There might not be an actual rule decreeing that a backpacking adventure is not complete without a book or two or ten, but there may as well be. How else do you survive a train journey, a border bounce, a lazy day on the beach? Every backpacking bookworm would agree that while travelling, paperbacks are as precious as swimsuits, and obviously just as necessary.
A few years ago, we wrote an article on ‘The 10 Most Popular Backpacker Books in Southeast Asia.’ Today, WE’RE still seeing these same old books on the shelves of secondhand book shops and hostel exchanges. Surely there’s life after ‘The Beach’ and ‘Eat Pray Love’!
So, we asked YOU – what books are you reading lately? What stories can you recommend to fellow backpackers in Southeast Asia? If you notice your favourite travel read missing, feel free to leave us a recommendation in the comment section!
Here’s what you told us… (Hover over the image of the book to see its price on Amazon, Kindle or Paperback)
Discover the inner workings of Chinese culture in Kevin Kwan’s ‘Crazy Rich Asians’, which follows Rachel Chu, an American-born Chinese girl, who travels with her boyfriend to his home country of Singapore, where she learns that he just so happens to be the heir to one of Asia’s most enormous fortunes. Cue a hilarious journey populated with larger-than-life characters, granting readers a glimpse into an impossibly lavish lifestyle and the secret clashes between mainland Chinese and overseas Chinese. You’ll laugh out loud and fall in love all at once – what more could you want?
There’s no better way to speed up a painfully long bus ride or flight than with a fast-paced novel of suspense so brilliant you can’t put it down for a second. Terry Hayes’s ‘I Am Pilgrim’ is described as a “breakneck race against time” in which a string of unexplained gruesome murders all over the world have something in common, and there is only one man alive who can walk the path that connects them.
No matter which Southeast Asian country you may currently be travelling through, Rohinton Mistry’s ‘A Fine Balance’ will pluck you right out of it and transport you straight to India, 1975. This sweeping narrative tells the story of corruption juxtaposed against heroism, as an unexpected collection of characters are forced to survive in a single apartment together during a State of Emergency, setting the scene for an ultimate triumph of human spirit in an impossible situation.
Immerse yourself in Deborah Levy’s complex mother/daughter detective novel that takes place along the sweltering coast of southern Spain. ‘Hot Milk’ follows Sofia as she fights to find the source of her mother’s unpredictable illness with the help of a famous doctor, whose methods turn out to be less than conventional. The more time she spends in the desert community, trying to unravel the mystery of her mother’s strange symptoms, the more she also begins to unravel the mysteries within herself.
Set in the 1920s when Burma was under British rule, George Orwell’s ‘Burmese Days’ centres around John Flory, a timber merchant living in Burma, who finds himself feeling alienated from the rest of Europe. He discovers solace in an unexpected friendship with Dr. Veraswami, a Burmese doctor, which incites scorn from fellow Englishmen. Stark, realistic characterisation and weighted themes dictate the course of this classic novel as it raises serious questions about both racism and imperialism, and their consequences.
Tomislav Perko’s ‘1000 Days of Spring’ is a deeply honest, soul-searching story about a once-successful stockbroker who, upon going broke, decides to take off and travel the world. Written memoir-style, Perko details his five years of travel across five continents, exploring the years before he went bankrupt, as well the years that came after, when he set off into the unknown with just a single backpack. Follow along with all of his adventures and misadventures in between, and learn from the incredible insights into life he offers readers as a result.
A collection of heartfelt stories from different travellers of different backgrounds – all of which have one thing in common: each author was once a reluctant solo traveller who strove to overcome fear in order to pursue a dream. Hilary Bradt has compiled these stories into a unique book – including a personal story about her own dream to ride a horse across Ireland – that will inspire and lend advice to future solo travellers, as well as anyone simply curious about what it might be like.
8. Drink, Play, F@#k: One Man’s Search for Anything Across Ireland, Las Vegas and Thailand by Andrew Gottlieb
Take one look at the cover of this rather sassily titled book, and it’ll be impossible not to associate it with that of Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Eat Pray Love.’ However, Andrew Gottlieb’s ‘Drink, Play, F@#k’ turns out to be a surprisingly well-done parody that, in addition to being both clever and charming, will undoubtedly put a smile on your face. Whether you liked or hated ‘Eat Pray Love’ is beside the point – let go of any presupposed notions and let this faux memoir about a man who drops everything to live out society’s greatest fantasies prepare you for some thorough, laugh-out-loud entertainment.
The title says it all. A supremely relevant topic in today’s society, explore an in-depth analysis of feminism from an interesting new angle in Christina Hoff Sommers’ ‘Who Stole Feminism?’ The author consistently challenges and dismantles many preconceived norms of modern feminism; her approach and arguments may aggravate you, or they may inspire and speak to you in a way you thought no else understood. Either way, Sommers’ book makes for an intriguing read for any traveller in search of a book that educates as well as helps to pass the time.
A timeless novel of epic ideas and adventure, Yann Martel’s ‘Life of Pi’ has swiftly become an enduring classic taught throughout high schools, but that’s not to say it’s only for the youth – no matter your age, this book is layered with spiritual and practical ideals that resonate with any perspective. As a shipwrecked Pi Patel struggles to survive for 227 days upon a life raft shared with Richard Parker – a Bengal tiger – prepare to engage in a novel unlike any other, which will no doubt prompt some fascinating discussion as soon as you turn that final page.
Sentenced to life imprisonment in French Guiana’s penal colony following a false murder charge in 1931, Henri Charriere tells the story of everything that happened to him in this stunning autobiography: his many failed attempts to escape, his eventual transfer to Devil’s Island, and his finally successful break for freedom. Equal parts shocking and inspiring, ‘Papillon’ was an instant success when published in 1968, and remains an immensely popular read today.
It is true that you are never too old to travel the world – Rita Gelman’s ‘Tales of a Female Nomad’ is a proud testament to that fact. In 1986, this ordinary woman, age 48, abandoned a luxurious life in L.A., sold everything she owned, and followed a dream to become a nomad, in order to discover different cultures all over the world. An uplifting tale of self-discovery and expansive travel, Gelman’s memoir is enough to inspire fellow nomads and backpackers of any age.
A controversial, in-depth, behind-the-scenes look into the secret workings and history of the American Empire, John Perkins delves into the details surrounding the current geopolitical crisis by exploring interviews with CIA operatives, reporters, activists, etc., exposing international corruption on a startling scale. A former economic hit man himself, Perkins first provides an inside look into worldwide conspiracies radiating out of the U.S., and then challenges Americans on how to make things right for future generations by creating a better, more stable world from here on out.
14. Marching Powder: A True Story of Friendship, Cocaine, and South America’s Strangest Jail by Rusty Young and Thomas McFadden
Shed all your previous conceptions of what prison entails and get ready for an astonishing glimpse into the heart of Bolivia’s notorious San Pedro jail – which comes off as more than just a setting, but almost a character on its own – in Rusty Young and Thomas McFadden’s autobiographical tale ‘Marching Powder’. Put together a bold Australian journalist, a condemned English drug trafficker, and a prison that may as well be a world all unto itself, and let a raid into drug culture unfold into a story of surprising friendship, where humour and hope still have the power to triumph over horror.
15. The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari: A Fable About Fulfilling Your Dreams and Reaching Your Destiny by Robin S. Sharma
With a title to capture anyone’s attention right from the get go, Robin S. Sharma uses ‘The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari’ to spin a tale about Julian Mantle, a lawyer whose existence has been flung so out of balance, he has no choice but to face head-on the spiritual impasse his life has come up against. What follows is an extraordinary odyssey that inspires readers with a spectrum of topics, such as consciously producing joyful thoughts, learning to value time, and how to live fully, one day at a time.
New-age spirituality and ancient Eastern traditions come together in James Redfield’s ‘Celestine Prophecy’, a daring adventure throughout Peru that is undertaken by an ordinary man in pursuit of an ancient manuscript. The mysteries behind the spiritual insights he seeks, hidden within the manuscript, are slowly pieced together as he and a team of truth-seekers get tangled up with the Peruvian government desperate to stop the manuscript’s reach. Whether or not you buy into such new-age philosophies, Redfield’s novel provides a fascinating, provocative read.
When news of Christopher McCandless’ death and the noteworthy circumstances surrounding it broke, the story took the world by storm. In 1992, after selling all of his possessions, giving away his savings, and burning his remaining cash, McCandless gave himself a new name, tossed his maps, left behind his family, and took off into the Alaskan wilderness, where he soon met his end. With ‘Into the Wild’, Jon Krakauer offers readers a posthumous biography on this extraordinary young man, and his extraordinary, but tragic, pursuit of a nonstandard life.
A total gem of a travel book too often overlooked, the autobiographical ‘Dove’ describes the incredible adventures of Robin Lee Graham at 16 years old, when his dream of sailing solo around the world became reality. A courageous journey that took a total of five years and 33,000 miles, Robin’s voyage is an exceptional triumph that disproves every theory that age is more than a number. From falling in love to overcoming impossible odds, Robin’s story is an inspiration to anyone with a dream and a yearning for adventure.
Everyone loves dogs, right? Fall even deeper in love with man’s best friend with ‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’, Gareth Stein’s brilliant novel about an educated philosopher named Enzo, who is also a dog. From Enzo’s perspective, watch the life of his beloved owner and family unfold as he looks back on their intertwined lives leading up to the present moment – the day of his death. What follows is an equally funny and gut-wrenching story that will break your heart at the same time it saves it, providing vivid insight into the workings of the human spirit in a way you’ve never before experienced – considering you’re seeing it through the eyes of a dog.
20. Backpacker Business: One girl’s journey from wide-eyed traveller to worldwide entrepreneur by Nikki Scott
Join Nikki Scott, a young backpacker turned innovative publisher (owner of this very magazine and website!) who dared to reimagine a life unconfined by conventional standards and succeeded, on this autobiographical journey from humble beginnings in Nepal to established success in Thailand. ‘Backpacker Business’ describes the 23-year-old’s travels in Nepal, and all of her adventures across Southeast Asia that followed. Now settled in Thailand, and the proud owner of its first-ever print magazine for independent travellers, Scott’s story is a celebration of heartbreak, challenges overcome, lessons learned, and dreams achieved.
Still not enough? Curious to see what books backpackers were recommending five years ago? Take a look at our past article here. After all, one can never have too many books!
About the writer: A Canadian writer and voracious reader, Caitlin Krahn has more dreams than she knows what to do with, but currently spending the summer at The Content Castle in Thailand (check it out here!) has served to cross more than one off her extensive list. It’s hard to find her anywhere without her nose in a book, so these recommendations of yours will certainly come in handy for her as well.