Tom Vater

Tom Vater

Eclectic crime fiction and informed, irreverent non-fiction from Asia and beyond

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Kolkata Noir – Destroy Everything Beautiful

Selecting and preparing images for my first photo exhibition ‘Destroy Everything Beautiful’, at Outpost Experimenter Gallery in Kolkata, complimenting the work of artists Aditi Aggarwal and Sophie Starck.

Huge thanks to Max Mueller Bhavan/ Goethe Institut for support and encouragement, particularly Sharmistha Sarker and Frieso Maecker.

I am indebted to writer Aurko Maitra without whom I wouldn’t have had access to many of the interesting and colorful characters I have had the pleasure to share my time with and photograph in Kolkata.

The Cambodian Book of the Dead reviewed at Categorically Well Read

Categorically Well Read have posted a great review of the first Detective Maier novel, The Cambodian Book of the Dead, originally published with Exhibit A in 2013 and now with Crime Wave Press.

The story is set in 2001, just as Cambodia is re-emerging from over 50 years of war, genocide, famine, and cultural collapse. Mr. Vater, an excellent wordsmith, takes his time setting the scene through carefully executed rounds of history, fully imagined characters, and his construction results in a rich world full of mystery, mysticism, ghosts, Eastern philosophy, jungles, sweat, mosquitos, drugs, sex, and violence.

Read the full review here.

Other reviews…

“The narrative is fast-paced and the frequent action scenes are convincingly written. The smells and sounds of Cambodia are vividly brought to life, and aficionados of this kind of writing will love the book. “

— Crime Fiction Lover

“The action itself is fast and furious from start to finish, with enough killings, assassins, tortures and horrors to satisfy the most jaded palate.”

— Crime Review

“The Cambodian Book of the Dead is a hard boiled crime story wrapped in a surreal meditation on genocide, globalisation and the expatriate condition, by a writer who has acute observations to make on all three subjects.”

— Pulp Curry

The story….

Cambodia 2001 – a country re-emerges from a half century of war, genocide, famine and cultural collapse.
German Detective Maier travels to Phnom Penh, the Asian kingdom’s ramshackle capital to find the heir to a Hamburg coffee empire.
As soon as the private eye and former war reporter arrives in Cambodia, his search for the young coffee magnate leads into the darkest corners of the country’s history and back in time, through the communist revolution to the White Spider, a Nazi war criminal who hides amongst the detritus of another nation’s collapse and reigns over an ancient Khmer temple deep in the jungles of Cambodia.
Maier, captured and imprisoned, is forced into the worst job of his life – he is to write the biography of the White Spider, a tale of mass murder that reaches from the Cambodian Killing Fields back to Europe’s concentration camps – or die.

Dominique LaPierre’s Calcutta

Far too many of you have read the ‘City of Joy’ by Dominique LaPierre. The book has sold more than eight million copies, put Calcutta on the map as both the world’s saddest and happiest place and got rave reviews by the pope. Yes, that dead POPE.
Dominique LaPierre continues to come to Calcutta regularly. Organizations under his supervision have cured more than a million TB sufferers and 1000s of lepers. Unlike the late, great Mother Teresa, LaPierre has no overt religious agenda and does raise awareness on family planning and the ramifications of overpopulation.
So has Calcutta been able to down live any of its awesome reputation since the book came out and Patrick Swayze starred in the movie of the same title? The 73-year old French writer is not sure, “The lives of pavement dwellers and people living in slums have improved somewhat, mostly because of other developments. Since the mid-80s, traffic has thinned out a bit. Pollution has been reduced significantly, not least because electricity supply is fairly reliable these days. Twenty years ago, everyone was using diesel generators, it was terrible.”

For the slum in LaPierre’s novel, there was to be no happy ending, “The City of Joy was a slum called Pilkhana, on the west side of the Hooghly River, across the road from Howrah Station. That slum is long gone. The area is like a mini-Manhattan now. In the 80’s a slum dweller paid 20 Rupees (0.50 $) a month rent, today the rent in the area runs into 1000s of Rupees.”
Faced with eviction, the slum dwellers were given few opportunities to improve their lives.
“They moved further away from the city center and started a new slum. It has no running water, little electricity and few schools. Circumstances for these people have hardly improved. They have lost contact with the city, being so far away from the center. In fact, they have fallen off the map.”

They are not the only ones. The heart and soul of this city lies with its most disadvantaged inhabitants.
When Papushek was ten years old, he traveled hundreds of miles from his village under his own steam, only to end up in Sealdah Station, sharing the platforms with hundreds of other children, running from the police and begging. He had never been to school and could neither read nor write. But he was a survival expert in a hostile world, poorly equipped, immensely resourceful, just like his 100.000 nameless companions who continue to fight for their lives in back alleys and on station platforms.

“I was always hungry. But I got together with other children and we bought glue. When we inhaled it, we could sleep for a long time and forget about the lack of food. Sometimes I would sleep for two days. Sometimes people gave me a few Rupees. But often we were beaten and kicked, not just by the police, but by the people passing through the station as well. Most of the food I got was from the rubbish.”

Kids like Papusheck are the true heroes of the world. To survive a week in a train station in India beats any GI out of his MacDonald’s sponsored sandpit in Iraq. It requires everything a human being can do to stay alive – creativity, ingenuity, learning abilities, the total suspension of morality and a will to succeed against unimaginable, totally hopeless odds.

The City of Joy may not be a tourist destination in the ordinary sense, but the assault on the senses, opinions and prejudices we carry about is so intense and sustained, that Calcutta leaves an impression on even the most insensitive clots. Some fall in love with the place and return again and again.

Dominique LaPierre, who spent his honeymoon in Calcutta in 1953, has a deep, longstanding affection for the city.

“Earlier this week, I gave an interview to a young local journalist. Since I lived in Calcutta, I have always carried what I call the ‘Calcutta cellular phone’ with me, the bell of a rickshaw puller. During the interview, it clicked in my pocket and the journalist asked me, ’What’s that?’ He couldn’t place the sound. This kind of ignorance encapsulates the problems of Calcutta today. The city is on the move but the poor have nowhere to go.”

My interview with Dominique LaPierre was originally published in Farang/Untamed Travel Magazine in 2003 as part of a longer story on Kolkata’s rickshaw pullers. Republished in my travel anthology Beyond The Pancake Trench (Orchid Press, 2004).

I am currently participating in the Indo-European Artist Residency Kolkata 2019, and was selected by the Goethe Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan, Kolkata.

Interviewed on Bangkok’s red light museum for CNN

I am interviewed by veteran correspondent Richard Ehrlich in his thorough exhumation of all things Patpong and the the opening of the Patpong Museum, which recounts the history of what is perhaps the world’ most notorious red light district in downtown Bangkok and its historical connection to the Vietnam War, in this thorough exhumation of all things seedy, for CNN Travel.

Bangkok-based journalist Tom Vater is among those expressing mixed feelings about the space.”The US killed some four million people during its wars in Southeast Asia when Patpong was in full bloom,” says Vater, co-writer of the documentary film, “The Most Secret Place on Earth: America’s Covert War in Laos.

“I went [to Patpong] several times during the film’s research, particularly to the Crown Royal Bar and the Madrid Bar to talk to ex-CIA, USAID and Air America staff,” he says.

“Most of the former soldiers, pilots, secret service staff and mercenaries I met were polite, helpful and very open about their wartime experiences. The men who frequented the bars in Patpong were, as often as not, murderers engaged in crimes against humanity. That should give pause for thought about what kind of museum might be established here.”

The Indo European Artist Residency Kolkata 2019 in The Telegraph (India)

Interviewed on Travel Safety in Cambodia in The Daily Telegraph

My thoughts on travel safety in Cambodia in his Telegraph piece. Behind the paywall, unfortunately.

Tom Vater, one of Telegraph’s south-east Asian experts who travels frequently in Cambodia, says the recent boom in investment in Sihanoukville from China has led to the arrival of violent gangs and a rising crime rate.

“Since 2018, the Cambodian government has welcomed indiscriminate investment from mainland China,” he said. “As a consequence, Chinese mafias have moved in, taking advantage of the lawless environment to open casinos, fighting locals for economic dominance, sometimes with fatal results.”

Going ‘wild’ in Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains in The Nikkei Asian Review

“Camera traps have been smashed and stolen. We have caught hunting dogs. A logging gang started to build a road through the national park so our team watched them for three days, then stormed the camp and arrested 20 people. The following day, everyone was freed, but at least the road was not built.”

Laure Siegel and I traveled into the Cardamom Mountains to look at Shinta Mani Wild, a luxury tent camp that contributes to anti-poaching measures in Cambodia’s national parks.

Read the full story in The Asian Nikkei Review.

My Indo-European Artist Residency in Kolkata 2019

I just arrived at my fantastically old school guest house in Kolkata, India.

I’ve been selected artist in residence for the Goethe Institute’s 2019 Indo-European Artist Residency in Kolkata for the coming eight weeks.

A big thanks to the Goethe and to Laure Siegel who pushed me to apply for the program.

Very much looking forward to writing some gripping crime fiction, with my favorite city as the main protagonist.

Cambodia: Jouney through the Land of the Khmer 2nd edition bestseller

Cambodia: Journey through the Land of the Khmer with photos by Kraig Lieb and my text remains a bestseller in Cambodia. The second edition came out late last year.

There’s currently a great light display for the book at Phnom Penh airport.

Sacred Skin – Second edition, 8 years in print

Sacred Skin -Thailand’s Spirit Tattoos by Tom Vater and Aroon Thaewchatturat, published by Hong Kong imprint Visionary World, was first published 8 years ago. The highly acclaimed best-selling title, currently in its second edition, garnered more than thirty reviews, including a three page spread in TIME Magazine.

Sacred tattoos, called ‘sak yant’ in Thailand, have been around Southeast Asia for centuries and afford protection from accident, misfortune, and crime. Young women get tattooed with love charms in order to attract partners, while adolescent men use the protective power of their yants in fights with rival youth gangs. For most though, the tattoos serve as reminders to follow a moral code that endorses positive behavior.

During the application of a sak yant, the tattoo master establishes a series of life ‘rules’ that need to be closely adhered to, starting with Buddhism’s first five precepts. Failure to observe the master’s instructions will cause the sak yant to lose their power.

Beautifully photographed these are tattoos that are the essence and ‘key’ to individual identity, a philosophy for living, the translation of soul to skin, as complex as the leaves of an autobiography, the story of a life