I kept this diary of things we have done in Singapore for 2 years. I have now moved some of it to other travel pages but you can still find links to many of our activities here. I have also created a reading list of books we have read about the region.

Western Japan

Birds in Singapore

Kuala Lumpur stopover

Thai Diving

Singapore Liveaboard

Local Residents

Beijing Summer

Diving with Sharks

Shanghai Heatwave

Taiwan Tourists

An Indian week

Where U bin?

Island hideaway

Steamy running

A Trip to the Zoo

Gardens by the Bay


Singapore walks

Mind the bus

Flower power


Early weeks


Vicky's Blog


One of the great joys of books is how they can transport you into different cultures and times. This is a list of books that we have read about the countries that we are visiting while we are living in Asia. There are many more that we have read before coming here - Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie, Colin Thubron, and Jung Chang to name a few. This list will grow too as I have lots of books on my list still to read.


A big focus for me in 2013 as I started to learn about this huge country and the tremendous change that it has seen over the past 30 years.

This is a terrific book by journalist Peter Hessler. He lived in Beijing during the 2000s and writes about his explorations in a hire car after he gets his Chinese driving licence in 2001, when very few westerners ventured outside of the tourist spots. He also describes life in the villages as the young were deserting for the cities and also about life in the new factory cities springing up in the South.
Peter Hessler explored China by car. Beijing artist Ma Jian set off one day in 1983 and travelled for three years all over China, largely on foot. This is an amazing account of country and city life right at the start of the modern industrialisation of China as Deng Xiaoping was just introducing development zones but the Party was mounting a strong defence against Western thinking.
I am really glad that I was not born in China anytime between 1860 and 1970. This country went through successive periods of tyranny, warlords, war, famine and oppression. Jonathan Fenby describes all this in a highly readable account. It's a big book but I sped through it.
One of my biggest questions as I was trying to understand China was how it was governed. None of us will really know what goes on behind the closed doors but this is a fascination account of how the Party works. Richard McGregor appears to have some remarkable sources who have helped him to describe the activities of the different party functions. For me the most interesting part was the way that leaders are developed - a process that mirrors many MNCs and which other single party states should learn from.
Peter Goullart, an emigre Russian, moved to Lijiang in South West China in the late1930s to develop cooperatives in what was then a beautiful but wild and lawless part of the country. This is a touching and personal account of how he was accepted into the community. It describes life in the town and the country in the 1930 and 40s and hints at the major changes when the communists finally came to power.
Li Xun wrote short stories in the early 20thC set in rural China. Because of his interest in the struggle of the poor to survive he was one of very few writers to be supported by Mao and as a result his tales are well known all over China. In particular the Real Story of Ah-Q is as well known here as the Good Soldier Svejk is among Czechs.
Yu Hua uses 10 common phrases in Chinese such as Copycat, Disparity, and Bamboozle to describe traits that are infiltrating the culture of modern China is this interesting short book.
Qiu Xiaolong's Inspector Chen novels paint a fascinating picture of China in the 1980s. In this book the uncorruptable and erudite Shanghai detective is taking a holiday when he gets drawn into a case involving murder, corruption and polution. We have read two so far and have another 5 or 6 to go.

Malaysia and Singapore

Closer to home I have struggled to find contemporary novels but have read a bunch of historic ones. So far the themes have recurred - I would love to find a great contemporary Singaporean or Malaysian novel but so far have failed:

A prize winning novel set in 1920s and 30s Malaya. Johnny Lim is a rags to riches businessman whose life, and those of his children, is set before and after the war. It's a great story and also an insight into some of the great influences to life in the region in the past 70 years including the Japanese occupation, communism and the end of colonialism.
Another prize winning Malaysian novel set in a similar period. This time the scene is the tea estates in the Cameron Highlands largely set after the war. Again communists and Japanese feature significantly.
Tan Twan Eng's first novel is not quite as assured as his second. This is centred around a successful trading family in Penang in the 1930s. Another Malay-Japanese friendship develops in the run up to the war.
Eric Lomax was not long out of school when he joined the army and trained as a radio operator before being sent out to India and then Malaya. This book describes his experiences on the Burma railway as a prisoner of war and also in occupied Singapore. Vicky tells me that the book is much better than the film...
Another story about the Burma railroad, this time through the eyes of an Australian doctor. It is a powerful and graphic account of how de-humanised the prisoners became. Our narrator survives but is haunted by his friends who don't make it. A worthy winner of the Mann Booker Prize in 2014.
Seedy American Jack Flowers is trying to survive in Singapore in the 1970s. In this early novel by Paul Theroux, later made into a film by Peter Bogdanovich, we get a picture of colonial drunks making do in the tropical heat alongside local Chinese traders supplying the incoming ships with their every needs. A far cry from Singapore in 2015.


While 2013 was my year for discovering China in 2014 I started a series of visits to Japan. Like my China booklist I still have a number of books that I want to read but these 4 gave me some useful insight into what is clearly a deeply sophisticated and complex culture.

Murukami's hugely popular tale of reaching adulthood is the Japanese version of Catcher in the Rye with a lot more sex. It brings out his theme of the reluctance, or inability, of many young people to join the rat race and become 'salarymen' like their fathers.
David Pilling considers whether the 2012 tsunami would bring people together and energise the country like the efforts to rebuild Japan after the 2nd World War. In doing this he describes the history of modern Japan from its belated attempts to rival the western colonial powers to the growth of electronics, manufacturing dominance and latterly questions about where Japan goes next. Great read for learning Japan 101
As I now have many dealings with a large Japanese business I am fascinated by the challenges that Michael Woodford faced when he took over as president of Olympus and found that all was not well with the company. I never quite understood the Olympus scandal when I followed it in the press and I am still not certain what happened (nor is Michael Woodford) but very interesting nevertheless.
Another Murakami classic. Toru Okado is a struggling 30 something who seems to have lost his job and his wife but when his cat leaves him things start to happen. A series of mundane and fantastical events demonstrate Murakami's great skill as a story teller.


With all the British Indian heritage there iis a huge library of great Indian books - travel, literature, history and commentary. I had read a lot of Indian, and wider sub-continent authors, before travelling to Asia. Here is what I have been reading since I got here.

Katherine Boo's account of life in a Mumbai slum was one of my top reads in 2013. Winner of the Pullitzer Prize in 2012 it describes the life of the slum dwellers that she lived with every day in a narrative style which draws you into the challenges of survival when you have almost nothing. Anyone who obtains the least authority (police, community leader, charity worker) gains a little power they use it to benefit from those under them which is tough when, like many of Katherine Boo's subjects, you are at the bottom of the heap.
William Dalrymple is one of the great British observers and writers about India. From his early City of Djinns about his time as a foreign correspondend in Delhi, to White Moghuls and The Last Moghul, his books are fascinating and well written. Nine Lives is more of a journalist's study of nine very different, extraodinary people living across India. Through it you learn about sculpture, prostitution, singers and monks. He managed to conjure amazing details of from his subjects whose lives paint a rich picture of some of the stranger features of this great country.
"Great book" was my son's verdict on Shantaram. Greg Roberts is (apparently) an escaped Australian bank robber who lands in Mumbai and discovers a new life among real people in the slums. Friendship, love, the criminal underworld and war all feature in this pacy epic. I enjoyed it too.
We are pretty cushy in our travels these days. Boutique luxury hotels are our thing. When Michael Wood, one of our London neighbours, decides to go on a pilgrimage around the temples of Southern India he does it as the locals do. Sweaty and smelly. The result is a vivid picture of the power of these ancient sites on ordinary pilgrims and an insight into the lives of these kind and generous people.
This big, interesting novel is about the Ghosh family, wealthy from printing businesses in Calcutta in the 1960s. The older generation has built their fortune and now the younger generation is moving in different directions - communism, lust and profligacy. To start with I found the sheer number of characters confusing and the plot turns uncomfortable but by the end I found this an impressive read.
Sam Miller is a BBC correspondent who is thrown into India through his wife's family. This books combines a historical perspective of visitors to India with the author's personal experience. I found the personal stuff more interesting than the history.

Vietnam and Laos

In preparation for a trip to Laos I looked around for background reading and came across a travel classic, an interesting piece of military history and a great detective series.

Norman Lewis, a British journalist and travel writer, visits Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in 1950. He travels under the protection of a French administration that is rapidly losing its grip on a country fired up by the Viet Minh and the revolution in neighbouring China. While he is sympathetic to the French adminstrators whom he meets, he is shocked by the treatment meted out to local people in the colonial estates and plantations. This is a fascinating picture of a region before it was devastated by a war which changed it forever.
The Ravens were young pilots who flew the spotter planes which guided the US fighter bombers to their targets in the secret war on Laos. Although a side game to the war in Vietnam, this wild band of pilots operated out of Long Tieng, a secret base in the mountains, with General Vang Pao, leader of the Hmong mountaint people who fought the Vietcong and the communist Pathet Lao. The book describes the bravery of these young pilots and the abandonment of the Hmong when the war turned against the US.
After two serious books on Vietnam and Laos it was a delight to discover this series of light-hearted 'detective' stories about Dr Siri, the fictional chief coroner of Laos, forced into his role in a new communist government that takes over after the end of the war. A witty and charming series that paints a fond picture of the people of Laos as they get used to the world under their new masters. I have read the first three books in this series and they are all terrific.

Myanmar, Papua New Guinea

When you travel in Myanmar you are besieged at tourist spots by people trying to sell bootleg copies of George Orwell's Burma Road and The Glass Palace by Amitabh Ghosh. We read the next two books during our visit there and also the great book about New Guinea.

Inge Sargent was swept of feet by a handsome Burmese man when they were both on study scholarships in the US in the early 1950s. They married and he brought her home and it was only then that she discovered that he was the prince of a Shan state and she was a princess. A great account of life in the last years before the military coup in 1962.
Pascal Khoo Thwe also comes from Southern Shan states but he was brought up the son of a village headman in a very remote area. The local priest - an Italian missionary - teaches him to read and write. An amazing story about life under the generals' regime in the 1980.
Lily King has written a fictional account of three anthropologists living and working on the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea in the 1930s. Loosely based on the life of Margaret Mead the book considers what it means to be 'civilised' and how studying our own society as an outsider can be as interesting as studying very different, 'primitive' ones.