Travel Books: My recommendations – And where to save the money
At the moment, we cannot travel. Depending where you are and what profession you are in, chances are you are spending more time at home. So, time to read these excellent travel books! And although you may not be able to travel, you will never stop to be inspired, I hope!
I grew up in existing socialism. So I have never really taken the ability to travel for granted. While I am somewhat annoyed that I cannot travel, I also know that this current travel ban will probably last shorter than my socialist years. Therefore, apart from not being able to visit family, I am relatively unbothered by a few travel-free months, knowing the travel opportunities will return.
And in the mean time, what better way than to get carried away by bits of excellent travel writing? Investigate destinations you never thought of before? Below is a small selection of my favourites over the past few years, along with a few famous books that I read because of the hype, and here’s my honest review of them. A lot are a bit older, but as I said – they’re favourites and recommendations!
Table of Contents
The Small Print
Disclosure: Update 24.5.2020: I stopped using Amazon as a customer and as a consequence, for affiliate marketing, too. I have made several donations to cat shelters during COVID-19 which were much higher than any income from this blog. I don’t care about income from this blog as much as I care about supporting companies that pay a fair wage, pay taxes and provide good customer service. For further information, please refer to the Terms and Conditions of this website.
Here is the direct link to El Gato Andaluz, a cat shelter in La Linea, Andalucia. And not just that, I will match any commission with a donation from my own funds. It’s a shelter I support financially on a regular basis. La Linea is a poor city in one of the poorest regions of Spain. What’s worse, many cats got abandoned because their owner wrongly thought the pets can give them COVID-19, the shelter is closed to visitors, adoptions cannot go ahead and lots of stray cats cannot be trapped and sterilized and will have their kittens now, with no one there to take care of them!
Europe Travel Books
For someone who lives in Europe and has travelled Europe a lot, I sadly have very little to offer on Europe travel books!
The Muses Are Heard by Truman Capote (1956)
And indeed, my only Europe offering so far is out of print! I am happy to put a book by Truman Capote in here first, as I am a big Truman Capote fan. I never really warmed to “In Cold Blood”, perhaps his most famous work, based on a real-life murder. My favourites can be found in various anthologies, like “A Capote Reader”. I have “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” in several languages and vintage editions. Now, if you do manage to get your hands on a reasonably priced copy of “The Muses are Heard”, get it! In one of his earliest works, the writer accompanies a US opera troupe on a tour of the Soviet Union in the 1950s.
I promise that when it comes to novels that evoke the spirit of European destinations, I have a bit more to offer! But that would be something for a different post.
Asia Travel Books
A lot of reading here, as Asia, especially the Far East, is one of my favourite destinations. Usually involving a long flight, I have visited much less in recent years. I’m a nervous flyer and sitting on a plane for 10-12 hours is something I only commit to rarely. But nevertheless, many of my dream trips are to Asia – and unsurprisingly, quite a few involve train travel!
Shantaram by David Gregory Roberts ( 2003)
I picked my copy up somewhere, having probably read about the book in an early blog, some time around my trip to India. The author, a real-life convict, escapes jail and to Mumbai, where he settles for a while, living in extremely spartan conditions and mixing with both other travellers and locals. Over the course of the book, he runs a health clinic in a poor area, works with local drug lords and somehow makes it to Afghanistan to fight with the Mujaheddin.
It remains unclear what is fact and what is fiction, and the author himself has shrouded himself in mystery, claiming that Shantaram is a novel. But what a novel it is! A tight, curvaceous narrative, yes, embellished in places, but always great to read. Its a very long book, but hard to put down.
City of Djinns by William Dalrymple (1993)
A travel book written by a historian, this one isn’t dewy-fresh either. Published in 1993, the author chronicles his six years of living in Delhi. It’s not really a travelogue.
He dives deep into the cultural and historical fabric of Delhi yet presents his findings in a fresh narrative style. So when I first visited Delhi, we made a beeline for Humayun’s Tomb followed by the Hazrart Nizamuddin Dargah, and at the latter, I promise, you won’t find your average tourist! Highly recommended.
I have also a small collection of other books by Dalrymple collected over the years. Another is “The Age of Kali”, a collection of essays on real life conflicts in India (less likely to invoke your Wanderlust). And next to read is “In Xanadu”, his earliest late 1980’s work, where he recreated Marco Polo’s legendary journey from Jerusalem to China.
The Great Railway Bazaar (1975) and Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (2009) by Paul Theroux
Love him or hate him, but these books, especially the Grand Railway Bazaar, are true classics. Especially if you love train travel. The first book was written in the 1970’s when flying was a super luxury, and well, train was the method of choice for most travellers! It got me onto a adventurous ride to Pyin u Lwin in Myanmar, in Third Class, no less, only to find that in the early 2000’s, Myanmar seemed very much like in the book… now that’s up to you if that’s good or bad. I speak English as a second language, but his style is so simple yet elegant, I immediately latched on to his style of writing, even before I lived in Britain and spoke the language properly.
If you like the old train stations, the vintage rail carriages (not the fancy luxury train ones), this book is for you. I love a train ride and would only travel by train if I had the time, and I shall surely try to seek put more of the classic railway trips described in his book for as long as they still exist.
Yoga School Dropout
This book is hilarious! It starts as a witty travelogue, then goes on to tell the tale of the authors experiences in the most famous (or notorious) Yoga Schools and ashrams in India.
Even for those not interested much in Yoga, it makes for an entertaining read. For those who like yoga, it is a great book on many levels: witty writing, easy read, funny yet offers some basic understanding on what yoga is all about. There are some handy pointers for those considering to learn yoga in India, although the list is far from exhaustive and totally leaves out smaller schools or individual teachers. However, this book is a travelogue, not a list of yoga schools. It certainly inspired me to go to India and dip my toe into this fascinating culture, although I am not an ashram type of person.
As far as travel tales go, this is one of the best ones I have read in recent years. You learn a little about different styles of yoga. As the author appears to have grazed the most well-known schools and ashrams, this could be a light-hearted starter if you’re researching yoga schools in India.
PS: Please forget the sequel “Handbag and Wellies Yoga Club”. There is something just very sad and desperate about it.
Another book on Thailand written by a single white middle aged man, oh yes! No wonder I bypassed this when it came out.
Then I found it in the local library, and picked it up – and was surprised. It’s a compelling read once I got through the slow start of the first twenty pages. Lawrence Osborne can really set a scene and fill it with characters and curious anecdotes about a city. That’s what I liked about the book so much. Not so much cliches of hardcore single man Bangkok debauchery, but tales of hidden places, a bit of local mystery, and some interesting characters – some of them foreigners, some of them local.
It’s really well written, the right balance between adventure and history. Something to actually spend money on and to read again.
Africa Travel Books
Dark Star Safari
Oh, another Paul Theroux! Please note I am not a hardcore fan. But he is very prolific and again, this is one of his best ones. A classic route, the Cape to Cairo Overland, something the slightly off-the-beaten track traveller with a bit of time and money might wish to attempt.
General/a bit of everywhere/Save your money
Here’s a collection of books that didn’t fit in above, or some hyped books that I read but felt a little disappointed with and where you might be better off saving your money, or perhaps borrow it from the library and see if you like it first!
A Voyage for Madmen
Oh, how I loved this! I am into sailing, but haven’t sailed much once moving away from the North Sea. This book chronicles the journey of
Eat Pray Love
It’s quite a nice, easy to read book. What I don’t understand is that it’s been such a phenomenon. I guess it appeals to the middle aged, single woman who is STILL looking for true love and ruminating why she hasn’t found it yet, combined with “exotic” locations, a whole lot of soul-searching and a few hot nights of passion thrown in.
It’s not off to an auspicious start, the author having left her husband for what appears to be no apparent reason (I am sure she had a reason, but it is not very well explained, making the prologue somewhat awkward). The trio of travel tales to Italy (Eat), India (Pray) and Bali (Love) are fine, especially the India bit shows some nice character studies and story telling. Well written, though a bit worthy and self-helpey, especially the Bali bit. Easily digestible. The perfect book if you just broken up with someone, lying in bed in need of a hot tea with no one there to make you one.
A shame they have made it into such a drippy, lukewarm and boring film now. But that is a different story.
Holy Cow! by Sarah Mc Donald (2004)
Highly recommended and commended, so I read this before a trip to India. Its really well written, really flows, and allows a tidbits of insights into Indian society seen through the critical Westerner’s eyes.
It starts with a vivid description of pollution, dirt and chaos in Delhi, which is really overdone. If only the author would stop moaning about how India is dragging her down and getting on her nerves – after all, she is the Westerner with money, staff, air condition and money.
She dips in here and there, offering a caleidoscopic view of oddities and spiritual quirks in this country. Certainly very entertaining and a cracking read, offering enough history and cultural info to hold a conversation round some middle class dinner party table, but very little depth. Over all, the self-indulgent whinging and complaining really taints what could otherwise be an entertaining fast read. As travelogues go, this is perhaps one of the better ones, well worth a read. And the moaning and whingeing does become quite funny, although that was probably not the author’s intention.
My Travel Books Reading List
I wouldn’t normally put in affiliate links for anything I have not used and reviewed myself. But I will make a exception, as all commission will be matched with a donation of my own and go to the cat shelter of El Gato Andaluz in Andalucia, Spain. As you may know, Spain is one of the hardest-hit countries in the current COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, unemployment is at a record high, charities receive fewer donations and they are unable to do adoptions because of the curfews. So, these are travel books either in my virtual basket, or waiting in my bookshelf already!