Travel Books - The Ultimate List of Awesome Books to Take Travelling
One of my favourite things about travelling is that I suddenly have time to read. When I’m hitching, camping or backpacking around the world I often manage to read two or even three travel books a week. Check out the list below and if you think I’ve missed any real gems then please do let me know in the comments box at the bottom of the page. Many of these books are best read when you're actually in the country they are set in; for example, reading Shantaram in India is a really fantastic experience and you will get a lot more out of the book. In general, whilst travelling, I like to read travel books, such as The Cloud Garden, rather than travel guide books.
The 25 best travel books:
And so, in no particular order, here we go with the 25 best travel books to read on the road...
On the Road: Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel should be compulsory reading for all nomads, backpackers and folks who want to live off the grid. In ‘On The Road’ discover 1950′s underground America as Kerouac hitches backwards forwards across the states in search of Jazz, drugs, sex and the meaning of life.
The Cloud Garden: The Darien Gap is a place of Legend. The only break in the Pan-American highway, which runs from Alaska to the tip of South America. The gap is often seen as an almost impregnable strip of swamp, jungle and cloud forest inhabited by FARC gorillas. This fascinating book tells the story of two unlikely travelers who team up and try to get through the gap from Panama to Colombia, on foot. After a grueling journey they are just hours from success when they are captured by FARC fighters and held prisoner in the jungle for nine months. This is one of the best adventure travel books out there...
Shantaram: The first book I ever read on India, Shantaram inspired me to book a one way flight to Delhi and travel around India for 14 months. The book follows the possibly true, possibly exaggerated, story of an escaped Australian convict who finds his way to India where he falls in love, works for gangsters, fights the Russians in Afghanistan, gets imprisoned in Bombay, becomes a professional forger and an amateur doctor and experiences life in an Indian slum. The book is extremely well written and paints an accurate, although somewhat rosy, picture of life in India.
Last Man in the Tower: 21st Century Mumbai is a city of new money and soaring real estate, and property kingpin Dharmen Shah has grand plans for its future. His offer to buy and tear down a weathered tower block, making way for luxury apartments, will make each of its residents rich – if all agree to sell. But not everyone wants to leave; many of the residents have lived there for a lifetime, many of them are no longer young. As tensions rise among the once civil neighbours, one by one those who oppose the offer give way to the majority, until only one man stands in Shah’s way: Masterji, a retired schoolteacher, once the most respected man in the building. Shah is a dangerous man to refuse, but as the demolition deadline looms, Masterji’s neighbours – friends who have become enemies, acquaintances turned co-conspirators – may stop at nothing to secure their money. This is a really poignant read which I read in India, it changed how I viewed the country irreversibly.
On a Shoestring to Coorg: This is the first travel book that tested the idea that a five-year old daughter makes for a decent travelling companion. A really interesting read on the now-defunt Indian state of Coorg, this book gives a fascinating insight into the origins of backpacker travel in India.
The Kite Runner: A fascinating, sometimes painful, read about Afghanistan under Taliban rule. The story follows the fate of two young boys, one of whom is able to escape to America whilst the other, of the Hazara minority group, is forced to stay behind. A great book to read if you are interested in travelling around Central Asia.
A Thousand Splendid Suns: One of the most inspirational books I have ever read, I felt that this gave me a real insight into the little known women of Afghanistan and the events that have shaped the country over the last thirty years.
Born to Run: A tale of a mysterious tribe of Mexican Indians, the Tarahumara, who live hidden in canyons and are reputed to be the best long distance runners in the world.
The Lost City of Z: This is THE book you want to read if you are headed into the Amazon. The book tells the tale of an eccentric British explorer, Percy Fawcett, who spent his life leading expeditions into the Amazon in search of the legendary lost City of Z. The book recounts his life, his encounters with uncontacted tribes and his final expedition, from which he did not return.
The Motorcycle Diaries: A travel classic, these are the diaries of Che Guevara in which he travels around South America by motorbike. Still one of the best travel guide books for those interested in exploring South America on your own motorbike!
Nine Lives: A Buddhist monk takes up arms to resist the Chinese invasion of Tibet – then spends the rest of his life trying to atone for the violence by hand printing the best prayer flags in India. A Jain nun tests her powers of detachment as she watches her best friend ritually starve herself to death. Nine people, nine lives; each one taking a different religious path, each one an unforgettable story. William Dalrymple is one of the best writers when it comes to offering an insight into Indian culture and I highly recommend reading everything he has written.
Heart of Darkness: At the peak of European Imperialism, steamboat captain Charles Marlow travels deep into the African Congo on his way to relieve the elusive Mr Kurtz, an ivory trader renowned for his fearsome reputation. On his journey into the unknown Marlow takes a terrifying trip into his own subconscious, overwhelmed by his menacing, perilous and horrifying surroundings. The ultimate travel guide to a forgotten part of Africa...
Blood River: When Daily Telegraph correspondent Tim Butcher was sent to cover Africa in 2000 he quickly became obsessed with the idea of recreating H.M. Stanley’s famous expedition – but travelling alone. Despite warnings that his plan was ‘suicidal’, Butcher set out for the Congo’s eastern border with just a rucksack and a few thousand dollars hidden in his boots. Making his way in an assortment of vessels including a motorbike and a dugout canoe, helped along by a cast of characters from UN aid workers to a campaigning pygmy, he followed in the footsteps of the great Victorian adventurers.
Stranger in the Forest: The best account of an adventure expedition that I have ever read. Stranger in the forest recounts the humorous story of the author’s travels in Borneo where he made lifelong friends with the Penan, jungle people who can catch fish with their feet, imitate the cry of the elusive barking deer, and survive in a fearsomely inhospitable environment. With their help Hansen learned to hunt pigs, danced in the tribal rituals, discovered the eyewatering nature of Penan sex aids and was given the ceremonial name “Rajah Kumis”: King of the Moustache. He conveys how he came face to face with himself in the patch of map marked “unsurveyed”, and records the experience of living in a proud and ancient tribal community based on mutual respect.
Absurdistan: Award-winning foreign correspondent Eric Campbell has been stoned by fundamentalists, captured by US Special Forces, arrested in Serbia and threatened with expulsion from China. He’s negotiated dating rituals in Moscow, shared a house with a charismatic mercenary in Kabul and taken up smoking at gunpoint in Kosovo.
Chasing the Devil: For many years, war made Sierra Leone and Liberia too dangerous for outsiders to travel through. Facing down demons from his time in Africa as a journalist, Tim Butcher heads deep into this combat zone, encountering the devastation wrought by lawless militia, child soldiers, brutal violence, blood diamonds and masked figures who guard the spiritual secrets of remote jungle communities. One of the best explorative travel books around.
A Walk in the Woods: For those of you not familiar with Bill Bryson, he is point blank one of the most amusing travel writers out there. In this tale of walking and woe, Bryson attempts to traverse the Appalachian Trail, the longest continuous footpath in the world which crosses tangled woods and heady peaks. A fantastic story and a great travel guide to the Appalachian Trail itself.
The Great Railway Bazaar; By Train Through Asia: Paul Theroux’s account of his epic journey by rail through Asia. Filled with evocative names of legendary train routes – the Direct-Orient Express, the Khyber Pass Local, the Delhi Mail from Jaipur, the Golden Arrow to Kuala Lumpur, the Hikari Super Express to Kyoto and the Trans-Siberian Express – it describes the many places, cultures, sights and sounds he experienced and the fascinating people he met. Here he overhears snippets of chat and occasional monologues, and is drawn into conversation with fellow passengers, from Molesworth, a British theatrical agent, and Sadik, a shabby Turkish tycoon, while avoiding the forceful approaches of pimps and drug dealers.
Just a Little Run Around the World: After her husband died of cancer, 57-year-old Rosie set off to run around the world, raising money in memory of the man she loved. Followed by wolves, knocked down by a bus, confronted by bears, chased by a naked man with a gun and stranded with severe frostbite, Rosie’s breathtaking 20,000-mile, 5 year, solo journey is as gripping as it is inspiring.
Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know: One of the first books I ever read about expeditioning, I was inspired to start travelling and to get involved in trekking, climbing and rafting. Ranulph Fiennes has travelled to the most dangerous and inaccessible places on earth, almost died countless times, lost nearly half his fingers to frostbite, raised millions of pounds for charity and been awarded a polar medal and an OBE. He has been an elite soldier, an athlete, a mountaineer, an explorer, a bestselling author and nearly replaced Sean Connery as James Bond. In his autobiography he describes how he led expeditions all over the world and became the first person to travel to both poles on land. He tells of how he discovered the lost city of Ubar in Oman and attempted to walk solo and unsupported to the North Pole – the expedition that cost him several fingers, and very nearly his life. This is one of THE best travel books to get your creative juices flowing!
Walking the Amazon: 860 Days: In April 2008, Ed Stafford began his attempt to become the first man ever to walk the entire length of the River Amazon. Nearly two and a half years later, he had crossed the whole of South America to reach the mouth of the colossal river. With danger a constant companion – outwitting alligators, jaguars, pit vipers and electric eels, not to mention overcoming the hurdles of injuries and relentless tropical storms – Ed’s journey demanded extreme physical and mental strength. Often warned by natives that he would die, Ed even found himself pursued by machete-wielding tribesmen and detained for murder.
Kon-Tiki, Across the Pacific by Raft: “Kon-Tiki” is the record of an astonishing adventure – a journey 4,300 nautical miles across the Pacific Ocean by raft. Intrigued by Polynesian folklore, biologist Thor Heyerdahl suspected that the South Sea Islands had been settled by an ancient race from thousands of miles to the east, led by the mythical hero Kon-Tiki. He decided to prove his theory by duplicating the legendary voyage. On April 28, 1947, Heyerdahl and five other adventurers sailed from Peru on a balsa log raft. After three suspenseful months on the open sea, alone among raging storms, whales and countless sharks, they sighted land – the polynesian island of Puka Puka.
Into the Wild: Perhaps one of the most popular books on the backpacking circuit, although not one of my personal favourites, Into the Wild follows the true story of Chris McCandles, a young man who walked deep into the Alaskan wilderness in search of enlightenment and ultimately perished. This is a travel book with a difference, prepare yourself.
Full Tilt, Ireland to India with a Bicycle: Shortly after her tenth birthday, Dervla Murphy decided to cycle to India. Almost 20 years later, she set out to achieve her ambition. Her epic journey began during the coldest winter in memory, taking her through Europe, Persia, Afghanistan, over the Himalayas to Pakistan, and into India by bicycle.
Lonely Planet: The bible for many backpackers, Lonely Planet has a travel guide for pretty much every country in the world!
Rough Guide: Another great option for travellers, Rough Guide Travel Books receive high praise from those who like to get off the beaten track.
Bradt Travel Guides: A great option for those looking to learn more about the culture of the place they are visiting, Bradt travel books are packed full of humorous stories, top tips and cultural advice. Particularly useful in Central Asia.
Moon Travel Guides: A good choice for an independent traveller looking to get a general feel for a country, Moon travel guides are particularly useful in less-frequented countries as they tend to be more in-depth than the Lonely Planet.
So there you have it pirates, the ultimate list of some of the best travel books to read whilst on the road. Be sure to take travel guide books as well and check Amazon for some great deals on travelling books in general.
This list was compiled with the help of the Travel Nomads Community and the HolidayPirates Community.