Tom Vater

Tom Vater

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

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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.

Tourism woes in Laos in The Nikkei Asian Review

VIENTIANE — It is Saturday afternoon in tourist high season, and Vientiane is very quiet. Most shops are closed for the weekend. A couple of Asian tour groups ascend the Patuxai, the Laotian capital’s answer to the Arc de Triomphe. On every floor, stalls are packed with five-year-old photocopies of the Lonely Planet guide to Laos, fake antiques and communist flags, while its female vendors relax in deck chairs…

My latest story with Laure Siegel on tourism, development and China’s influence in the Nikkei Asian Review.

Vang Vieng Boutique Riverside in The Daily Telegraph

Set on the banks of the Song River and facing spectacular limestone mountain ridges, Vang Vieng’s swankiest hotel resort offers a winning combination of Laotian culture and French colonial era ambience, with fantastic service, excellent facilities, great tours and a good restaurant…

I am just back from Laos, where I was researching articles for the Nikkei Asian Review and CNN with Laure Siegel, and also climbed a mountain, rode a mountain bike round Luang Prabang, ate some strange food  while finding the time to write a review of the Boutique Riverside, a great French owned resort in Vang Vieng for the Daily Telegraph.

Little Europe – The proto-colonies of West Bengal in The Nikkei Asian Review

Last story of 2017, first story of 2018, with Laure Siegel.

The show stays on the road and the road takes me wherever. Home is anywhere I lay my head. In this instance, north of Kolkata, the world’s most beautiful city, along the banks for the river Hooghly.  Really enjoyed researching this one and am looking forward to more commissions that require the use of both head and feet to get the story.

Happy New Year to everyone who snows through this page, above all of course, my readers. Thanks to everyone who bought one of my books or read my work and has kept me alive and on the road in 2017.

Kolkata, or as the city was formerly known, Calcutta, was founded by the British on the humid banks of the Hooghly River in Bengal in 1690. Two centuries later, the city had grown into the most important trading center east of the Suez and remained the world’s second most important economic hub (after London) until 1911, when the British moved their capital to Delhi.

But the British were not the first Europeans to set up shop along the Hooghly. Other maritime powers and traders were drawn to Bengal for its rich resources, particularly muslin silk, spices and opium, and established their outposts, or “Kuthis,” along the river…

Happy New Year to everyone who snows through this page, above all of course, my readers. Thanks to everyone who bought one of my books or read my work and has kept me alive and on the road in 2017.

With Little Europe, I am optimistically sliding into the next one searching for new ideas, new stories, new travels.

The next best thing to a sacred tattoo – Sacred Skin

The holidays are almost upon us, we’ve burnt another year into oblivion. The end of the year is a great time to focus the mind and spend some moments in silent contemplation.

A Sak Yant, a sacred tattoo from Thailand, certainly helps. Many ancient Thai tattoos are in fact diagrams designed for meditation.

But if there’s no genuine Sak Yant master near you, then Sacred Skin – Thailand‘s spirit tattoos, my best-selling book on Sak Yant, co-authored with photographer Aroon Thaewchaturat, is the next best thing.

Happy days!

Get your copy here.

Moon Angkor Wat 3rd edition racing towards final deadline

In the final throes of writing the new edition of Moon Angkor Wat, my guide to the Angkor temples in Cambodia.

Two trips this year, and I met some great people in Siem Reap, Battambang and Phnom Penh, and of course the monuments remain as magnificent as ever, no matter how vulgar the mass tourist discourse around them.

Be nice to wrap this one up before Xmas.

Happy holidays, you could do worse than spending them around the Angkor temples.

India’s City of Joy: 3 days in historic Kolkata at CNN

My latest travel feature with Laure Siegel on one of my favorite cities – Kolkata – for CNN Travel

Mother Teresa did the same for this spendid city as Spielberg did for sharks. She ruined the West Bengal capital’s reputation for generations. But Teresa is dead, the city is on a bumpy rebound and its global reputation as a place of hardship deserves to be put into a larger perspective.

Great people, incredible historic architecture, super food, cool hotels and plenty of grit.

I’ll be back.

Read the full story here.