Tom Vater

Tom Vater

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

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Tom Vater’s Beyond the Pancake Trench published by Orchid Press

pancake

Vater’s observations on the human condition, as he experiences it firsthand along the less tourist-beaten paths of South and Southeast Asia, result in a no-holds-barred account of life in the region, distinctly as not described in the glossy brochures. Figuratively and at times literally far removed from the glittering urban centers and pampering resorts – the images of Asia that occur to most — the author presents a keen-eyed vision of the region’s underbelly. Vater observes and records the stories of the hunters and their prey, the marginalized and the mad, from among desperate locals and foreign interlopers alike. For all who want a better understanding of the realities — and surrealities — of the region, but definitely not for the faint of heart.’ – Orchid Press

There’s a tremendous – and tremendously fresh – energy to Tom Vater’s writing, as he pinballs around Asia, recording his observations of everything from a gathering of naked Indian holy men to bearding a corrupt Cambodian official.
Beyond the Pancake Trench is his first collection of essays, some of which were previously published in magazines and on websites, while others are new.
English is not Vater’s first language, and he lists photographer and filmmaker as alternative trades. This gives his text a remarkable vitality. The narrative advances like a slide show, with snapshots of life through his personal lens. Pancake is a wholly enjoyable book, free of the pomposity that dogs many travelogues and Vater’s gritty acquaintanceship is the antithesis of the coffee table book.
One of his chief strengths is a marvelous knack for pithy, firecracker sentences. ‘The best tarantula in the world is deep-fried in garlic and salt’ makes you wonder if you are about to embark on a horror story or a simple cookery lesson. ‘I’m just your average gun-toting American’ kicks off an excerpt entitled Harvey in Vietnam that’s written almost entirely in reported speech, and speaks volumes about Asia, the US and dangerously loud-mouthed, small-minded foreigners. Vater declines to explain whether Harvey is real or fictional and – as with many Pancake episodes – the reader is left pondering, imagination piqued and thirsting for more. This is very much Vater’s style. He relates life how he sees it, commenting by not doing so – simply setting out the pertinent facts. His review of a gangster flick set in Bangkok called 69 is mainly spelled out as straightforward reportage: ‘ The girl gets rid of the bodies with the help of a friend whose life she has just saved. The friend gets subsequently shot by the Godfather’s half mad side-kick.’ It conveys much about Thailand and its film industry.
Vater’s dry humor comes to the fore while relating the efforts of India’s finest trying to look as if they care when a bag is stolen from under his nose in a 100.000-strong crowd.
He has no qualms about tackling larger issues. His account of an afternoon at a village of brothels outside Phnom Penh is an arresting piece of prose that rails against abject poverty and moral pusillanimity by using innuendo rather than blatant condemnation. The atrocity that is the Plain Of Jars in Laos, littered with tons of unexploded ordnance left by the Americans, is a story he tells through the life of a tour guide who spent part of the war years living on rats and insects in a cave. Pancake’s epilogue, one of the longest pieces in the book, is a lyrical account of the life of the sea gypsies in the Mergui archipelago, under pressure to join the mainstream, yet supremely happy with a marine existance that they’ve sustained for millennia.  Ed PetersThe South China Morning Post –  Book of the Week

Filmically describes snapshots of life in twenty-first century Thailand, from a self-confessed seeker of marginal experiences. Also covers exploits in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and India. – The Rough Guide to Thailand

A fast-paced, adventure-laden exploration of South and Southeast Asia.
German-born Tom Vater writes in his second language incredibly well; his unique style adding dramatic effect in many places. Telling it, refreshingly, as it is, Vater is a traveller who interacts with his environment, empathising with the impoverished and downtrodden Thais, Laotians, Cambodians, Vietnamese and Indians he meets along the way (with asides regarding the political circumstances that have led to their current problems); and deriding those more fortunate, especially the jaded expatriates of Bangkok – a city he crisscrosses back through time and again between his more far-flung trips. The chapters devoted to them are some of the more amusing in this book. Astutely, for a short-term Bangkok resident, Vater manages to uncover many of the city’s murkier secrets; uncovering little-known dives, exposing the minor-wife scene, and profiling intriguing underworld characters. – Peter MyersLifestyle + Travel Magazine

A fascinating breakneck journey through some of Asia’s wildest destinations and weirdest events. – Jim AlgieUntamed Travel Magazine

Adventurer and audiographer Tom Vater takes us on a wild ride. Whether he’s watching dancers fly through the air at a Bangkok nightclub or the people-crushing juggernauts of the gods at the Rath Yatra festival in Puri, India, Vater combines a two-fisted prose style with an admirable homing instinct for weirdness. A piercing eye for detail brings his accounts alive with colour – often blood red – and sound, such as at a Thai festival where gangsters are tattoed by animist monks. Elsewhere, Vater has a brush with a rocker with a taste for pre-pubescent youth and, in Laos, marvels at the enigma of the Plain of Jars.
Vater is no romanticist, however; many of the people and landscapes he describes are literally scarred – by war, crime, poverty and disease – and the picture he paints is rarely pretty. But what ultimately shines through this rich, heaving tapestry is the persistence of spirit, human and other, amongst such adversity, and the often bizarrre ways in which people respond to it. – Mark Pilkington – Fortean Times

‘Beyond the Pancake Trench’ is one of those titles that’s impossible to put down once you’ve started it. Tom Vater draws his readers beyond the trodden-out tourist routes of South and South East Asia. Concise stories are offered here – packed with information, suspense and emotion – stories that go under the skin. The material veers from hilarious – such as the tale of a bizarre criminal investigations by the Indian police after the theft of a travel bag in the pilgrim center Haridwar – to pathetically sad – encounters with prostitutes in hotel bars in Bangkok or on ‘KM 11’, a brothel-village outside Phnom Penh.
Tom Vater brings his observations to life with precise journalistic style – not a word too much – and opens new and profound perspectives into the abysses and side roads of daily life in Asia.
Tom Vater illuminates dark places, which remain hidden from most tourists and travelers in Asia – his snapshots and critical eye reach behind the smiling façade of the often tragic tropics, which often appear to suffer from their inability to come to terms with tragedies in their recent histories.
‘Beyond the Pancake Trench’ is a must read for travelers in Asia. – Ernst Weber – Radio Journalist, ORF, Austria

This book describes the goings on at street level in Southeast Asia during the first years of the 21st century. At least one assumes so: very few dates are given in the book and that is one of the few complaints this reviewer has to make.

Using many short chapters, the author lets his topics and descriptions jump around in what at first seems an irritatingly random order. But once you get going, you will be grateful for the device of changing the subject every so often (and then coming back to it later). It lightens the load that some horrifying descriptions, e.g. some aspects of social life in post-war Cambodia, impose on the reader.

What a surrealistic, unreal country Cambodia has been – and still is! I have travelled in Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge took over and many scenes are still recognizable. For example, that certain type of middle-aged derelict western bar fly is not only still there, he booms with large numbers hanging out all over Cambodia. What is different to pre-war times is that they do not only trade and consume huge quantities of drugs and alcoholic drinks (which at least benefits the local economy) but also freely do the same to many under-aged local girls. The social fabric of pre-war Cambodia was weak but now seems to be almost nonexistent. There are some truly hair-raising descriptions, some reminiscent of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Vater uses a highly appropriate, laconic, almost deadpan non-judgmental style to describe the awful legacy left by the Vietnam War in Cambodia and Laos. Sometimes the suspicion arises that the war only made existing problems worse – much worse – but that it did not create them from nothing. Yet these are the descendants of the people who built Angkor. One is left to wonder (e.g. when bumping along on the ramshackle Cambodian railways about which there is a splendid section in the book) just what it is that causes some societies to hold together – and others to fall apart. Deep waters, these!

On a lighter note, the description of the Giant Car Festival of Puri in India (which has given English the term of juggernaut) is absolutely wonderful. A vast crowd in highly agitated religious yet festive and peaceful mood comes accross as a breathtaking spectacle. The few pages of description are so good that I (with my in-built horror of crowds) had a hard time just reading through it! To my relief I now will never have to go there myself – I have been there in Tom Vater’s description and that will be quite enough, thank you!

Among the Indian chapters there is also a remarkably detailed description of the Sadhus, the wild holy men of India and the problems they have with each other’s holiness, with the modern world and in managing the wordly possessions that they are not supposed to have. One notes with amusement that their property transactions are tax free. Such is India. There is a chapter on how a plague of easy-going one-with-nature and down-with-capitalism western hippies have over-run a remote Himalayan valley, wielding their financial power and leaving their little biological souvenirs. The memorable description is worth quoting:

Now the hills around, below and above the village are covered in shit, literally. The human excrement is easy to spot. As a rule a crumpled flag of toilet paper … is firmly attached to the scene of the crime.

It is of course disappointing for us at the Andaman Association to find that there is only one solitary chapter on the Andaman islands – and that this one chapter alone among all others is just a little too politically-correct to be convincing to hardline sceptics. It is the only chapter where Vater makes or reports political judgments and historical claims. In all other chapters, most powerfully in those on Cambodia, his descriptions of the present day social situations are so strong that they can stand alone and need no comment. Nevertheless, even if one does not agree fully with all of the sentiments expressed in the Andaman chapter, the author has done his homework and is entitled to his convictions. Vater is a most acute observer of contemporary Southeast Asia and India – a veritable master of snapshot and vignette. His observations of present-day Indian attitudes towards the Andamanese tribes are spot on, brilliant snapshots.

For its relatively small size, the book deals in an astonishing variety of little-known subjects and does so in remarkable and interesting detail. It has chapters on Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, India and Vietnam. In addition it also has a small chapter at the end about the little-known sea gypsies of the Andaman Sea, a subject on which there is practically no other literature. The writing is always clear and a pleasure to read.

I could discuss only a small and subjective selection of subjects from this splendid little book. As far as information and entertainment value goes, Tom Vater’s book takes some beating.

Buy it! – George Weber – The Andaman Association

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