Tom Vater

Tom Vater

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

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Helga’s Folly, Sri Lanka – A 20th Century Classic

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Gandhi stayed here and Paula Yates loved it. A handsome mansion built in the 1930s, run by the eccentric Helga De Silva, the property is now a faded but incredible Alice-in-Wonderland-meets-Hammer-Horror bohemian ghost ride experience. If you are looking for conventional accommodation, don’t stay here.

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Hotels don’t get any more unique than Helga’s Folly. Every inch of wall, floor and ceiling space is covered in paintings, frescoes, murals, photographs, mirrors, sculptures, giant candles and antiques and resonates with the spent souls of past bohemian visitors. Some guests will find the experience disturbing, others liberating. There’s an evident obsession with both death and whimsy visible in the décor, and the 20th century in all its terrible beauty, as perceived by the old moneyed classes, dominates the off-kilter ambience.

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One could literally while away hours soaking up the infinite number of small details and mementos of an artistic life well lived. A definite highlight is an encounter with Helga, who makes an appearance, dressed to the nines like Count Dracula, every now and then.

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Read the full review in The Daily Telegraph.

Tom Vater – Crime fiction writer, Journalist, Publisher – at Clippings.me

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Here’s my new and very slick professional profile at Clippings.me. Thanks for taking a look. Sure beats LinkedIn.

Road Trip Sri Lanka

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I have been traveling in Sri Lanka recently. it was a blast and my first time on the island. Mellow people, so long as you don’t dig into the war (and I was not there for that), luscious green hills, great food, wonderful festivals and no stress.

I did a bunch of hotel reviews for The Daily Telegraph and did some other great writing. Plenty in fact.

With French journalist Laure Siegel, I investigated the island’s burgeoning tattoo scene and met several great tattoo artists. I even got inked.

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The best place I stayed was the former home of the last king of Sri Lanka, now called Kandy House, a wonderful country mansion. It’s right in the jungle above Kandy. I had a close encounter with a king cobra there while visiting a local temple, which to my mind was really a spirit meeting, since I am still here to tell the tale.

Thanks to all the wonderful people who helped along the way, especially Harshi Hewage at Manorhouse Concepts in Colombo, Ravi at Ravi Tattoo in Kandy, Helga DeSilva at Helga’s Folly in Kandy, and Dimmu Fernando  in Ja-Ela.

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I Love My India

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

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

Thanks!
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

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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