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Top Ten Travel Books

The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

This is one of the oddest travel books ever, and I mean that in a good way. Divided into the sections Departure, Motives, Landscape, Art, and Return, it intersperses the author’s experiences (usually befuddling or disappointing) with those from travelers and writers of old. For example, Botton’s thoughts on loneliness parallel the paintings of Edward Hopper and his views on the appeal of the exotic accompany journeys by Gustave Flaubert. Packed into this little book are dozens of profound revelations about the inherent folly of guidebooks, the difficulty of true observation for tourists, and the disappointment of coming home. “I returned to London from Barbados to find that the city had stubbornly refused to change.”

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

Gibson is known as a science fiction writer, but this present-day novel is set in New York, London, Tokyo, and Moscow, with lyrical and acute observations on each city that are simply masterful. The mish-mash of consumer images in a global culture is an overriding theme here, with passages that would strike a chord with both the Adbusters crowd and the Advertising Age crowd. Not all that much actually happens by the end of the story, but it doesn’t really matter. This is a book that pulls you into its compelling world and keeps you enthralled with the mystery, the places, and the characters.

Travelers’ Tales Thailand edited by James O’Reilly and Larry Habegger

You can’t go wrong with any of the Travelers’ Tales books, but this one that kicked it all off holds a special place in my heart. I read it before my first trip to Thailand (which included a month in Bangkok) and then read it again a year later upon returning home. It resonated in different ways each time, but the collection gave me a deeper understanding of the country than anything else I’ve read. Like the others in this series, this collection of over 40 tales provides insight into food, culture, religion, and “the dark side” of a country that are impossible to glean from just one article or guidebook.

Holidays in Hell by P.J. O’Rourke

It’s a testament to O’Rourke’s skill as a writer than even those who completely disagree with his political views still laugh out loud at what he has to say. The “holidays’ in this book take the writer to Disney’ Epcot Center in Florida, El Salvador for Christmas vacation, the crumbling concrete of communist Warsaw, a month in a US/ Mexico border town, and others. With chapter titles such as “The Holyland—God’s Monkey House,” you know political correctness is not going to be a problem. His method of gathering material has been a good guide for me also: “I like to do my principal research in bars, where people are more likely to tell the truth or, at least, lie less effectively than they do in briefings or books.”

Falling Off the Map by Pico Iyer

Iyer has a special way of capturing the contradictions and oddities of countries coping in a “global village” and I’ve enjoyed all of his works, especially the relatively unheralded novel Cuba and the Night. The non-fiction stories in Falling Off the Map are joined by a theme of isolation, either physical or practice. The reader vaults from remote Patagonia and Bhutan to places where residents aren’t allowed to leave, such as Cuba and North Korea. The idea of resisting outside influence, being forced to resist it, or using it to create something new entirely ties this collection together and makes it a jewel seen from a variety of angles.

Collected Short Stories, Volumes 1—4, W. Somerset Maugham

Yes, these are four different books, but let’s pretend the publisher has finally put together a nice boxed set we can buy ourselves as a gift. In the meantime, any of the four will do, as they are all excellent. Many of the stories in each collection take place in “the colonies” of Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, and other far-flung locations, in the days when tourists were few and far between. No matter how exotic the location, however, these are all stories about people and the human condition. They are a good reminder to travel writers that a place can never by itself create real drama without interesting characters to inhabit it.

A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul

Writers of all stripes tend to admire V.S. Naipaul, even when a book of his drives them crazy. This one is a pure joy, however. The story follows an Indian merchant who has been uprooted from his home and has settled in a new African nation at the bend of the Congo River. Through the narrator’s eyes, we see his initial excitement and optimism evolve as he is faced with the inevitable corruption, chaos, and nepotism that have become the hallmark of post-colonial Africa. Like most great historical fiction, when you finish the book you feel like you’ve lived in the places within its pages.

Fruit Palace by Charles Nicholl

This wild ride of a book has gone out of print, but you can still find it used online. It’s easy to forget you are reading a non-fiction book as Nicholl sets out to get “the great cocaine story” from Columbia during the early 1980s. The author takes ridiculous risks to get inside the whole racket and effectively contrasts the high-flying cartel owners and rich New York buyers of the end product with the lowly boat runners, mules, and security staffers at the bottom of the rung. As he careens through jungle villages and hidden lagoons, the reader goes on a scary and exhilarating ride.

Tokyo Doesn’t Love Us Anymore by Ray Loriga

This bizarre and dreamlike novel is set in the near future, following a salesman of memory-erasing drugs who loves to sample every mind-altering concoction on the market, including his own wares. As the book goes on, the narrator’s memory gets worse and the whole thing devolves into a jumble of images from the past and an attempt to figure out who he is. Along the way, readers are treated to spare and poignant observations of Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, and a trailer park in Arizona. One review on the cover says, “Every page oozes genius,” and that pretty much says it all.

The People’s Guide to Mexico by Carl Franz, Lorena Havens, and Steve Rogers

No guidebook comes close to this one in terms of depth, insider info, and useful advice that will keep you out of a jam. This is the only guidebook I've ever kept on my nightstand and read for pleasure all the way through—it’s that much fun. It's akin to swinging in a hammock, sipping a cold Sol beer, and listening to a traveler talk for hours about the good, bad, and ugly experiences he has had in Mexico. For anyone who wants to get beyond the resorts and understand the real Mexico, this book is a must.

Tim publishes the award-winning Cheapest Destinations blog and the award-winning web magazine Perceptive Travel, written for independent travelers with open senses and open minds.

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Tim Leffel's World Cheapest Destinations
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