkle’s that Sara falls in love with. To get the poems, she records Chubb’s insane story of a hoax

Most of the book centers on this wild and insane story of Chubb’s life. I was never sure what was real and what was fake. Hence, the title of the book: My Life as a Fake.

Carey knows how to write a sentence. And the story is clever. However, I can’t say that I enjoyed reading it. I don’t like stories in which I don’t know what is real and what isn’t.

There are much better books out there that give you insights into Malaysia. The story focuses on the four white people, while the Malaysians are just part of the background. They’re not given a personality or a story.

This book could’ve been told in any Southeast Asian city and the story wouldn’t have changed.

8. The Night Tiger

By Yangsze Choo (2019)

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of my favorite books on Malaysia is The Night Tiger.

The Night Tiger takes the reader on a journey back in time to colonial Malaysia in the 1930s. It takes place in the province of Perak, the eastern part of Malaysia, between three tin-mining small cities: Ipoh, Taiping, and Batu Gajah. In the 1930s, the British made a fortune from mining tin in the region and the Chinese made money providing services for the tin mine owners and workers.

The Night Tiger is part romance and part mystery with a heavy dose of folklore involving tigers. It’s a bit complicated as there are a lot of different main characters who are all mysteriously connected having to do with their names all being part of the five Chinese virtues.

The most important character is Jilin, a young intelligent but naïve Chinese girl of around twenty years old. She’s typical of female characters in books and movies nowadays: smart and strong-willed but held back by strict parents and conservative culture.

Jilin comes across a severed finger and with the aid of her handsome stepbrother, Shin, searches for where it came from. Along the way, a lot of people mysteriously die. Were they killed by tigers or something or someone else?

The third character is Ren, a Chinese houseboy. Right before his former employer, Dr. MacFarlane dies, the doctor gives him one task that he must complete within 49 days: find his missing finger and bury it with the doctor or else the doctor will turn into a weretiger. The doctor sends him to look for the missing finger in the house of the fourth main character, Dr. William Acton.

People die left and right in this book. There are lots of instances of unrequited love, unspoken love, and the typical lack of communication found in popular fiction.

Despite all the deaths, The Night Tiger is light, happy, and fun. The plot, the likable characters, and the setting are what make this a success.

I found myself up late at night unable to put the book down because I just had to know who would end up with whom and who murdered whom.

I was charmed by all of the characters. Even the ones at the end who turned out to be the villains were endearing.

And the setting: I’ve been to Ipoh. Best food I had in Malaysia. Interesting shophouse architecture, a street named Concubine Lane, and some very good street art. Somehow Choo made Ipoh and the other towns in the Kinta Valley to be as romantic as Graham Green and Marguerite Duras did with Vietnam.

Reading The Night Tiger after coming back from Malaysia inspires me to explore Malaysia all over again.

More Books for the Armchair Traveler

9. The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds

By Selina Sian Chin Yoke (2016)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
If you’re fascinated with the Peranakan culture and Nyonya cuisine like I am, then pick up The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds.

Peranakans are the children of Chinese or Indian fathers and Malay mothers. Peranakans take on a bit of both their father’s and mother’s cultures, forming their own unique hybrid culture. Nyonya is the name for a female Peranakan. If you’ve eaten the delicious soup, laksa, then you’ve had Nyonya food.

The first ten percent of the book is set in Penang, but the rest of it takes place in Ipoh, the tin-mining capital of Malaysia.

It tells the life story of Chye Hoon, a Peranakan woman, and her family. Chye Hoon marries a Chinese man and has ten children with him.

There’s not a lot of action in this novel. It’s more of a book about identity and family. For her children to be successful in the new Malaysia, they must attend English schools learn English, and embrace some of the customs and thinking of the British. Chye Hoon struggles with maintaining her Nyonya traditions and passing them down to her children.

The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds is an interesting read. Chye Hoon isn’t my favorite character. Although I respect her love of her traditions, she’s superstitious and prejudiced. Sometimes I have to stop and remind myself that the story takes place in the 1930s so that I can forgive her for misguided views. Still, I enjoyed following Chye Hoon’s journey through time and seeing her overcome her obstacles. And it was a joy reading about the Nyonya traditions, especially the food. I’m still thinking about the delicious Nyonya kueh (cakes) I had while in Malaysia and Singapore.

10. When The Future Comes Too Soon

By Selina Sian Chin Yoke (2017)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

When the Future Comes Too Soon is the sequel to The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds. I enjoyed it just as much as the first book.

The main character of the first book, Chye Hoon, has passed away, and the Japanese have invaded Malaysia. The family is in turmoil.

Mei Foon, Chye Hoon’s daughter-in-law, becomes the de facto head of the family. She finds the strength and resilience in herself that she didn’t know she possessed to overcome the hardships her family must endure. Her husband has become bitter and useless.

The story grabbed me from the beginning and held me all the way to the end. Loved the characters, the setting, and the story.

When the Future Comes Too Soon is one of the best works of historical fiction on Malaysia.

11. The Harmony Silk Factory

By Tash Aw (2005)

My Rating: Have Not Yet Read

Set in British Malaysia before and during World War II, The Harmony Silk Factory tells the story of Johnny Lim, a poor peasant turned textile merchant. Some see him as a hero while others as a criminal and collaborator.

The story of Johnny is told from the point of view of three unreliable narrators: Johnny’s son, Johnny’s wife, and Johnny’s best friend. Each has a different muddled perspective of Johnny. In the end, it’s still not clear who Johnny is and he remains an enigma.

I have thought about reading this book so many times over the years but just could not get myself to buy it. It’s because the reviews have been all over the place. Although it was long-listed for the Booker Prize, many reviewers have trashed it. So, is it worth reading?

If you’ve read The Harmony Silk Factory, let me know what you think.

Tash Aw has written a few other books on Malaysia that have also gotten better but still mixed reviews as well: We, The Survivors and Map of the Invisible World (also set in Indonesia). On the other hand, Strangers on a Pier, a book of essays, has gotten stellar reviews, which I’m curious to read. However, it’s not available in ebook format.

NON-FICTION BOOKS ON MALAYSIA

Sadly, there aren’t a lot of nonfiction books on Malaysia to choose from. The first two are still pretty good for learning about the history of the country and the last two are good travel guides.

12. Billion Dollar Whale

By Tom Wright and Bradley Hope (2018)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Written by two Wall Street Journal reporters, Billion Dollar Whale tells the story of THE biggest and most audacious financial heist in the world that we know of.

A Malaysian from Penang named Jho Low stole over $4.5 billion from a Malaysian government investment fund called 1MDB with the help of Goldman Sachs and other international banks.

He spent the money on lavish parties, the making of the movie The Wolf of Wall Street, presents for his rich and famous friends like Paris Hilton and Leonardo DiCaprio, and on houses, apartments, planes, and boats.

He also used the money to finance the election campaign of Najib Raziz, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia and the Prime Minister’s wife’s spending habits.

Billion Dollar Whale will tell you how Jho Low did it, how he got away with it for so long, and how he finally got caught. This is an important and relevant subject that most people have never heard of before.

13. Crossroads: A Popular History of Malaysia and Singapore 

By Jim Baker (2012)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I picked up Crossroads because I wanted to understand Malaysian and Singaporean history better than what I could get from the back pages of Lonely Planet. Crossroads tells the history of these two countries from its first inhabitants 2,500 years ago to 2006.

The majority of the book is well-written, easy to follow, and not too dry.

It held my attention while lying on the beach in Langkawi and enduring multiple bus and boat rides around Malaysia. I learned a lot about Malaysia which made me appreciate the country more.

Here are some of the highlights:

  1. How geography impacted culture and society
  2. The history and culture of the Malay Kampongs (villages)
  3. The Bumiputera laws that discriminate against the non-Malays
  4. Honest and critical analysis of the motives of the British in Malaysia
  5. The honest and fair analysis of why the Japanese easily defeated the British in Malaysia.
  6. The horrific treatment the Chinese suffered at the hands of the Japanese
  7. The socio-economic situation of the Indians in Malaysia

However, Crossroads lost some steam in the last few chapters when it started describing post-independence history. It got bogged down with endless lists of political parties and their acronyms. As a result, it took me a few months to finish it.

14. Lonely Planet Malaysia and Singapore

By Lonely Planet (2022)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

When I first wrote this list of books about Malaysia, I had the 2016 version with me, and I said not to get the LP book for Malaysia. But the 2022 version is sooooooo much better than the 2016 one and so I highly recommend getting it for your next trip to Malaysia.

The 2022 Lonely Planet guidebook on Malaysia is more inspiring and informative than the 2016 version. Reading this one made me excited to see Malaysia (the 2016 one did not). It’s also got a lot more detailed information that makes it easier to navigate the country.

15. The Rough Guide to Malaysia Singapore & Brunei

By Rough Guide (2023)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Instead of my usual choice of Lonely Planet, I decided to give Rough Guides a shot on my trip to Malaysia.

The results were a bit mixed.

The good: For someone who has trouble reading things up close, the fonts used in the Rough Guide are easier to read than those in Lonely Planet’s books.

Rough Guides has better and more background information about a place than Lonely Planet Malaysia does. This is especially good for a country like Malaysia whose sights are not as well-known as those in other countries.

The bad: Reading the city maps is annoying. Lonely Planet has a nice key in alphabetical order, making it easy to search for places. Rough Guides puts the name of the place on the map so that you’ve got to spend half of your time looking for the name of a place on the map.

The biggest problem with the Rough Guide Malaysia book was its binding. I couldn’t read the part of the page that was closest to the center because the book didn’t properly open up all the way.

Get the ebook version of Rought Guides Malaysia!

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Final Thoughts

There are more books on Malaysia than the ones listed above. Here are the rest of the books on my reading list: If you’ve read them, let me know what you think in the comment section below.

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4 book covers of books on Malaysia
9 covers of books about Malaysia

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About the Bamboo Traveler

Welcome to The Bamboo Traveler, a travel blog dedicated to helping those travelers who want to dig deeply into the history, heritage, and culture of a place. Whether it’s through the pages of your passport or the pages of a book, I’ll help you travel the world and uncover the history, culture, food, architecture, and natural beauty of some of the world’s most fascinating places.

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