Tom Vater

Tom Vater

Irreverent, informed and downright eclectic crime fiction and reportage from Southeast Asia and beyond

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Boutique hotels gain new ground in Bangkok in the Nikkei Asian Review

After lagging regional competitors, Thai capital invests in heritage accommodations. My latest with Laure Siegel in the Nikkei Asian Review.

In downtown Bangkok, hardly a week goes by without a soft opening for a high-rise hotel offering a plush but hardly unique experience. With around 35 million visitors a year the Thai capital is a spectacular tourism success, but it is lagging behind regional competitors when it comes to quirky, idiosyncratic accommodation.

Heritage hotels, many in crumbling Rajput palaces, have been one of the main reasons to visit Rajasthan, in India, since the 1960s. More recently, heritage accommodation has proliferated in Luang Prabang in Laos, and in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in Cambodia.

In Thailand, while there is plenty of remarkable architecture scattered around the older parts of Bangkok, especially in Chinatown and on Rattanakosin Island, countless structures are threatened by construction, lack of maintenance and the absence of official development guidelines….

Read the full story here.


The 103 Bed and Brews – The Daily Telegraph

I’ve been reviewing hotels for the Daily Telegraph for the past four years, mostly in Thailand, but also in Cambodia, Laos and India. To date I’ve visited more than a 100 hotels for the paper. More often than not I manage to combine this job with other assignments in the same locations  (it’s not uncommon for freelance journalists to work two or three stories at the same time, the only way to pay the bills). In Kochi, Kerala I was researching a story on India’s tattoo culture while reviewing a number of heritage hotels in the old heart of town. In fact, I am a sucker for restored heritage properties. Not only do hoteliers who restore buildings contribute to cultural and historical continuity, but heritage hotels are often more funky and unique than other hotels in the same price range(s).

Last month I visited the 103, Bed and Brews in Chinatown, Bangkok, an exquisite corner shophouse on Soi Nana, the Thai capital’s hippest entertainment alley.

Read the full Telegraph review here.

Photo by Laure Siegel.

Belt and Road reaches Nepal’s wild north in the Nikkei Asian Review

My latest story with Laure Siegel in the Nikkei Asian Review on how highways, bridges and dams flow from Chinese infrastructure bonanza in Nepal. A hard truck ride to the Nepal/China/Tibet border, the proverbial end of the world.

Some 140 km to the north of Nepal’s capital Kathmandu, China’s “Belt and Road” infrastructure plan is in full swing.

“On the Chinese side, the road is so smooth that it looks like Switzerland; on the Nepalese side, it’s a disco road all the way from Kathmandu to the border,” sighs Indra Bahadur Tamang.

After leaving Nepal’s capital at dawn on a crisp winter morning, Bahadur is on his way to the Rasuwagadhi-Jilong border crossing to the Chinese province of Tibet, on the Trishuli River in Nepal’s Rasuwa district.

In the early 19th century, Nepal exported rice, flour and clarified butter to Tibet, and imported wool and salt. Today, a fleet of trucks goes empty to Jilong, except for occasional loads of wheat and chili. About 90% of trade across the border consists of industrial and consumer goods moving from China into Nepal.

Read the full story here.


Laura Snook, high priestess of Cambodian punk rock and ace magazine editor – RIP

Laura Snook, Cambodia’s high priestess of punk, ace magazine editor, and a fantastic, sensitive and kind woman and all round Rocknroll lady.

What a huge loss.

Hard choices in the Andaman Islands in The Nikkei Asian Review

My latest for The Nikkei Asian Review on the plight of the indigenous people of the Andaman Islands in India – The world should reconsider forced assimilation of isolated communities.

In late November, an American missionary attempted to bring Christianity to the Sentinelese people, a remote community in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, an Indian territory in the Bay of Bengal. Circumventing Indian authorities, John Allen Chau paddled a kayak to North Sentinel, the community’s island home. The Sentinelese killed him.

The Sentinelese are one of the last isolated ethnic minorities in Asia. There are also some hold-outs in West Papua, Indonesia, and in South America, where a handful of tribal communities in the Amazon basin have shunned contact with the world. All face a deeply uncertain future as the modern world collides with their ancient traditional cultures.

Read the full story here.

My Quiet American – Scott Nicholson

My first encounter with Scott Nicholson was as formidable and extraordinary as our 19 year friendship. I found him sitting in the surf on a remote beach in the Andaman Islands, in 2000. I was about to go swimming and we said hello to each other, the way two westerners do three thousand miles from home – there was no one else around. He mentioned he was from Detroit. I vividly remember the tattoo on his back, a star or a compass. He had the most beautiful, piercing and haunted blue eyes one could ever hope to look into. Everything was in there and more.

“Detroit Rock City?” I asked.

He grinned and we started talking…The MC5, Alice Cooper, The Stooges, The White Stripes, Fred Sonic Smith, the Dirtbombs. He sent me a T Shirt of the Grande Ballroom (which closed in 1972), where all our favorite bands had played.

Scott spent years on the fringes of the Detroit rock scene and he’d rubbed shoulders with all the greats and not so greats, from Wayne Kramer to Kid Rock. He was a Michigan RocknRoller boy, through and through.

We lost touch after that first meeting, but Scott found me again a few years later. I’d become a writer and he was about to give up his job as a federal agent at Detroit Metro Airport. He was coming east. And for a few years, Scotty was in my life again. We traveled through the wilderness of Laos together, burnt away countless nights in Phnom Penh, he stayed with me in Bangkok.
But Asia wasn’t for Scott. He was a truly sensitive soul, touched by the injustice of the common woman and man. The decrepitude of Cambodia and the lack of opportunity for ordinary people in Laos, as well as the terrible American legacy in Southeast Asia, brought him down.

He cut his losses, returned to the US, qualified as a teacher, met a great woman and lived happily ever after. We skyped. He became a landscape photographer, his images were published in illustrated books on Michigan. I featured several of his Cambodia images in one of my guidebooks.

Scott was proud to be American – his father had served in Vietnam – but he was also fiercely critical of his country’s dark side and was as disturbed by the great American unraveling as myself. He no longer felt safe in Detroit and had bought himself a gun, even as he deplored the violence in the US. We talked music, books and politics, eastern and western.

He read everything I published and he was a good critic, constructive and honest. He sent me books – his last gift, Detroit by Charlie LeDuff is lying on my desk, unread. My two most recent books were lying on his table and sitting in his computer. We had planned a trip to Colombia together, where he’d spent some years during the bad old days of FARC. I was thinking of visiting Detroit, but I was slow.

And then he left. Just like that. Heart attack at 40-something after a hard, misspent youth and what I sensed were plenty of moments of sunshine in recent years, not least because of the wonderful woman, Laura, and her two kids, with whom he’d settled into what felt like a great equilibrium. He’d made peace with his parents. He’d taken his father on a road trip through Nicaragua. He took photos.

Scott was the very epitome of that line from the Quiet American, “Sooner or later…one has to take sides. If one is to remain human.”
Scott remained human. After a long and hard journey, perhaps he sensed that he’d gotten his redemption. That can’t be said for all of us.

See you down the front, brother.

After the Quake… in the Mekong Review

My piece on my return to Nepal three years after I was caught up in the devastating earthquake of 2015 and the journey to overcome my sense of trauma is published in the Mekong Review, Southeast Asia’s literary journal, next month.

Politics and crime fiction

A short essay on politics and crime fiction, published at b for bookreview.

A while ago, I had a conversation with an American book reviewer about politics in crime fiction. He felt that overt political messages do not belong in the genre. I felt that covert or subconscious political leanings are part and parcel of all fiction. Think of Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River in which a sex abuse victim is suspected by his oldest friend to have killed his daughter. Eventually, the friend kills the sex abuse victim, just before the real killers of the girl are caught. All good and fine, but the killer gets away with it and the cop who knows about it, another childhood friend, buries it. In the hands of right-winger Clint Eastwood, the story became a propagandist tract on not only casting the vulnerable in society aside, but on finding peace with doing so, on a societal level – essentially Republican, but also very much in tune with how the entire political elite in the US has been selling its narratives for decades.

In the 50s and 60s, several crime fiction authors, all remembered today, wrote on the other side of the political divide – Chester Himes wrote about the challenges African Americans in the US faced, Jim Thompson wrote about underdogs and was a member of the American communist party. John D. McDonald wrote about environmental destruction in Florida long before the environment became center stage in our lives, and Ross McDonald wrote about those who were abused by their families, with a sympathetic eye for anyone who’s had their self-confidence zapped. More recently too, some crime writers have championed the causes of underdogs, not least Stieg Larsson with the creation of his character Lisbeth Salander.

As the USA drift further and further away from the moral framework it created, and in any case, was never quite part of, as people are becoming more anxious about the future, it’s clear why Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series is so phenomenally successful. It serves to comfort us by suggesting the horrors we have created are resolvable with a bit of vigilante action. When we start reading, we already know the bad guys will be pulped and most of the good guys will survive, be saved or rehabilitated. But neither Reacher nor James Bond nor Spiderman are around to teach us anything about the real world. They are around to make us forget that the darkness in our hearts is always there, ready to rise to the surface. As such they are formidable. But as a genre, crime fiction can offer so much more.

My latest novel, The Monsoon Ghost Image is a typical espionage caper. Narrative and characterizations follow traditions that will be immediately familiar to readers of crime fiction. But at the heart of my story lies the US’ extraordinary renditions program, the kidnapping and torture of Muslim terrorist suspects in the wake of 9/11. Detective Maier, and every other character in the book faced with the Americans’ inhumanity, is forced to recognize that they are but cogs in a giant cruel wheel that keeps on turning. As such they are placeholders for all of us, who within our modest means, have to make choices on how to react to government overreach, exploitation, environmental degradation, racism, sexism, misinformation, nationalism and constant war. That’s hardly comforting, but it’s damn interesting.

Buy a copy of The Monsoon Ghost Image here, 99cents until January 30th.

48 hours in . . . Bangkok, an insider guide to Thailand’s colourful capital in The Daily Telegraph

My latest look at Bangkok in The Daily Telegraph.

Welcome to Bangkok – a sprawling, humid metropolis of more than 10 million souls that rose along the eastern banks of the Chao Phraya river a little more than 200 years ago. Today, the Thai capital brims with interesting historic sites, stylish hotels, incredible culinary adventures, and fantastic shopping, and none of this need break the bank. The city has had some success in shedding its longstanding image of sleaze for a younger, more cosmopolitan mantle and is a pretty safe urban space. And while the military government has put the break on non-stop partying, the arts scene and the world-famous street food culture, many visitors continue to feel enchanted by this cornucopia of sights, sounds, smells, tastes and moods. Bangkok remains on the map for its temples, palaces, malls and markets, but it’s the ever-present smiles of its citizens that give the city a quite lovely human dimension.

Read on…

On Hunting Humans….

My most recent post to promote The Monsoon Ghost Image is all about Hunting Humans….

My latest novel, The Monsoon Ghost Image, features a man hunt. One of my villains, Krieger, a German tycoon, lives on an island in the south of Thailand that has been populated with large mammals, some not indigenous to Southeast Asia. There is a historic precedent for this.
In 1977, General Marcos, the former ruler of the Philippines, had 12 bushbucks, 11 elands, 11 gazelles, 15 giraffes, 18 impalas, 12 waterbucks, 10 topis, and 15 zebras transported from Kenya to Calauit Island, off the coast of Palawan. Some thrived, others died off. In the process of establishing his safari park, Marcos evicted 250 indigenous families to a barren rock island near-by. The inhabitants returned in 1987. Since then there have been poaching issues and the co-existence between the island’s original inhabitants and the animals remains tricky. There are various stories about why Marcos imported the animals, the most plausible being that his son was a keen hunter and daddy wanted to make him happy.
My German tycoon organizes human hunts for Asian high rollers on his island, ostensibly to dispose of former US prisoners from the War on Terror that the Americans want to disappear. In return the US turn a blind eye to his Telecom deals in countries hostile to America.
A long time ago, I heard stories, largely unsubstantiated though not completely unimaginable, that something like this existed in Cambodia during the country’s civil war in the mid-1980s. Someone had told me about a so-called James Bond Club, also for Asian high rollers, who were invited to act out a 007 fantasy which included the hunt and killing of a man and sex with unfortunate women. Those who fulfilled their missions allegedly received a 007 certificate.
In The Monsoon Ghost Image, the main protagonist Detective Maier, his Russian sidekick Mikhail and Shamil, a Muslim insurgent from Chechnya, are trapped on Krieger’s island, not only threatened by the wildlife, but hunted down by a psychotic plastic surgeon called Suraporn, who has a taste for dismemberment.
The idea of the hunted man is as old as literature, and great examples I’ve read include Kidnapped (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson and The 39 Steps (1915) by John Buchan, one great espionage thriller and my favorite Hitchcock movie. Geoffrey Household’s novel Rogue Male (1939) is another classic in the genre, the story of a man who tries to kill Hitler and is then hunted by Nazis and the British police across Dorset.
In The Monsoon Ghost Image, the hunter, Suraporn, uses hypnosis with memory techniques, PWA and ideomotor suggestion to control his prey before he kills and then skilfully disfigures them by sewing animal parts to their faces. Maier and his companions are ill equipped to escape this man’s psy-ops weapons.
Nothing is created in total isolation. Writers owe everything to other writers and the stories they come across in daily life. While some of my fiction is loosely based on experiences I have made and scenes I have witnessed, a great deal is also culled, sometimes consciously, at other times instinctively, from all those stories written before I wrote.