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Travel to Laos with The Dr Siri Books

Travel to Laos

A few years back I travelled to Laos.

There are a few ways to travel to Laos. You can fly smoothly in a few hours or you can bump along in a bus but I chose the most romantic way. I sailed there on the mighty Mekong River aboard the “slow boat” to Luang Prabang. I booked passage aboard an old brightly painted boat with a grumbling iron heart. It takes 2 days to sail from the border town, Huay Xia, in Thailand to Laos: this is one of my most treasured memories.

This is no internet on this journey. No distracting screen begging for your time. There is only time, peace, and wonder of the adventure. There are only the gurgling churning brown waters and the impossibly beautiful landscapes gliding by under a beautiful blue endless sky. It’s a landscape of mysterious wild jungle-clad hills. Here and there are villages along the shores. On those sandy banks are buffalo, and fishing boats resting brightly on the glimmering sand. Children play or look with curiosity and sometimes a friendly wave as the boat drifts past.

Laos itself seems like a magical dream. Cities seem like an afterthought carved out amid the jungles and rice fields. A place half asleep and half forgotten. The capital, Vientiane, seems as surprised as anybody that it is. Hot days languid days pass peacefully.

At the time of writing, during the covid19 pandemic, travel to Laos is impossible. But it’s not the only way. Books are doorways we may enter to new places and times. If you like, you can visit Laos with my good friend, Dr Siri. If you have any sort of interest in Laos or South East Aisa then I urge you to read the Dr Siri Paiboun books by Colin Cotterill. I can’t imagine a better window on Laos and South East Asia than these brilliant entertaining books. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll come away from the pages with the scent of lemongrass and the sound of the Mekong when you travel to Laos with the Dr Siri books.

Travel to Laos with the Dr Siri books
The Slow boat to Luang Prabang, Laos.

What are Dr Siri books like?

The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.”

-St. Augustine

The books are set in 1970s Laos. The Pathet Laos has taken over the country and are busy red taping everything and helpfully sending those that need it to the re-education camps. The country is in a transition period obviously there’s bound to be a few hiccups. The country is a mess.

There are a lot of things the newly minted communist country of Laos lacks and one of those things is a forensic surgeon. Paris trained Dr Siri dreams of retirement. After all, didn’t he give his all for the revolution? At 72 he deserves a rest. Unfortunately for the good Dr Siri, the Laos government has other ideas and he is now the reluctant head ( and only ) corona of Laos. Given that he knows nothing about pathology he’ll need his wits – which he has in spades. Luckily he has two assistants (Nurse Dtui and Mr Geung) who like the good Dr Siri are also way out of their depths.

The eponymous hero and supporting characters are well drawn and lovable. Dr Siri himself is a wonderful character full of warmth, charm and dry humour. He’s a communist but has seen too much of human nature in his time to be a blind believer in the revolution. Dr Siri is a cynic but has a big heart and a rapier wit. There isn’t much in the way of gunfights, his enemies are mostly dispatched with cutting pithy put downs.

The colourful cast of supporting characters are fantastic too and include a mad Indian and a trans woman that has visions of the future. You’ll find as you read they become familiar friends. You watch them grow and become involved with all kinds of adventures – of which there are plenty! Every book has murder and mystery to solve. At the heart, these books are cosy detective books but they are also so much more.

The final character deserves her own paragraph: Laos. The history, culture, politics, people, customs, geography and of course the food of Laos are all mapped out in the pages of the book. The author, Colin Cotterill, actually lived in Laos for a while and has a deep understanding and connection with the country. This really shines through in the books. You’ll come to know her. You’ll learn more about Laos and her people than any class can ever hope to teach you. You’ll come away understanding her a little. This really is the best next thing to visiting Laos for yourself.

These Colin Cotterill books are funny! I find myself laughing at so many lines and highlighting them on the Kindle. There’s also a sprinkling of the supernatural and magic. The spirits of the dead have an annoying habit of getting in touch with Siri. This is extremely vexing to a man of science such as Dr Siri. The books follow this thread as the stories go on. I’ll leave it here for you to discover because spoilers.

I’ve now read 5 of these books in a row which is surprising given that I’m not usually a fan of detective novels nor do I generally want to read another book by the same author right away. I tend to want to move on to something new before circling back again. But these books, these characters, this land of heat and fish sauce, mystery and magic, they keep me coming back again. I’m just about to start on the sixth.

colin cotterill dr Siri books in order

“Dtui with her laundry-bin build was off the scale. There were no suitors queuing at her door. They wouldn’t have to dig deep to find her kindness and humour, but they didn’t even bring a spade.”

-Colin CotterillThe Coroner’s Lunch

There are 15 books in the Dr Siri series Painbourn books. I’ve read 5 of these (so far) and have no plan on stopping! My time is pretty limited at the moment because I am quite busy but I’ll always find time for Dr Siri and his adventures. Here are the Colin Cotterill books in order:

  • The Coroner’s Lunch 
  • Thirty-Three Teeth 
  • Disco for the Departed 
  • Anarchy and Old Dogs 
  • Curse of the Pogo Stick 
  • The Merry Misogynist 
  • Love Songs from a Shallow Grave 
  • Slash and Burn 
  • The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die 
  • Six and a Half Deadly Sins 
  • I Shot the Buddha 
  • The Rat Catchers’ Olympics 
  • Don’t Eat Me 
  • The Second Biggest Nothing 
  • The Delightful Life of a Suicide Pilot

Colin Cotterall has also written another detective series set in Southeast Asia, but this time it’s set in Thailand. I haven’t read the Jimm Juree books but surely will move on to it once I’m down with the Dr Siri books. I will say one thing, one of the novels has the funniest book title EVER: Grandma, there’s a head on the beach.

Here are Colin Cotterill’s Dr Siri books in order with a synopsis for each. One word of warning, if you are interested in reading these, beware reading too many of the synopsis because they are a little on the spoilery side.

The Coroner’s Lunch 

Travel to Laos with The Dr Siri Books

Coroner’s Lunch: Synopsis

“Laos, 1976: Dr. Siri Paiboun, a 72-year-old medical doctor, has been unwillingly appointed the national coroner of newly-socialist Laos. Though his lab is underfunded, his boss is incompetent, and his support staff is quirky, to say the least, Siri’s sense of humour gets him through his often frustrating days.

When the body of the wife of a prominent politician comes through his morgue, Siri has reason to suspect the woman has been murdered. To get to the truth, Siri and his team face government secrets, spying neighbours, victim hauntings, Hmong shamans, botched romances, and other deadly dangers. Somehow, Siri must figure out a way to balance the will of the party and the will of the dead.


Thirty-Three Teeth 

Travel to Laos with The Dr Siri Books

Synopsis

Siri Paiboun is suddenly a busy man. Five months into his new role as National (and only) Coroner, he has been called to the capital on a ‘matter of national security’. Soon enough, he’s examining carbonized corpses, meeting the deposed king and attending a shamans’ conference.

Meanwhile, back at his woefully inadequate morgue, savagely mauled bodies are piling up and Siri’s assistant decides to investigate. Can she be dealing with a weretiger, or is it a bear of some kind? Whatever kind of animal has thirty-three teeth?”


Disco for the Departed 

Travel to Laos with Dr Siri

Synopsis:

Dr Siri Paiboun may be in his seventy-third year, but he’s still as sturdy as a jungle boar – and as crafty as one. Reluctant coroner to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, he’s been despatched to the country’s mountainous north where the sudden appearance of a mummified arm protruding from a concrete path laid in front of the President’s new mansion has caused an understandable degree of embarrassment. Dr Siri’s disinterment and autopsy of the body attached to the arm provide some grisly surprises but it is his gifts as a shaman that put the septuagenarian doctor on the trail of the killer. As Siri and his team close in, they must tackle a marriage proposal, brave the perils of the life on the open road, and come face-to-face with a horrific sacrificial ritual. Is it any wonder Dr Siri takes up disco dancing?”

Dr Siri Paiboun may be in his seventy-third year, but he’s still as sturdy as a jungle boar – and as crafty as one. Reluctant coroner to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, he’s been despatched to the country’s mountainous north where the sudden appearance of a mummified arm protruding from a concrete path laid in front of the President’s new mansion has caused an understandable degree of embarrassment. Dr Siri’s disinterment and autopsy of the body attached to the arm provide some grisly surprises but it is his gifts as a shaman that put the septuagenarian doctor on the trail of the killer. As Siri and his team close in, they must tackle a marriage proposal, brave the perils of the life on the open road, and come face-to-face with a horrific sacrificial ritual. Is it any wonder Dr Siri takes up disco dancing?”


Anarchy and Old Dogs 

Synopsis:

When a blind, retired dentist is run down by a logging truck as he crosses the road to post a letter, Dr Siri Paiboun, official and only coroner of Laos, finds himself faced with his most explosive case yet. The dentist’s mortal remains aren’t nearly as intriguing as the letter in his pocket.

Written in invisible ink and encrypted, the letter presents Dr Siri with an irresistible challenge. Enlisting the help of his old friend, Civilai, now a senior member of the Laos politburo; Nurse Dtui (‘Fatty’); Phosy, a police officer; and, Aunt Bpoo, a transvestite fortune-teller, Dr Siri soon finds himself on the trail of an international plot to overthrow the government of Laos.


Curse of the Pogo Stick 

Synopsis:

Following a rash moment of insolence, Dr Siri Paiboun, Laos’ reluctant national coroner, confused shaman and disheartened communist, is forced to go on a road trip with Judge Haeng and the Justice Department.

While newly pregnant Nurse Dtui is left at the morgue to defend the staff against exploding corpses and geriatric gunslingers, Siri has his own problems. On a deserted jungle trail, Siri is kidnapped. His only route to freedom is to exorcise the local village of its demon – but that means lifting the curse of the pogo stick…


The Merry Misogynist 

Synopsis:

Falling in love can be the death of you. And for some young girls in Dr Siri’s neck of the woods, it actually is. Some unscrupulous soul is wooing, marrying and murdering them on their wedding nights. Siri and his team are determined to discover who and why.
When a local madman disappears, their troubles multiply. How do you trace an itinerant mute? Everyone has a theory, but it’s up to Siri to figure out where he could be, and it’s going to take him to the most unlikely place of all
.”


Love Songs from a Shallow Grave 

Synopsis:

As usual, all is abnormal in Dr Siri Paiboun’s morgue. The good doctor and his team are investigating the case of the Three Epees: three women skewered by a sword through the heart. A culprit has been apprehended, tried and sentenced to death. But Siri isn’t sure they have the right man.


Unfortunately, the number one (and only) coroner of Laos isn’t in a position to help anyone – not even himself. As his birthday dawns, Siri finds himself incarcerated and staring starvation and torture in the face. As usual, his curiosity is to blame for his predicament, but this time it looks as though his inquisitiveness could be the end of him..
.”


Slash and Burn 

Synopsis:

Dr Siri’s bagged himself a holiday: an all-expenses-paid trip to the northern mountains of Laos. What’s more, through a bit of skilful bartering (well, blackmail) he has wangled it so that his nearest and dearest may accompany him. They are to assist a US-funded search for a lost CIA pilot – Boyd Bowry – missing since his aircraft was downed in 1968. But Siri’s not taking the search too seriously, as he strongly suspects that when the helicopter exploded, the pilot followed suit. However, just hours into the trip, it becomes apparent that ulterior motives are at work within the group. And Siri’s suspicions are confirmed when those associated with the airman start dropping like the insects that frequent his country.”


The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die 

Synopsis:

“Intrepid coroner Dr Siri is used to playing the lead in the dramas of his life. But this time his wife is centre stage. Madame Daeng is privy to a secret and it puts her in grave danger. And that’s not all. When Siri whisks his wife away for a romantic weekend they walk straight into another mystery, meeting a woman who’s been shot twice but is still clinging to life. Who would want to kill her and why? Dr Siri will have his work cut out to unravel this case, while keeping Madame Daeng away from those who want to harm her. But he soon discovers there’s much more to his wife than meets the eye…


Six and a Half Deadly Sins 

Synopsis:

Laos, 1979: Dr. Siri Paiboun, the twice retired ex-National Coroner of Laos, receives an unmarked package in the mail. Inside is a handwoven pha sin, a colorful traditional skirt worn in northern Laos. A lovely present, but who sent it to him, and why? And, more importantly, why is there a severed human finger stitched into the sins lining?”


I Shot the Buddha 

Synopsis:

Retired coroner Siri Paiboun and his wife, Madame Daeng, have never been able to turn away a misfit. As a result, they share their small Vientiane house with an assortment of homeless people, mendicants, and oddballs. One of these oddballs is Noo, a Buddhist monk, who rides out on his bicycle one day and never comes back, leaving only a cryptic note in the refrigerator: a plea to help a fellow monk escape across the Mekhong River to Thailand.


The Rat Catchers’ Olympics 

Synopsis:

The 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow is already rife with controversy, but when a Lao athlete is accused of murder, it escalates into a full blown international incident. In the twelfth entry to the series, Dr. Siri Paiboun and his quirky team of misfits are on the case in a city and country foreign to them, yet familiar in its corruption of justice. 


Don’t Eat Me 

Synopsis:

Dr. Siri Paiboun, the ex-national coroner of Laos, may have more experience dissecting bodies than making art, but when he manages to smuggle a fancy movie camera into the country he devises a plan to shoot a Lao adaptation of War and Peace with his friend Civilai. The only problem? The Ministry of Culture must approve the script before they can get rolling. That and they can’t figure out how to turn on the camera.


The Second Biggest Nothing 

Synopsis:

For a man of his age and in his corner of the world, Dr. Siri, the 76-year-old former national coroner of Laos, is doing remarkably well—especially for someone possessed by a thousand-year-old Hmong shaman. That is, until he finds a mysterious note tied to his dog, Ugly’s, tail: a death threat not just to him, but to everyone he holds dear. And whoever wrote the note claims the job will be executed in two weeks.”


The Delightful Life of a Suicide Pilot

Synopsis:

When an unofficial mailman drops off a strange bilingual diary, Dr. Siri is intrigued. Half is in Lao, but the other half is in Japanese, which no one Siri knows can read; it appears to have been written during the Second World War. Most mysterious of all, it comes with a note stapled to it: Dr. Siri, we need your help most urgently. But who is “we,” and why have they left no return address?

Final Thoughts

“So, there it was in a nutshell. Poverty led him to religion, religion to education, education to lust, lust to communism. And communism had brought him back full circle to poverty. There was a PhD dissertation waiting to be written about such a cycle.”

-Colin Cotterill, Thirty-Three Teeth

I actually literally did Travel to Laos with the Dr Siri books because I read the first Dr Siri book ( The Coroner’s Lunch ) on the slow boat to Laos and once again while travelling in the country itself. Do you like to read books while you travel in those places or while you are planning and dreaming? I enjoy doing both those things. I love to step via the pages into a new place and discover it. It’s one of the best ways to get to know a place and fuel your wanderlust.

Right now, going with a book is the only way to visit. It might not be as good as really going there but it’s certainly one of the next best things. Discover Laos with the Dr Siri books and when you are finished place those hot humid exotic dreams of the places and the people and put them safely in your heart for while you can once again step on foreign shores.

The pandemic grinds ever onwards but at least now we have three viable vaccines. Let’s not be fooled into thinking this is going to be over quickly but at the same time we have hope and a glimpse at the end of the tunnel. We can see the light. We just have to hold on just a little longer. I’m confident that next year we will be able to travel again towards the bookend of the year.

As the days stretch on, I am missing travel more and more. Itching to get my travel shoes on. Luckily I have much to do here and enjoying biking around the city. It’s not the same but it will do me for now. I find myself daydreaming though with more regularity of far off places. The thought occurs to me to travel somewhere safe or closer but my heart is still with South East Asia and for the time being, I am content to wait and go there in the pages of a book.

Keep dreaming, don’t give up, the better times are coming.

As ever, I would love to hear from you in the comments section. Have you been to Laos? Would you like to visit one day? I hope you enjoyed the article and if you did then please share as it really helps the site out. Also, consider subscribing to never miss Belly goodness.

If you want more fuel for the wanderlust fire then might I suggest a Slow Tv Adventure?

Happy Travels 🙂

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6 Comments

  1. Laos sounds wonderful, and your experience of sailing in by boat really does sound like the perfect way to reach it. No internet, no distractions – just pure immersion in the journey and your surrounding. Bliss.

    Love the concept of travelling in tandem with your books. I agree that it can certainly add a new dimension, and new insights, into your travels. I’ve definitely been inspired for future journeys by some of the books I’ve been reading during lockdown!

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Thank you and thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I definitely enjoy reading about the places before and during. As you say, it’s inspiring and also gives you a new dimension to the places.

      I hope we’ll get to put that imputation into practice soon 🙂

  2. Wow, how great to have the opportunity to read those books while journeying into Laos. Looks like a wonderful adventure. 2021 will provide opportunities to travel again!!

    • Thanks for reading and commenting! Appreciate your time. Yes, it really did add to my enjoyment and now I’m back Laos feels like a familiar friend as I turn the pages.

      Let’s Hope 2021 brings travel 🙂

  3. Becky The Anxiety Trip Becky The Anxiety Trip

    This sounds like a wonderful trip. Great to read about it and get the imagination flowing! Fingers crossed we can travel again towards the end of this year. I would love to go on a proper adventure after all this time spent being grounded 🙂

    • Yeah, fingers crossed! Hopefully we get to have a proper adventure again soon. In the meantime I’ll have to be content with reading to keep the wonderlust fires buring! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for taking the time to comment 🙂

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