Tom Vater

Tom Vater

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

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The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu – Review at The Dorset Book Detective


A brand new and very kind review of my first novel, The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu, at The Dorset Book Detective.

A snappy thriller with strong characterisation and witty dialogue, The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu is an entertaining read with as many plot twists as it has droll one liners.
Tom Vater’s novel centres around a group of friends, Dan, Fred, Tim and Thierry, and a shared incident in their pasts which unites them in both fear and greed. Featuring magnificent and often superbly described settings, spanning around the globe and including the Hindu Kush foothills in the 1970s, which are so lavishly depicted that an air of culture and sophistication is lent to an essentially sordid road trip filled with sex, drugs and a battered Bedford bus, through to Kathmandu in the early 2000s, where the violence reaches fever pitch as the protagonists try to unravel a 25 year old mystery.”…

Read the full review here.

Is tourism in Thailand becoming unsustainable? – Interview in The Daily Telegraph


Gavin Haines at The Daily Telegraph on whether mass tourism on Thailand‘s holiday islands is sustainable as visitor numbers continue to go up. I get to put in my five cents worth.

Read the full story here.

How I wrote Burmese Light – in InDepth Magazine


My account on how I wrote Burmese Light, the illustrated book by photographer Hans Kemp in InDepth Magazine.

Read the story on pages 20-23. Or read it right here…

It really hit me while I was walking amongst the giant stone ruins of the former kingdom in Mrauk-U, which ruled much of Burma from the 15th to the 18th century, accompanied by a seriously eccentric Burmese who called himself Radioman, aman who had gained enough notoriety in this remote cultural gem to make the pages of Lonely Planet.

The temple ruins, stupas and palaces of Mrauk-U are nestled amongst rolling green hills and rice paddy, dripping with moisture, populated by giant yellow locusts. The local town sits amongst the ruins like a recent arrival, slowly spreading itself over another culture long gone.

Welcome to Arakhan, nowadays Rakhine State, a place that has seen relatively few foreign visitors in the past half century. Here, travelers could be forgiven to have hopes of discovering last frontiers and places so remote they have not made the pages of Wikipedia yet.

At the end of a long day’s walk, Radioman handed me a letter which contained a long wish list of books and magazines I was to send him. He had hand-written not one but two copies of the letter, which was a couple of pages long, despite my assurances that I would not be able to send books to Mrauk-U. That didn’t seem to bother him. The otherworldliness of his home town had consumed him. I was also utterly consumed and touched by the color and pace of Mrauk-U.

Rudyard Kipling famously wrote: “This is Burma and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.” Looking over the chedi spires of the barely remembered kingdom, blackened by age, I quite agreed.

But amongst those same moss covered chedis, another side of Burma lurked in the brush. Everywhere I went, I encountered heavily armed military, ostensibly protecting the local Buddhist population from an imminent Muslim attack, I was told over and over again. The only Muslims I encountered were frightened traders in the market in Sittwe, the state capital. The Rohingya fisherman who used to deliver their catch to the docks there had disappeared in the wake of a vicious pogrom.

I had set off for Burma in August 2012. My assignment: to write the text for Burmese Light, the illustrated book project by Dutch photographer Hans Kemp published by Visionary World in Hong Kong. I decided to write the bulk of the text as a first person narrative, following in the footsteps of other literary travelers – most notably Rudyard Kipling and George Orwell – whose quotes provided the introductions to the book’s main chapters. 

Following my trip to Mrauk-U, I returned to Yangon and explored its architecture, bookshops and restaurants. Expectedly it rained much of the time and the old British buildings which loomed into a gun metal sky, were covered in the same mold as the ones a little to the east in Kolkata. But Yangon was no crowded urban hell.

Rather, the former capital was a pot holed city waiting to be fixed, dotted with magnificent colonial edifices and pagodas and countless tea houses, rather quaint and quiet. There were no motorbikes and few cars on the streets. Malls and international banks had yet to make a concerted appearance. No doubt some of the old architecture would soon make way for chrome and glass palaces, but back then the former capital exuded dilapidated charm. The past, both colonial and post independence remained visible everywhere even as the future was moving in.

Up-country I traveled around Inle Lake and explored its shore-side dawn markets and Shan shrines. I visited former capitals around Mandalay, explored the city’s fascinating jade market, and rode an old river ferry down the Irrawaddy to the magnificent ruins of Bagan.

Burma is a predominantly Buddhist nation, but as elsewhere in Southeast Asia, older beliefs have been absorbed into the dominant faith. The pre-Buddhist Nats, 37 spirits of the elements and nature, are revered and celebrated in most of the country but nowhere more so than around Mandalay. In summer, several festivals honoring the Nats take place.

I made my way to the Taungbyone Nat Festival an hour north of the city. As in Mrauk-U, I had the feeling of reaching a kind of frontier, though this one was less of a geographical dimension, rather one of the mind. Hundreds of spirit mediums set up shop in pavilions around the festival site where they fell into exuberant trances to the sounds of super-sonic acoustic orchestras and the chanting of both male and female singers. Most of the spirit mediums were transvestites or transsexuals and many of the male devotees were gay. A kaleidoscopic world crammed with beatific moments emerged during three days of dances and marathon fortune telling sessions. The absence of any concessions to foreign visitors reminded me once again of Kipling’s quote…”quite unlike any land you know about.”

Fast forward to November 2015.

The country has gone to the polls, the military junta has been trounced in national elections and a new chapter has begun for the country, one a little more complicated than the ambiguous limbo Burma enjoyed between 2011 and today.

The economy is booming but the flood of smart phones and cars in ramshackle Yangon represent the ominous arrival of globalization in all its beautiful terror. Mrauk-U has temporarily sunk back into obscurity in the wake of rising nationalism in Rakhine.

But not all is lost.

For the first time in a half century, ordinary Burmese have an opportunity to participate in the destiny of their country. Infrastructure development, lasting peace in the border areas, and reconciliation between faiths should be top priorities. The country has reached another crucial junction in its turbulent journey. Hopefully, it will travel towards the very special light it is blessed with.

Burmese Light indeed.

burmese light

Hans Kemp and I present Aung San Suu Kyi with a copy of Burmese Light at the Mandalay Literary Festival in 2014.

Vint Lawrence – CIA handler of General Vang Pao dies


I somehow missed the recent passing of Vint Lawrence, CIA handler of notorious Hmong General Vang Pao in Long Cheng, Laos, in the early 60s, who threw his secret agent career away to become a political cartoonist in Washington.

Vint Lawrence is interviewed in the 2008 documentary The Most Secret Place on Earth – The CIA’s Covert War in Laos, for which I co-wrote the screenplay with director Marc Eberle.

Almost all the protagonists of the US’ dirty war in Laos interviewed in the documentary are now dead – James Lilley, Vang Pao, Sousath Phetrasy, Vint Lawrence and my sorely missed friend Fred Branfman.

Here is my obit of Vang Pao in The Times.

And my obit of Fred Branfman in The Daily Telegraph.

You can watch The Most Secret Place On Earth here.

The Man with the Golden Mind – Review in Looking For A Good Book


Great review of my second Detective Maier novel The Man with the Golden Mind at Looking for a Good Book, from 2014.

Writers often hear the mantra “show, don’t tell,” but author Vater brings this to a new level.  Rather than showing us what is happening, he brings us in to the environment and lets us experience it with the characters in their own world.  A remarkable feat!…

Looking for a good book? The Man With the Golden Mind will suck you in and take you on a thrilling and exhausting journey through the jungles of Laos and beyond.  It’s a thriller not to be missed.

I’ve just completed the third Maier novel The Monsoon Ghost Image. Stay tuned.

Bangkok Noir: Crime Fiction in the City of Angels – Jonathan DeHart in The Diplomat


Jonathan DeHart writes an in-depth article on Bangkok crime fiction in The Diplomat today. Thailand’s capital is home to a vibrant community of writers exploring the city’s vast underbelly. Excellent overview of some the city’s literary forces.

Great to be interviewed for this piece and wonderful to see Crime Wave Press being mentioned. Authors James Newman, John Burdett and Christopher Moore also have their say.

Read all of Bangkok Noir: Crime Fiction in the City of Angels here.

The Last Tattooed Chin Women of Burma – Rise Tattoo Magazine

My story on the last Chin women in Rakhine state in northwest Burma who have face tattoos is out this month in the French magazine Rise Tattoo.


Chin3  Chin4


Chin7  Chin8

Nepal Earthquake – One Year On


One year ago today I got caught up in the Nepal Earthquake. I was covering with 5th international Nepal tattoo convention with Laure Siegel and Dom Pichard. The first big quake took place as we were interviewing tattooists in the ballroom of the Yak and Yeti Hotel.

We spent the next four days wondering through the partially destroyed city, sleeping on the street, and experiencing many aftershocks. The populace was dazed and the authorities absent.

I reported for several newspapers, including the Telegraph, the Nikkei and Mediapart and for our original client Rise Tattoo.
After we left, things got worse for the Nepalis. with continuing aftershocks, the government’s inability to cope with the disaster or the funds that came into the country – the money still hasn’t reached the people who need it, and the politically motivated economic blockade by India.
There is little business in the cities and tourism remains muted. The World Heritage monuments lie as they fell. My friends in the mountains continue to struggle. The political chaos continues.
It was great to see that the tattoo convention took place again this year, but I couldn’t make it.

Just before the quake, I was up in the Everest region in the village of Kumjung, surrounded by the world’s highest peaks and snowed in by a late storm. Walking through an April snowscape with Ama Dablam suspended in white fog above us, the crunching of our shoes the only sound, was the kind of moment that is prety impossible to put into adequate words. Nepal always provides moments like that.

Thanks to those I traveled and worked with on the roof of the world in 2015, especially Jit Bahadur and Ghale Kamal, Patrick Vater, Charlie Londs, Mohan Gurung, Bijay Shrestha, Quentin Inglis, Chris Powers, Angie Tostaky, Serjiu Arnautu, Paulo Jorje Cruzes and anyone I have forgotten, and finally the wild man who did the disappearing act.
I hope to be back in Nepal soon. It’s a magical place.

My first report from the ground after the quake in The Nikkei Asian Review

Generation Democracy: Jerry Ink and the Burmese Tattoo Scene in RISE TATTOO

Laure Siegel reports on Yangon‘s tattoo scene and one of its shops – Jerry Ink. Photos by me and Rāj Hegde for French magazine RISE TATTOO this month.

We had a great time spending a day with tattooists Jerry Api and Sweetz Sweetz.

Big thanks to Mg Mg Tha Myint for the connect.

Jerry1 Jerry2 Jerry3 Jerry4 Jerry5 Jerry6

Songkran 2016: where to celebrate Thai New Year – The Daily Telegraph


My guide for The Daily Telegraph on where, when and how to best celebrate Thai New Year.