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Non Fiction

An Idiot Abroad by Karl Pilkington

I admit in the process of aging I lost my sense of humour. So when someone told me about how hilarious ‘An Idiot Abroad’ was when it was on air in Britain’s Sky TV in 2010, I was sceptical. Until I watch series 1 this summer and then series 2 a month ago. The show made me laughed till my sides split and howling with laughter and rewinding favourite segments so that my whole family could laugh at it again and again. That’s the end of the world as I saw it, rating ‘An Idiot Abroad’ as one of the most entertaining comedy I have watched this year.

I am a big fan of travel documentaries and travel books. So to add comedy on top of learning a thing or two about world cultures, make it an attractive potion to get me hooked to both the TV programmes and the book. I’m not sure if ‘An Idiot Abroad’ has made it big around the world but the reviews on the DVD and the book have been positive. Both have made me laugh out loud. If you want to try this out, I strongly suggest that you watch the TV series before attempting the book. I suspect the jokes on the book will mean less if you haven’t watch the clips. But beware, under Parental Guidance with strong language, racist remarks and graphic scenes which some viewers / readers may find offensive.

Karl Pilkington is a friend of Ricky Gervais and Steve Merchant, the two comedy genius who created the “Office” and podcasts for XFM shows. I have never seen any of these earlier productions but Karl has been around for while. Karl speaks in a monotone quintessential Mancunian (inhabitants of Manchester, the city I lived for awhile) accent which introduces colloquial words “innit” and English swear words. Gervais and Merchant are performing experiments on Karl and sends him off to witness the seven wonders of the modern world, while the likes of us will ooh- and –aah of the opportunity he has got (he gets to go on a helicopter ride around the Christ the Redeemer statue and live in Petra ruin for the night) and all Karl could do was whinge and complain through his entire journey. Karl isn’t interested in seeing any of the wonders, a vacation out to Spain without his normal brand of milk makes him panic, “He’d be happier in medieval times in a village where you didn’t travel beyond the local community” said Steve Merchant.

The seven wonders Karl visited are:

  1. The Pyramids in Cairo, Egypt
  2. Christ the Redeemer in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil
  3. The Taj Mahal in Delhi, India
  4. Chichen Itza in Cancun, Mexico
  5. The Great Wall in Beijing, China
  6. Petra in Jordan
  7. Machu Picchu in Peru

This book is a genuinely fun travel guide and personal diary. There are colorful hand-drawn maps, transcribed phone and text conversations with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant (which both called just for the aim of winding Karl up!), and gorgeous pictures of the Seven Wonders and the local geography, architecture, and people of each place Karl visits. I was particularly impressed with Karl’s pictorial illustration and “Karl’s Fact” (genuine facts, no hoax) section on each of the seven wonders.

If I haven’t experienced it for myself I would have thought Karl is just a cretin who whines and make a fool of himself and I would have dismissed the chance to watch or read about it. Don’t get me wrong, he still makes a fool of himself except the appeal of Karl is not merely that he says stupid things, or that his concerns are petty – anyone could do that – it is that there is some logic in his whinging, and, when you sit back and think about it, it makes a lot of sense.  I relate to his experience at my age, there is a part of me who is more concerned with immediate comforts than new experiences, and is underwhelmed by things that I have been told I should find spectacular. Karl takes these feelings and runs with them to their extreme absurdity, so that a book about the wonders of the world spends a very big part of it detailing toilet concerns, which Karl holds dear. (Explanation: Toilet time is Karl’s precious me-time, the only time he could get away from his girlfriend Suzanne’s nagging).

I’ll show you some snippets of his monologue and you decide for yourself if he is a genius or a cretin:

In Egypt:

I met Ahmed this morning. He’s a local lad who is an expert on the Pyramids and Egyptian history in general. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to understand him, but his English was better than mine. He may as well have talked Egyptian to me, as the English words he used went right over my head. One of the words he used was ‘tintinnabulation’, which he told me means a ringing or tinkling sound.

He took me to a mosque. Praying and religion are a big deal in Egypt. Ahmed prays five times a day. I would never keep to it if I lived here. I struggle having my five fruits a day. Religion has never been a big part of my life. I wasn’t christened. My mam told me not to tell many people about not being christened, as she said I would be a prime target for witches. To this day, I don’t know what she meant by that. – page14

Aladin (the tour guide) began by raving about how the Pyramids were built. I don’t enjoy tours like this. They are more like a history lesson. Too many dates were being mentioned. I watched other people who were on tours and their faces also looked disappointed and uncertain – as if they weren’t sure what they were meant to do now they’d seen the Pyramids. It’s the same sort of feeling you get when you visit someone in hospital and you’ve had the small talk and given them their grapes and you want to leave, but feel like it’s too early to go. That’s how I felt. – page 29

On China:

On Taj Mahal,

The Mughal Emperor Shahjahan had it built for his wife who died giving birth to their 14th son. It was supposed to stand as the perfect symbol of love.

It seems to me like it was something the man had always wanted to build but his wife didn’t let him, so when she died he used it as an excuse to build his dream .my uncles always wanted a plama telly, but his wife didn’t want him wasting money on one. As soon as she died he got one.

It’s weird how it is classed as one of the modern Wonders of the world. You wouldn’t think so by the surroundings. If it was one of them property programmes, the potential buyers would say, ‘If you could pick it up and put it somewhere nicer, we’d buy it.” It really shouldn’t have been built there. My tour guide told me how Taj Mahal was perfectly symmetrical. Again this seemed an off idea for a structure that was built to show true love. I wondered if the man had some sort of OCD.

On Petra,

I noticed there was a cave across from Petra, so I made my way over and sat in it. And it was there that I finally proved my point to Ricky and Steve. It was much better to look out of a hole at a palace, than live in the palace looking at a hole. I think the same rule applies with humans. I think I’d rather be an uglyish looking person than a beautiful one, as how often do you have to look at yourself? If you’re quite ugly and you’re sat facing someone who is pretty at work, who’s got the better deal?

On Machu Pichu, Peru:

We booked into a hotel at Cusco. There were oxygen tanks in the room but you had to pay to use them. I normally avoid taking anything from hotel mini bars due to the mark-up on the price but they really have you with the oxygen tanks. I had to break the seal and have a go to make sure I knew how to use it. In case i work up out of breath in the night. I know Machu Picchu is supposed to take my breath away, but not like this.

And a lot more hilarious quotes but I’ll spare you the rude ones.

I must forewarn though some readers may find his materials rude and sometimes Karl can be rude to the locals who have extend their hospitality to him despite in their poorest state of living; this is when I look at the this man and start to question if he is really stupid or is he playing this ungrateful, complaining, quirky role brilliantly just for the show? Most of the time I believed the latter, but watching his deadpan expression and how he has been consistent in delivering the character both onset and off the set in interviews, I believed the former. I can’t make up my mind about him, but he is definitely not an idiot.

I think that the diary is meant to work best as a companion piece to the television series. As I said Karl is funny not because of his twisted logic but also because of some of his misadventures that he came across in his trip; such as the toilet which you have to pay to get the door handle in Egypt, toilet which has no door in China, being laughed at by the Amazon tribes for missing his target etc. I finished the book in one sitting and thoroughly enjoy it. Karl may not be Michael Palin or Stephen Fry, but you will certainly learn about other cultures in a whole new level.


Paperback. Publisher: Canongate 2011; Length: 223 pages; Setting: Seven wonders of modern world. Source: Reading Borough Library. Finished reading at: 18th December 2011.

About the writer:

Karl Pilkington (born 23 September 1972) is a British podcaster, author, television personality and former radio producer. He is best known for the Sky travel series, An Idiot Abroad, which was also presented in the United States on the Science Channel, in Canada on Discovery Channel and in Australia on One HD, and The Ricky Gervais Show with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant.

His bio profile in the book says as a child growing up in Manchester, he regularly missed school to accompany his parents on caravanning holidays and left without collecting his exam results. Now making up for lost time, Karl has written three best selling books and has toured the Seven Wonders of the modern world for Sky 1 television series An Idiot Abroad.

Karl with the Magnetic man on An Idiot Abroad 2 in the Tran-Siberia train. "It would be handy if you (the magnetic man) go shopping at Sainsbury without using the flimsy carrier bag." Karl stuck a tuna can on the magnetic man's body, faced the camera and said, "It's handy, innit?"


About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


10 thoughts on “An Idiot Abroad by Karl Pilkington

  1. I used to listen to the Ricky Gervais podcasts and found the Karl character very funny so thanks for this review, I don’t think the TV show aired here (Or I missed it) but I will try to track down the DVDs and then see about the book. Sometimes it is good just to laugh at silly things

    Posted by Bernadette | December 28, 2011, 2:10 am
  2. Now I’ve got a TV show and a book to add to my lists! Ricky Gervais is hysterical so I am looking forward to this one, thank you!

    Posted by Helen | December 28, 2011, 1:51 pm
  3. I’m so glad you gave this show a go, I simply loved them! My dad and me were in stitches every single episode. Haven’t read the book though so maybe worth a go.

    Posted by jessicabookworm | December 31, 2011, 5:42 pm
    • Jessica,
      I smile to read you and your dad in stitches. It is so hilarious, innit? LOL.. Do give the book a go, I’m wondering if he will write the second one on his bucket list trip. I’m going out to buy a copy for keep!

      Posted by JoV | December 31, 2011, 9:04 pm
  4. I love the new look of the blog; perhaps I’ve not been here in a while? Happy New Year, JoV. The quotes are quite funny. He is whining but as you’ve pointed out, he has a point. Thanks for the review.

    Posted by Kinna | January 2, 2012, 8:23 am

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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