There are certain books that seem to circulate the backpacker and travel scene. The types of books that you discuss and swap with other travellers, that you see lying in a hostel bookcase, travel related books that have been popular for years and years, probably way before you thought about packing up a backpacking and heading off.
Some books are based on general travel and others based on Countries and Destinations that are popular with backpackers and these are a mix of fiction, non-fiction and cold hard history.
Below are a list of books that I think are the best books for backpackers to read, especially if you’re going to the destination mentioned in them.
You may still find these books lying on a hostel shelf but if not, I’ve added links to Amazon so you can purchase them.*
Shantaram– Gregory David Roberts.
Perfect for travelling INDIA.
This is one of my all time favourite books! It’s a big book and requires some dedication but lets just stay you’ll want to go to India after reading it!
Written as an autobiography of Gregory David Roberts but with added fiction for storytelling purposes it describes how he escaped from prison in Melbourne and then finds himself in Bombay, India with a fake passport, living in the slums and taking part in various black market activities, and of course a bit of romance is involved. Without a doubt it is a must read and Shantaram is by far one of the most popular backpacker books out there!
Wild– Cheryl Strayed
Perfect for travelling the USA & HIKING.
I always think that books are better than the film and this is definitely the case for Wild. Cheryl Stray writes about her experience hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in the USA following her mother’s death and a break up. She describes the difficulties of the hike she has taken on- i.e a huge backpack, sore feet and the tough weather conditions but she really does get to know her real self and what she wants out of life from this tough hike.
Even if you have watched the film the book is still worth a read as there’s so much more detail in it and despite the sore feet it has now made me want to do a big trek at some point as it’s very inspiring and uplifting!
The Wanderess– Roman Payne
Perfect for travelling EUROPE.
These Roman Payne Quotes have been going around Instagram like crazy:
“You must give everything to make your life as beautiful as the dreams that dance in your imagination.”
“She was free in her wildness. She was a wanderess, a drop of free water. She belonged to no man and to no city”
“I was an adventurer, but she was not an adventuress. She was a ‘wanderess.’ Thus, she didn’t care about money, only experiences – whether they came from wealth or from poverty, it was all the same to her.”
I even used them on my trip in 2015 so I decided to look into who this Roman Payne was and it turns out he’s an author and his book The Wanderess was highly rated. At the time I was travelling South America solo so it seemed like the perfect read and although I couldn’t quite relate to it as its based on old Europe type of travel, I also couldn’t put it down and have now read it a few times!
It’s described as a gothic mystery novel, a love story of 2 characters who become entwined in each other life whilst searching for their fortune. It’s based a long long time ago in France, Spain and Italy so it’s an interesting read on how people used to travel and with lots of twists and turns and I’m sure you will finish the book before you know it. Whenever I see someone use a Roman Payne quote on Instagram or I use one and people say they like it, I always say pleasseee read The Wanderess!!
First They Killed My Father– Loung Ung
Perfect for travelling CAMBODIA.
First They Killed My Father is a book is a big book on the backpacker scene in South East Asia and I think it always will be. For the majority of us unless you visit Cambodia you have no idea of its history in the 1970’s where the Government murdered 25% of the country’s population!
This book is written by a girl who survived the genocide but witnessed everything that happened to her Country, including her Dad’s death and describes all of the events in so much detail.
This is one of those cold hard history books I mentioned and although it isn’t the ‘perfect read’ because it’s deeply harrowing and a difficult read, it is a must read when visiting Cambodia (ideally before you go to Cambodia or whilst in Cambodia) to help understand the history of the Country. Then when you visit the Killing Fields outside Penom Penh it will all make a bit more sense.
If you don’t want to be carrying big books with you then make sure you get an E-Reader! Here’s my post on The Pro’s & Con’s of an E-Reader and the Best One for Travel!
The Damage Done: Twelve Years of Hell in a Bangkok Prison– Warren Fellows
Perfect for travelling THAILAND.
There are a lot of drug read books out there but this is a really good book to read and let’s put it this way, after reading this book there’s no way you’ll consider trafficking drugs in Thailand!
Aside from that it is interesting read about what the prison system in Thailand and Bangkok especially is like and it gives you an insight into the city away from the backpacker area of Khao San Road!
Marching Powder– Rusty Young
Perfect for travelling BOLIVIA.
Marching Powder is another really good drug related read but this time based in a prison in La Paz, Bolivia’s capital City. In fact if you are visiting La Paz when backpacking around South America which I’m sure you will do, this book is a must read!
I say that because it’s based on Rusty’s experience in the 1990’s which still makes it very relevant and relatable, especially as he talks about the backpacker and hostel scene in La Paz so much. The other reason is that the prison Rusty was in is still a working prison right in the city centre! I had walked by the prison when I was in La Paz and I read this book later so I really picture the prison in my mind. I would even recommend reading this book before you go to Bolivia!
This book describes how Rusty got caught drug trafficking and was put inside La Paz’s Prison. The corruption that he explains is completely unthinkable and the fact that for a long time whilst he was in there backpackers were allowed to visit him, and even stay over and party with him using the cocaine the prison produced is just crazy and a great insight into what backpackers got up to back in the day in La Paz!
Walking The Nile – Levison Wood
Perfect for travelling AFRICA.
I started reading this book in Egypt which was kind of perfect, especially when I was actually on the Nile.
This is a really in-depth book about his quest to walk the Nile and it’s quite hard to imagine that he actually did this and its real life. I loved getting an insight into Africa and the Countries he visited and it kept me hooked throughout! It’s a perfect read if you are heading to Africa soon or just like reading about a good challenge!
You may have seen the TV show on Channel 4 in the UK but the book is far far better!
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum– Katherine Boo
Perfect for travelling INDIA.
This was another booked I happened to pick up somewhere on my travels and wow, it is a truly moving book of what life is like in the Mumbai slums a long with the contrast of the new airport that is being built at the time and the luxury hotels.
I had a layover in Mumbai the other year and I remember thinking how incredible the airport was and then seeing all the slums whilst taking off and it took me right back to reading this book which makes it a must read if you are visiting India. As you can imagine it’s another hard read but a good and insightful one.
The Art of Happiness– Dalai Lama
Perfect for travelling ASIA.
This may well not be a ‘backpacker scene’ book but once you’ve travelled to a few Asian Countries, especially South East Asia its likely you’ll gain an interest into Buddhism thanks to the many temples you will visit. I find Buddhism really interesting and The Art of Happiness is a great approach on how to overcome everyday human problems and achieve lasting happiness.
It’s a motivational book which really gets you thinking about life and your approach to life which goes hand in hand with travelling the world I think, therefore I would really recommend reading this book whilst you travel or before you embark on a trip.
Burmese Days– George Orwell
Perfect for travelling – MYANMAR
I was told a few times to read this book by people on Instagram after they’d seen I had visited Myanmar (Burma). It’s a great insight into what Colonial Burma was like back when the British ruled. George Orwell gives his frank and honest opinions on how the British behaved and what the Burmese thought of them.
I think this would have been a great book to read before going to Burma and therefore knowing some background history of the colonial times.
The Great Railway Bazaar– Paul Theroux
Perfect for travelling THE WORLD BY TRAIN
Paul Theroux is possibly one of the best travel writers out there. In this book he takes a journey from London through Europe to and around Asia via India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Japan and then Russia. I really love the idea of old train travel and this book captures that perfectly and it left me feeling like I had been born in the wrong era.
The journey he takes really makes this book interesting but so does his English whit and humour!
The Beach– Alex Garland
Perfect for travelling THAILAND & PHILIPPINES!
Lastly a complete classic. The Beach as a film is very good but the book (of course) is so much better!
Although the Thailand described in this book is no more, the excitement of Khao San Road in Bangkok is still present as are the amazing Islands. This is a great read to get you excited for backpacking especially if you like the idea of the way backpacking ‘used to be’.
I also heard that although the book is based in Thailand, Alex got his inspiration from El Nido in the Philippines so it’s a good book for which ever Country you’re visiting!
Have any of the above books really jumped out at you to buy and read? What other books would you add to the list? Let me know in the comments below or by tweeting me @wandering_quinn
The Amazon links in this post are affiliate links but at no extra cost to you because I want you to save your money for travelling!
All photos of books are screenshots from online.