Exploring Southeast Asia

Ages 4-7

Curator Alexandra H.

Curator Alexandra H.

Why I Built This Kit:

In 2007, I moved to Bangkok, Thailand with two big suitcases and the strange sensation of knowing the following year would change my life and yet unable to articulate how or why. Some of those changes were perhaps predictable—an enduring love of Thai food, a higher spice threshold, an apparently magnetic force that draws me to mango, pineapple, and papaya (although not to durian). Other attachments I could not have imagined—how hard it would be to say goodbye to my kindergartners when they graduated, to my Thai and Filipino colleagues and friends, to the professor who took my husband under his wing to study Thai music and to his family who welcomed us into their home and lives. I certainly could not have imagined the shock my senses would experience upon landing in San Francisco; after a year in a city where people covered their mouths if they spoke on a cell phone in public, it suddenly seemed as though everyone was yelling around me. Most of all, I could never have anticipated the “homesickness” that followed me back to the United States for a culture that had once seemed so distant and foreign. I treasure my memories of Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, and continue to think about my experiences traveling in those places every day. I also treasure the role children’s literature plays in bringing new experiences to life, building understanding, and reflecting the lives and heritages of children. In America, the body of children’s literature representing Southeast Asian and/or Southeast Asian American experiences is relatively small, and titles can be challenging to find. I hope this kit makes the search a little easier and delivers some fun and reflective moments to your young reader!

Spark Their Interest

Fun Facts about Southeast Asia:



Southeast Asia is made up of many countries: Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam, as well as island countries like East Timor, Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Christmas Island. Look at the map here!


Travel Times

How long does it take to get to Southeast Asia from...

  • New York: 23+ hours!

  • Chicago: 21+ hours!

  • Los Angeles: 21+ hours!

It’s a big trip! Ready to pack your bags?


The Mekong River

The Mekong River, which flows through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, boasts over 1,200 species of fish!


Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay, in Vietnam, is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World! Its tall, rocky limestone islands and green waters are spectacular to see!



 Hundreds of animals in Southeast Asia are close to extinction. This means they would be gone forever. The list of animals includes the Sumatran Tiger and the Sumatran Rhino.


Bangkok's Real Name

Bangkok’s full ceremonial name is Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit! Try saying that ten times fast. This is the longest place name (that includes spaces) in the world!


The World's Largest Book

The largest book in the world is said to be in the Kuthodaw Pagoda in Myanmar, consisting of about 730 marble slabs!



http://easyscienceforkids.com/all-about-southeast-asia/, http://www.southeastasiatours.com/funfacts.html, http://www.ducksters.com/geography/southeastasia.php, http://www.sciencekids.co.nz/sciencefacts/countries/thailand.html Images: Map from Google, Mekong à Luang Prabang by Flickr user Louis.foecy.fr through Creative Commons license, Ha Long Bay from http://world.new7wonders.com/the-new7wonders-of-nature/ha-long-bay-vietnam/, Marble Slab from Largest Book at Kuthodaw Pagoda, Mandalay by Flickr user Shaun Dunphy thru Creative Commons license)




  1. The Umbrella Queen by Shirin Yim Bridges, illus. by Taeeun YooIn Noot’s village in Thailand, women have practiced the same art for hundreds of years: painting umbrellas. When Noot finally gets her turn to paint, her imagination takes over the paintbrushes and elephants appear instead of flowers and butterflies! She will never become the Umbrella Queen with such unconventional paintings…will she?
  2. Elephants of the Tsunami by Jana Laiz, illus. by Tara CaheroBased on a true story, this book tells the harrowing tale of the tsunami that devastated parts of southern Thailand in 2004 and of eight working elephants who freed themselves and rescued almost fifty people from the beaches. The darker elements of the story are softened by the illustrations. Informational and lovely.
  3. Toy is from Thailand by Whitney BadgettJoin Toy, nicknamed Toy, takes readers on a tour of his country, exploring food, holidays, markets, and day-to-day routines.



  1. The Hermit and the Well by Thich Nhat Hanh, illus. by Vo-Dinh MaiBased on the author’s own experiences, this book tells the story of a boy who climbs a mountain with his class, and hopes to meet a famous hermit living at the top. Adventurous, peaceful, and wise, with beautiful waterfolor illustrations. Author Thich Nhat Hanh is a renowned Vietnamese monk, writer, and human rights activist who was once nominated for the Nobel Prize.
  2. Going Home, Coming Home by Troung Truan, illus. by Ann Phong, trans. by Nguyen Q. DucUnlike her parents, Ami Chi does not think of Vietnam as home. So why does she have to go with them to visit? Told in both English and Vietnamese, this brightly painted picture book will appeal to any young reader who has found room in their heart to love another new place, another new person, even when they thought their parents were completely wrong.
  3. Fly Free! by Roseanne Thongs, illus. by Eujin Kim NelanMai wishes to free the caged birds outside of a Buddhist temple, but cannot afford to do so. She feeds them and continues to hope, and her good deed sets in motion other good deeds throughout her town, eventually cycling back to the birds. A story about karma, kindness, and hope.  



  1. Filipino Friends by Liana Romulo, illus. by Corazon Dandan-AlbanoA Filipino-American boy visits the Philippines for the first time and tells readers about the customs and language. Younger children will enjoy the simple story line and older kids will love learning some Tagalog words, too!
  2. Cora Cooks Pancit by Dorina K. Lazo Gilmore, illus. by Kristi ValiantCora loves to be in the kitchen, but usually is overshadowed by her older siblings. When they go out one day, though, it is Cora’s turn to help Mama and take on some grown-up jobs while they make pancit!


Hmong People:

  1. The Whispering Cloth: A Refugee’s Story by Pegi Deitz Shea, illus. by Anita RiggioA little Hmong girl living in a Thai refugee camp learns to make pa’ndau, or story cloths. She tells her story, which includes the death of her parents by soldiers, through her stitchery and finds hope in the future. A child-friendly way to learn about Hmong story cloths and history.
  2. Grandfather’s Story Cloth by Linda Gerdner and Sarah Langford, illus. by Stuart LoughridgeA young Hmong boy learns about his grandfather’s life and memories through his story cloth. Presented in English and Hmong, this story teaches not only about story cloths and Hmong history, but Alzheimer’s disease and family relationships.



  1. Kancil and the Crocodiles: A Tale from Malaysia by Noreha Yussof Day, illus. by Britta TeckentrupA mouse deer and a tortoise want to get to the other side of the river, but there are crocodiles in their way! A funny and brightly illustrated trickster tale.



  1. Running Shoes by Frederick Lipp, illus. by Jason GaillardSophy’s life changes when a Cambodian government worker gives her a pair of running shoes. Now she can make the long trek out of her village to school! Realistic soft paintings effectively portray the challenges she faces when she arrives and finds herself the only girl at the schoolhouse.
  2. Little Sap and Monsieur Rodin by Michelle Lord, illus. by Felicia HoshinoLittle Sap’s life changes when she gains a place as a dancer in the Cambodian royal court. Her world expands even more when she travels with the king to France and captivates none other than artist Auguste Rodin. Based on a true story, this tenderly told and brightly illustrated tale is sure to enchant readers.
  3. Silent Lotus by Jeanne M. LeeAnother story about a little girl who becomes a dancer in the Cambodian royal court, but very different from Little Sap. Lotus was born deaf and unable to speak, and she is often lonely. She moves with grace, though, and impresses the king when she imitates the temple dancers. She goes on to become a famous court ballet dancer. A story that shows we all have talents and ways to communicate and express ourselves.
  4. The Caged Birds of Phnom Penh by Frederick Lipp, illus. by Ronald HimlerA young girl saves her money to purchase a caged bird in her home city and make a wish about her family’s future and their impoverished circumstances.
  5. The Mysteries of Angkor Wat: Exploring Cambodia’s Ancient Temple by Richard SobolA richly photographed essay with plenty to look at even for kids who may not yet be ready to absorb all the text.
  6. A Path of Stars by Anne Sibley O’BrienDara loves to hear stories from her grandmother about pre-war life in Cambodia, and finds herself in a unique position to comfort when her grandmother’s only surviving brother dies before they are reunited. A story about loss and love, change and hope, history and traditions.

Tech Time

A Day in the Market

Formats: iOS and Android

This is such a fabulous app. It brings to life a bustling Filipino marketplace, and offers a tender depiction of a young girl’s relationship with her mother. From Kirkus Reviews: “This bilingual storybook app lovingly depicts a young Filipino child’s first visit to the market with her mother. Waking early, a young girl is excited to spend the day with Nanay (Mama) since ‘Today is market day!’ As they get off the bus, the little girl says, ‘Nanay and I each carry a bayong. Nanay’s bayong is big and colorful. Mine is small and yellow.’ While English speakers may not know what a bayong is, they will realize with a little guesswork that they need to drag the little yellow shopping bag to the young girl’s arms before turning the page. The warm illustrations complement the text, adding details from the busy market.”


One Globe Kids

Format: iOS

Meet Aji in Indonesia through One Globe Kids. I love authentic narration in the voice of each child. A detailed and engaging story about Aji’s day off from school, his activities with his friends (including making a kite out of newspapers that you could then try at home, as well as spitball shooters and stilts!), and the wonderful photographs that open up his world and illustrate his day. You can download the app for free and then Aji’s story for $1.99 (other stories are also $1.99), or get the whole bundle for $12.99. From the Publisher: “Spin the globe and learn about real children around the world with One Globe Kids. Each new friend invites you to play their games, learn their language and share their food – international travel from your living room for young explorers. Destinations range from The Netherlands, Haiti, Indonesia, New York City, Burundi... always someplace new to visit. Custom localization and fully narrated in English, French and Dutch! The free sample includes a visit to Haiti, then in-app purchases open each additional location. Features: real stories from around the globe, told child-to-child with full-color photographs and narration. New languages – Record yourself speaking and counting in your friend’s language (Dutch, Creole, Kirundi, English, Bahasa Indonesia…). Interact with your new friends – Choose “Adventure” story to decide what you want to do; with the “Tell me about yourself” feature record a conversation. Learn country facts – Learn interesting, kid-friendly facts about each country you visit. Learn geography – Put yourself and your friends/family on the globe and see where you are in relation to your new friends.”


Watch, Listen, Learn

  1. National GeographicCheck out facts and photographs of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, the Philippines, and other countries in Southeast Asia and around the world at National Geographic Kids. Every overview includes a few pictures, an image of the currency, and an image of the flag as well as lots of information.
  2. MusicSoutheast Asian classical music plays an important role in religious and community life. It also uses a totally different scale than Western classical music! Watch and listen as girls have a Thai music lesson. Hear traditional music from Cambodia, the Philippines, Thailand, or Vietnam.
  3. DanceDance is an important mode of storytelling in Southeast Asia. Look for videos of traditional Southeast Asian dances, such as this dance from Indonesia, this one from Thailand, or these Hmong American girls dancing at the Cleveland Asian Festival.
  4. Water PuppetryI spent one fabulous evening in Hanoi watching a water puppet show that captivated my imagination. Take a peek at water puppet show, and see how the puppets are made. Better yet, explore the YouTube channel Vietnam, Water and Puppets to see a series of short (about 3 min each) well-done documentaries on Vietnam and water puppetry made by an Italian cinema student who traveled to Vietnam for the project, as well as her collection of what she deems to be the best videos on YouTube about the art form.
  5. CookingWatch cooking videos, such as this one of an American Laotian young woman cooking a traditional Laotian dish. She gives lots of helpful hints throughout on how to find ingredients or substitutes in the U.S. Be prepared to get hungry if you’re watching on an empty stomach!
  6. Animated History of the Hmong PeopleThis short history, narrated by Hmong university students, is also animated by a story cloth. It contains some darker elements and political portions that young children might not understand, but the story cloth offers a visual guide for all ages.

Take Action

Get Cooking

One of my favorite ways to explore another culture is to eat its food. And Southeast Asian cuisine remains my favorite flavor palate. I have many memories of meals eaten in Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia and seeing meat, produce, and beverages sold and prepared in the markets. Thai preparation tends to be great for kids in one way at least—the primary utensils are a fork and spoon. Knives aren’t usually found at the table, and food is either already cut up, easy to cut with a fork, or finger-friendly! Traditional spice levels might need some adjustment for children, but there are so many flavors beyond the spice. One meal I ate regularly that I miss here in the States: som tum, fried chicken, and sticky rice. Som tum is a spicy salad, the base of which is shredded green papaya. While the dish is readily available in Thai restaurants in the U.S., I have yet to find anywhere that serves it with fried chicken, its regular accompaniment in Bangkok! I ramble. Talking food is a quick way to get me on a tangent. Back to the activity: Have your child help you prepare a Southeast Asian dish. Many of the ingredients, if they can’t be found in a regular grocery store, are common in other ethnic specialty markets. Check out some cookbooks from your local library. One of my favorite Thai cookbooks is Thai Street Food by David Thompson. In addition to some tasty recipes, it has gorgeous photographs that take you into the heart of Thai street culture. If you can’t make it to the library or your library doesn’t have a good selection, turn to the Internet for loads of recipes and video tutorials! For example, take a peek at allrecipes.asia for a wide array of Southeast Asian recipes, searchable by ingredient, recipe type, cooking method, occasions, etc., and watch the cooking video listed in the Watch, Listen, Learn section.


Puppet Show

If your child was fascinated by the Vietnamese water puppetry in the Watch, Listen, Learn section, keep the party rolling by putting on your own puppet show. It might not be a water puppet show, but it could be a performance of one of your kiddo’s favorite Southeast Asian stories that they have read or heard and you can make your own puppets and/or puppet theater!


To Market, To Market

Outdoor markets abound in Southeast Asia and are an important part of the economy and people’s day-to-day lives. Set up a pretend market with your child and get shopping! Playing market is a great way to practice organization, business, math and social skills. Sort your goods into appropriate stalls, make your wares look appealing, negotiate prices, and be polite to vendors and customers alike. Now get haggling! Is your child ready to take their market skills beyond pretending? Maybe it’s time to set up a lemonade stand or variation thereof. Visit a real outdoor market near you! Find a farmers market using this search tool. Make sure to adjust the distance you want to search within (it defaults to 5 miles). Not all markets might be listed, so once you find one, ask a vendor two if they know of others!


Travel Agent

Another pretending game: have your child take on the role of a travel agent and help you plan a trip to a country in Southeast Asia. Look at maps together and plot a route, schedule flights, trains, buses, decide where to stay and put together an itinerary of activities to do in each place you’ll be going, figure out places to eat, and learn even more about the cities, towns, and culture in that country along the way. Perhaps they can help you learn some basic phrases in that country’s respective language, too!


Local Events

Many cities and regions in the United States have cultural associations or centers dedicated to a particular cultural population in that area and designed to support and educate around that culture. Look for a Southeast Asian cultural association near you—an association of this nature would probably be more specifically Hmong, Vietnamese, Thai, etc., rather than broadly “Southeast Asian”—and ask if they have any upcoming events or other opportunities to learn about the particular culture they focus on. Colleges and universities are another great jumping-off point for such events, which could be anything ranging from a concert or dance to a family-friendly lecture, holiday celebration, language class, or banquet.


Source: Cards and School Projects

Source: Cards and School Projects

Lotus Craft

The lotus flower is an important symbol in Buddhism. Help your child make a lotus of their own! This one made out of recycled spoons is really cool, but does require the use of a glue gun. Paint it pink afterwards! Or make an origami lotus. Lovely. This lotus pond craft is especially kid-friendly!



Using a complete map of Southeast Asia as a guide, have your child color in their own map, and match each color to its country name.

About Alexandra:

Greetings from central Maine! Things you should know about me: I am the mother of an inquisitive, active toddler who keeps me on my toes. I work in a small, independent children’s bookstore where I get to help kids, teens, and their grown-ups find books that will keep them up reading all night long. Just kidding about that last part, they go to sleep eventually, I swear. Well, I don’t swear, but I assume. But matching people and books? My favorite way to play matchmaker! Before moving to Maine I worked as a historical researcher for American Girl, where I learned about everything from steamboats to wars to parrots. I am also a children’s book author myself, with my first picture book due to come out in 2015! When I’m not knee-deep in books or blocks or a sandbox, I bake a lot, avoid cleaning at all costs, and try to spend as much time outdoors as possible. For the record, I would love to be a neat and orderly person, it just doesn’t seem to be my style. I’m working on it.