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Travel Bookshelf: Exploring Asia in photos, in person

Here are some travel books that can help you get around China, Bangkok, and Cambodia. China Abbeville Press, $235

Here are some travel books that can help you get around China, Bangkok, and Cambodia.


Abbeville Press, $235

There are oversized books, and then there are oversized books. This massive tome falls under the latter category. It is a gorgeous undertaking (it comes in a slip­case), consisting of 238 color photographs and 12 gatefolds that capture China in all its captivating and complex glory.

The famous landmarks are here - the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Terracotta Army of the First Qin Emperor - but also lesser-known sites (at least to the typical Western reader) of Chinese landscapes and cityscapes.

It is unique in another way, too: Each copy comes with one of 10 signed and numbered digital photographic prints. Concise captions describe each of the 44 locations featured; 28 of the locales have been designated as World Heritage sites by UNESCO.

One stunning photograph follows another, such as the ethereal image of the first bend on the Jinsha River; the magnificence of Mount Everest; a night shot of the Beijing National Stadium (otherwise known as the Bird's Nest), which was such a fixture during the 2008 Summer Olympics; and the ultramodern skyline of Shanghai under a blue sky.

Despite its rather hefty price, there is no denying the book's wow factor. A remarkable achievement.

Shanghai: City Guide

Lonely Planet, $21.99

As the Abbeville Press book on China indicates, Shanghai is an amalgamation of the modern and the traditional. On the one hand, it boasts jaw-dropping modern architecture straight out of a science-fiction movie; on the other, its tiny food stands hawk all manner of traditional dumplings. It combines elements of the East and the West, cosmopolitan and cutting-edge, while remnants of a thorny past hide down rickety old alleys. Before venturing forth into the city itself, authors Christopher Pitts and Daniel McCrohan provide the city's complicated backstory ("it all started with a little bit of opium") while commenting on its jumbled identity - it was once considered "a foreign adventurer's playground" - its literature, its often maligned, or at least misunderstood, language (Shanghainese is an ancient form of the Wu dialect), its cinema and its opera.

There is a special color section on Shanghai's architecture (from skyscrapers to temples). The city's neighborhoods are explored at length, too: where to eat, stay, drink, shop, and be entertained. It includes not only clubs but acrobatics, bike tours, Chinese massage, theater, and music.

Moon Handbooks: Bangkok

Avalon, $17.95

With a population of 10 million people, Bangkok is the urban and political center of Thailand. Like China, it combines the modern with the traditional, and this guide emphasizes both aspects of its character: the sleek office towers and swanky malls but also the Buddhist wats and marketplaces.

Author Suzanne Nam offers practical advice on how to eat street food. Unless there is a line, "just grab any empty chair and have a seat," she says. Sometimes there will be a server and a cook, other times just a cook. If the latter, you will need to get the order yourself.

She describes the Old City, the location of the most historic sites; the city's major business districts; downtown, home to the biggest shopping destinations; and greater Bangkok. There is plenty of space devoted to food - all kinds of food and food-related destinations, from river-cruise dinners and regional specialties to non-Thai food.

She discusses nightclubs, the performing arts, and shopping. In addition to the recent political violence (On May 15, the State Department issued a Travel Warning, urging U.S. citizens to defer travel to Bangkok and nonessential travel to the rest of the country;, cultural differences warrant a warning too, such as the usually simple act of jogging. That, she notes, "is likely to earn you stares and an occasional nip from one of the city's many stray dogs." It is best to confine your running to the public parks or the so-called green path that (mostly) avoids street traffic, she suggests.

Moon Handbooks: Cambodia

Avalon, $19.95

If Cambodia is known for one thing, aside from the decades of war and genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge, it would have to be the temple ruins of Angkor, which attract more than a million foreign visitors a year. Author Tom Vater describes this famous site quite extensively, as well as lesser-known temples.

Vater insists that conditions in the country are "slowly" getting better, despite the instability of its recent past.

Indeed, until a mere decade or so ago, Cambodia's capital of Phnom Penh was considered one of the most dangerous capitals in the world. "For the time being at least," the city is making a comeback, he writes.

He describes what to see and do there before exploring Cambodia's many miles of coastline and the region along the Mekong River. Like the country, the book is full of surprises. For example, there is a sidebar on Angelina Jolie, who in 2005 received honorary Cambodian citizenship (part of her 2001 movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was shot in Cambodia, and she adopted a Cambodian child) for her humanitarian work, especially in making people aware of the omnipresent danger of land mines.

Movie fans also will appreciate learning about Lumphat, a ruined city in the heart of the jungle, formerly known as Ratanakiri, made famous by Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now.