Tom Vater

Tom Vater

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

Tom Vater RSS Feed

ATC Books publishes host of tattoo stories, including Chris Roy – The Death Row Tattooist

The market for good print stories is getting smaller all the time. Especially for off the wall, niche or sub-cultural stuff. So it’s great to see some of my recent work published specially to be read on smart phones. Almost everyone has one and there’s more to life than Candy Crush.

ATC Tattoo Books have published quite a few of the tattoo stories I wrote with Laure Siegel in the past years, especially our fantastic work on India (as well stories from Nepal, Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Burma) which was originally published in French with Rise Tattoo Magazine.

ATC Tattoo Books also just republished my interview with Chris Roi – The Death Row Tattooist – a story on ink and survival in one of America’s supermax prisons. More on Chris here.

















Find out more about the app here.

Vang Vieng, Laos: From party capital to eco-adventure paradise on CNN Travel

Sitting on the banks of the Song River, the rural town might seem serene now. But Vang Vieng has seen a tumultuous 15 years, evolving from an agricultural community to a hedonistic party capital when it was “discovered” by Western shoestring travelers in the late 1990s.
Excessive drinking, drugs, trash, concrete construction and fatal accidents were detrimental to the local community.
But in 2012, Vang Vieng’s narrative changed completely when the government shuttered most of the problematic bars and activities and repositioned the town as an eco-paradise.
Since then, a refreshed Vang Vieng has risen from the ashes of its erstwhile excesses.
The town has reinvented itself as the country’s hub of adventure travel, offering a lengthy menu of adrenaline-fueled experiences.

Read the full text of my latest story with Laure Siegel here.

The Tom Vater Collection at the British Library to be digitally preserved

This recording is part of the Tom Vater Collection (C799) at the British Library. A longer extract has been published on The Moken: sea gypsies of the Andaman Sea (Topic Records TSCD919, 2001). 

The full collection also includes recordings from India, Laos and Cambodia. It will be digitally preserved as part of the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project.

The Moken – seafarers of the Andaman Sea

Ko Surin is a group of five small islands in the Andaman Sea, sixty kilometres off the Thai coast. They are entirely covered in primary rain forests, with two small villages inhabited by Moken communities of roughly 160 people. The Moken used to live almost entirely on their boats as they travelled in the seas between Thailand and Myanmar. These days they have been forced to settle on the islands where they have built small huts standing in rows on stilts in the surf.

Tom Vater (sound recordist and writer) and Aroon Thaewchatturat (photographer), during their research stay on Ko Surin Nua in 1999, became part of a campfire singsong. The songs, lead by Tawan and Ko Yang (two women singers) accompanying themselves on a single plastic barrel, told of their daily experiences and of their relationships with one another. This song, lu iu ma iu (brother and brother) is a good example.

The Moken – Lu iu ma iu (brother and brother)

Many thanks to Dr Janet Topp Fargion, Lead Curator of World and Traditional Music and Aroon Thaewchatturat.

Read the full post here.

North Korea or Putting Up Mirrors In The City Of The Blind


So now that the media is gushing over the fact that there are human beings living in North Korea, does this mean that the reclusive terror state we can hardly point to on a map will soon be another impoverished capitalist nation selling kimchi flavored coca cola toxins to its liberated citizens, producing nothing but plastic, pornography, tourists and (better) weapons behind a facade of civilized speech and farcical commitment to equality for all, while keeping its tiny elite in the money?
And are there any beaches or camps that could be turned into controlled environments for the soon to be visiting fat sack degenerate tourist masses from around the world?
Is the second to last evil nation on earth about to go rogue on itself and join the rest of us in our common, more or less democratically agreed efforts to put up mirrors for the blind (called taking selfies these days), destroy the planet and deny ourselves a future?
And who will we be told to love to hate then (the last evil nation on earth, I am guessing)?
And if the Koreas reunite, will Brexit still go ahead?
Heady news from Asia. It’s all going to be great.
Peace is coming. Dylan was right. Trump is Jesus. Kim is a whore, but he will be one of ours.
Before long they will be suing each other to have an allegedly unbiased court of law determine who is the more peace loving of the two. All of us will be online jurors. We will be able to vote, finally in a meaningful way, on who’s the total loser and who gets the stripper. Haircuts will play a big part in our grounded, rational decision making.
The media will lap it up, cough up experts who were wrong for thirty years but just got a pay rise because the ground beneath their feet has changed. Things will fall in line and those who don’t will be ridiculed and exterminated in the name of a better future. Social media, newspapers and TV channels will mold the narrative, create some background, attract subscriptions, make a fortune and open a bureau or two in Pyonyang. Zuckerberg will be the first man on earth to hold two passports from the two most peaceful nations on earth. Abba will reform. Richard Branson will circumnavigate the peninsula in a balloon accompanied by scantily clad virgins, dropping tons of trademarked fake ready to eat meat products made from north Korean children and south Korean circuit boards onto the masses gathering below, killing the unlucky ones while the rest roar with joyous relief. Angelina Jolie will be excited and fight harder for peace, women, skin products and corporations. Mel Gibson will go all method for the movie, do a six month crash course in how to tweet, followed by a most nuanced turn as a misogynist racist. He will die his hair. He’ll be better than Jesus. The past will be forgotten. It always is, before it even hits the floor, stone cold. Gary Oldman will play Kim, and the make-up will be out of this world. Charlton Heston will be digitally recreated. Kevin Spacey will get a cameo. Polanski and Chris Nolan will co-direct. The Stones will do the soundtrack. Tarantino will sue. Someone’s tits will fall out of a shirt when they collect the Oscars. Me too, everyone will shout. And don’t worry. I will get my hands dirty. None of that holding back, none of that ‘I am too lofty and clever for you lot’. I’ll be right there along with you, down the front, digging in and doubling down, waving the flags, clubbing the doubters, dopamined out of my skull, feeding on mass delusions of orchestrated grandeur. Hell, maybe I will finally become a celebrity, do a Ted Talk on genocide and go on World’s Got Talent.
Win Win for all.
Fake news will be a thing of the past. Propaganda will cease. No more stuffed ant eaters posing for prizes or black panthers jumping into soup pots. Coral reefs will come back to life. Plastic and ignorance will dissolve like cheese that’s fallen between the metal bars of the grill. Women will be respected. Minorities will be listened to. A new dawn is coming.
Then we will up the ante, embrace fundamental truths and historic righteousness and invest the personal valor of the young and stupid to go the whole, last painful hog and bring freedom to Teheran. Whatever it will take, the experts will say, poisoning our brainwashed minds. And then the world will be silent and perfect.
Today is a great day. Outside my window the sun is shining and the birds, those that have not been gassed or eaten, are chirping. Better than yesterday but not as good as tomorrow.
Now tell me, is any of this any less likely to happen than what you read when you opened your eyes this morning and logged on?
Anastasia screamed in vain. She really did.

Literary Flits reviews The Man with the Golden Mind

Great review at Literary Flits of my second Detective Maier thriller, The Man with the Golden Mind, from a while back. Somehow this one escaped me altogether.

I am again impressed with a Crime Wave Press offering, this one being a Cold War aftermath spy thriller set in a country about which I knew very little: Laos. Tom Vater sets up an intricate and complicated plot which I found it a joy to get lost in and also introduces interesting and believable characters, both male and female. The women in this novel aren’t just eye candy!

Read the full review here.

You can get a Kindle copy of The Man with the Golden Mind here.

And there are some second hand copies of the first edition out there

Owner of the Map – Power, politics & motorcycle taxis in Thailand at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand

Packed night at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok on the rights and politics of the city’s 200.000 motorcycle taxi drivers.

From left to right – fixer extraordinaire Jan Sujittra, president of the Bangkok motorcycle Association Khun Chaloem Changtongmadun,  Chief Editor of the Nikkei Asian Review Gwen Robinson, journalist Laure Siegel and myself.

Owner of the Map – Power, politics & motorcycle taxis in Thailand at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, April 18th

My partner in crime and journalism, Laure Siegel, will be part of a panel on Bangkok’s motorcycle taxi industry on April 18th at the city’s Foreign Correspondents Club, following our story, published last year in the Nikkei Asian Review, on women pushing into this hard and very male profession.

Link to our story: Bangkok’s ‘motorcycle mamas’ roar into men’s world

Details of the event:

There is much more to the ubiquitous motorbike taxi riders hanging around street corners in Bangkok than the chance for an edgy ride through the city’s traffic. Italian anthropologist Claudio Sopranzetti came to Bangkok via Harvard University in 2008 and plunged into the colourful world of street politics and motorcycle taxis for his academic thesis. His book, ‘Owners of the Map: Motorcycle Taxi Drivers, Mobility and Politics in Bangkok’, published in late 2017, highlighted the political role of the motorbike taxi drivers in the 2010 street protests and beyond, how they filtered and influenced mobility in protest areas and, in their own ways, challenged state hegemony. The resulting thesis and book followed his 2012 work ‘Inside the Thai Red-shirt Movement’. The 2014 coup ushered in significant changes to the world he portrayed, including sweeping new regulation of motorcycle taxis and moves to unionize riders. Other changes include the growing involvement of women riders, hastened by the government’s crackdown on streetfood vendors.

An expert panel will examine the evolution of the motorbike taxi movement and the changing reality of Bangkok’s street economy, focusing on elements such as the advent of new apps, the challenges of organizing and “regularizing” a previously unwieldy and relatively under-regulated industry, the rise of women, and influences on street politics and protest movements.

Questions also loom about why this group with its prominence during the Red Shirt protests of 2010 has remained largely inactive politically since, and what comes next.

The FCCT is pleased to welcome the following distinguished panelists:

Claudio Sopranzetti, author of Owners of the ‘Map: Motorcycle Taxi Drivers, Mobility, and Politics in Bangkok’, and a postdoctoral research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, focusing on politics, urban development, economic crisis and capitalism. He will join the evening by Skype from Europe.

Ussarin Kaewpradap, a specialist in international affairs at the State Enterprise Workers’ Relations Confederation of Thailand, which comprises some 45 state enterprise and private sector labour unions with a total membership of over 200,000.

Chris Baker, winner last year of the Fukuoka Grand Prize with his wife Pasuk Phongpaichit, has written and co-written numerous books on Thai history, economics, and culture including ‘A History of Thailand’ and ‘Thaksin’.

Chaloem Changtongmadun, president of the Motorcycle Taxi Association of Thailand, and advocate for motorcycle taxi formalization

Laure Siegel, a Bangkok-based French journalist, has covered Thailand’s motorcycle taxi movement, particularly the growing role of women riders. She works on Asian political and social issues for ARTE, Mediapart, and the Nikkei Asian Review.

Admission to the panel is Free for FCCT members, 450 Baht Non-FCCT members, and 150 Baht for students and Thai Journalists with ID.

Darjeeling’s tea king wants an organic agricultural revolution in The Nikkei Asian Review

My latest story in The Nikkei Asian Review with photographs by Aroon Thaewchatturat.

Life is chaos; the world is chaos, according to Rajah Banerjee. “The only constant is change. What are we doing here and where are we going? We need to answer these questions to be free, to find our way.”

This is hardly the way one might expect a Darjeeling tea-plantation owner to introduce himself. Banerjee, 70, took over his father’s Makaibari Tea Estate in 1970, creating what has been described as the world’s most expensive tea: It retailed for $1,850 per kilogram in 2014.

I met Banerjee in 2004, having traveled into the foothills of the Himalayas in West Bengal to find the man who was revolutionizing the tea industry and making a profit. He has always been a maverick. He would ride horseback through his plantation, clad in a planter’s uniform, encouraging his workers. When an employee threatened to shoot a guard outside his office, he talked the assailant down….

Read the full article here.


Srey Thy aka Channthy Kak, singer of The Cambodian Space Project passes away

Srey Thy aka Kak Channthy , the singer of seminal Cambodian band The Cambodian Space Project, was killed last night when a Lexus smashed into the back of a Tuk-Tuk she was traveling in, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

I had the good fortune to meet Srey Thy many times. My brother Marc took me to the Cambodian Space Project’s first show at the Alley Cat in Phnom Penh. The band which she had started with Tasmanian guitarist Julien Poulson, who was to become her husband, belted out raw, quirky versions of Khmer pop and rock hits from the 60s, mostly written by musicians who had been murdered by the Khmer Rouge, As the band matured, they went on to write their own material and recorded several albums, hung with RocknRoll greats including Nick Cave to Wayne Kramer, featured in a BBC/ABC documentary (by Marc Eberle) and toured tirelessly around the world.

In 2012, Srey Thy wrote a song for the launch of my second novel The Cambodian Book of the Dead which she performed at the UBUD Writers and Readers festival in Bali, Indonesia.

In recent years she became a voice for Cambodian women and for strong women anywhere and was appointed UN Goodwill Ambassador.

Srey Thy was an icon of a brief era of optimism in Cambodia. Born in 1980s, she was a child of the war, growing up in the 90s with the legacy of 40 years of civil conflict and genocide, she managed to grab her moment, despite being trafficked and almost sold. The opening of Cambodia in the 2000s gave some young Khmer, including Srey Thy, an opportunity to stand up for themselves, away from the shackles of the country’s toxic politics. Srey Thy proudly promoted the best of her country’s culture around the world.

Srey Thy’s untimely death is perhaps an indication of Cambodia’s inability to become a less extreme and more civil society. Road accidents still happen at a scary frequency  in Cambodia. There is still little healthcare for the majority of the population and the short lived spirit of openness and cultural renewal the country experienced and for which Srey Thy was a shining beacon, is now once again seriously threatened by Cambodia’s rulers.

It is doubly tragic that The Cambodian Space Project will no longer be touring the world to promote all that is great, funky and modern about the southeast Asian country.  Cambodia has lost its golden voice.

Here’s to better times.

Srey Thy in the Nikkei Asian Review.

Channthy’s friends have established this Memorial Fund to assist her family with financial costs they could not otherwise meet. 

Firstly and urgently, are the funeral costs, through this extended period of mourning. And from now and into the future, financial support for Makara, to help with all the usual things that parents provide their children – a house, a home, health, education. Many of the services we take for granted as provided by the state in wealthy countries, are expensive and beyond the reach of ordinary Khmer in a village like Prey Veng.

To contribute to Srey Thy’s memorial fund, please visit GoFundMe

Tattoo Reportage at ATC Tattoo

Some of my tattoo reportage, especially work I did in India with Laure Siegel, is now available as a smart phone app (who said I was not a technology savvy cutting edge content generator?), both in French and English. ‘

Take a look at the amazing tattoo related material on offer  at ATC Tattoo.