Tom Vater

Tom Vater

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

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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.

I wrote the following text for her remembrance concert in Phnom Penh in March.


I’d like to quote from a novel by John D MacDonald:

I get the feeling that this is the last time in history when the offbeats like me will have a chance to live free in the nooks and crannies of the huge and rigid structure of an increasingly codified society. Fifty years from now, I would be hunted down in the street. They would drill little holes in my skull and make me sensible and reliable and adjusted.


They never managed to adjust you!

Friend, colleague, star journalist, princess of punk, rocknroll royalty, why the fuck did you have to leave us now?

You were just getting started, ageing disgracefully, no longer young and out of control, but like most of us, older and simmering. You survived your early conditioning without becoming reasonable, you took every chance to piss convention into the wind. Every time we hung out, one of us was crazy and the other one insane. And now you’re not here.

Bikes, music, jeans, eyeliner, knives and knuckledusters, big fucking leather boots, bikes, bikes and more motorbikes, crisis and victory, victory and defeat and madness, dressed in black, dressed in green, dressed in red, yellow and blue but mostly in black and with a clown face stuck on, doing 180 mph while folding the rizlas with that smile and that roar. Big boots and a bookshelf of literary outcasts and misfits from Hunter S to Hunter S and back, and dodgy guitars and cracked motorcycle helmets. Laura, you were the full package, the woman who lived the dreams, and the nightmares, that most of us shrink back from, you walked that extra mile for friendship and far out spontaneity.

Sometimes in life, there are moments when we are flying without a license, untethered, like ruinous angels. Those are the best moments. Nothing even remotely comes close and I pity those who don’t have them.

Sitting on the back of your Phantom, roaring through Phnom Penh’s festering traffic, passing glue sniffing kids and impostors in uniform robbing the poor, you gunning the engine like a machine gun, me with a pug nose guitar in my lap sitting behind you, was a good moment for us.

Every time you ground to halt at a red light, I turned up and played the intro to I Wanna Be Your Dog. Stylish nonsense to the rubber-necking Khmer, but I suspect people would have thought us crazy in London or New York too. A moment later the Psychotic Reactions, your seminal punk troupe, hit the stage at Sharky’s and destroyed the world for half an hour.

That half hour is gone now, never to be recaptured because you checked out. Amongst all the fakers and shits, the posers and aspiring dirt bags I have met along the way, you were a rare crazy diamond, a pure one.  It’s only RocknRoll, we used to tell each other. Saying it alone is not so much fun.

So how do we go on, Laura, without you?

Lemmy offers us some solace:

One day one day, we will go for the sun,
Together we’ll fly, on the eternal run,

Wasted forever, on speed bikes and booze,
Yeah tramp and the brothers, say we’re all born to lose.

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.

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.

Moon Angkor Wat – Third Edition out now!

The third updated edition of Moon Angkor Wat, my English language guide to the Angkor temples in Cambodia is out now, both in print and ebook format.

Reviewer Janet Brown had this to say:

I’m the kind of person who reads guidebooks to remember where I’ve been as well as to plan my next destination and in Tom Vater’s latest guide to Angkor Wat, I was given the opportunity to do both. From its extraordinary photographs, many of them taken by the author, and its wealth of clear and comprehensive maps, to its generosity in giving more than readers would expect from its title, this isn’t just a good guidebook. It’s an essential handbook to a generous portion of Cambodia, one that’s so well written that it can be enjoyed by armchair travelers as much as it will be used by those lucky devils with Cambodian visas stamped in their passports.

The Angkor Archeological Park is one of the most overwhelming places in the world, with beauty and mystery that can hit travelers like a tsunami and cause them to miss so much in order to see it all. Vater knows the temples well, not just the show-stoppers like the Bayon and Angkor Wat, but ones that are farther afield and easy to overlook. His detailed descriptions and careful directions ensure that his readers will see as much as they have time for, while visiting with an informed understanding of what they’re looking at.

But this book is a guide to more than the temples. Travelers staying in the nearby city of Siem Reap are given not only the basic recommendations for hotels and restaurants, but ones for bookstores and the city’s best swimming pools, for photography tours and the Cambodian version of Cirque du Soleil, the Phare Circus. Vater is frank about which museums are overpriced and which are worth seeing and why his readers can pass up Phnom Kulen.

Phnom Penh is covered in scrupulous detail including why it should be visited soon, but for me the best part of the book is the section that takes readers off the well-worn tourist tracks. From the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin to the spectacular grandeur of Preah Vihear, travelers are told how to get there and why they might want to, except in the case of Pailin, where they’re warned of “fleabag hotels,” and informed that the city ‘is no culinary paradise.”

A standout for me in this portion of the book is Battambang, a river city that’s less than three hours from Siem Reap where French colonial architecture coexists with Khmer modernism from the 1960s, where the art scene that was destroyed by the Pol Pot years is being revived, where Angkorean temples are woven into the fabric of daily life, and the original Phare Circus provides education and training to young Cambodians who might not otherwise receive it. With its good coffee, reasonable hotels, and a bookstore too, Battambang may turn out to be my next home in the world. Thank you, Tom Vater and Moon Handbooks!



The Monsoon Ghost Image is 99cents!

The Monsoon Ghost Image, the third installment of the Detective Maier series, published by Crime Wave Press, is on a virtual book tour this week.

And an ebook copy is yours for just 99cents.

The third Detective Maier mystery is a taut and crazy spy thriller for our disturbing times.

When award-winning German conflict photographer Martin Ritter disappears in a boating accident in Thailand, the nation mourns the loss of a cultural icon. But a few weeks later, Detective Maier’s agency in Hamburg gets a call from Ritter’s wife. Her husband has been seen alive on the streets of Bangkok. Maier decides to travel to Thailand to find Ritter. But all he finds is trouble and a photograph.

As soon as Maier puts his hands on the Monsoon Ghost Image, the detective turns from hunter to hunted – the CIA, international business interests, a doctor with a penchant for mutilation and a woman who calls herself the Wicked Witch of the East all want to get their fingers on Martin Ritter’s most important piece of work – visual proof of a post 9/11 CIA rendition and the torture of a suspected Muslim terrorist on Thai soil. From the concrete canyons of the Thai capital to the savage jungles and hedonist party islands of southern Thailand, Maier and his sidekick Mikhail race against formidable foes to discover some of our darkest truths and to save their lives into the bargain.

Review of The Monsoon Ghost Image by Col’s Criminal Library.

Late to the party as usual with my first taste of Tom Vater’s Detective Maier series in what may prove to be his final outing.

Tense, violent, brutal, gripping, stunning and a savage indictment on how America conducts itself overseas in a post-9/11 world. Angry and political would be an apt description, as a hunt for a German photographer in Thailand, a man who faked his own death morphs into something much bigger.

I really enjoyed this one. There’s a darkness at it’s core and Vater conveys his outrage convincingly. Our protagonist, Maier ably assisted by Mikhail – a friend and fellow detective-cum-bodyguard-cum-security expert – track down the missing man, Ritter and uncover a photograph Ritter has taken. The Monsoon Ghost Image opens up a can of worms for our two accomplices and a massive red target has just been painted on their backs.

Torture, experimentation, dark arts, technology, big brother, black ops, rendition, a manhunt, a mysterious ally (or maybe not), Thai military complicity, a chilling and deranged doctor with hynoptic almost other-wordly powers and a penchant for creative surgery, a German billionaire with a callous indifference for humanity and an isolated jungle playground, ideal for indulging his sickness… and a helluva lot more.

At its heart we have Maier and Mikhail, our moral compass, shining a torch for the good guys and trying desperately to survive and outwit opponents with much greater influence and resources, while pondering what to do with the image. Mikhail with his previous tutelage in the Russian military/intelligence service is a bit more pragmatic than Maier in respect of fighting fire with fire, if it ensures their survival.

Topical – even though it’s set in the early 2000s, relevant, entertaining, thought provoking, decent settings, though I may have been dissuaded from ever wishing to visit Thailand in the future, sympathetic characters, pacey, not over-long and relevant.


The Monsoon Ghost Image goes on tour