Meet Off The Beaten Path Explorer: Tom Vater

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Meet Off The Beaten Path Explorer: Tom Vater

Off The Beaten Path Interviews

An inside look at Earth’s explorers

Today’s interview is with a very special friend of the Where Sidewalks End community. It is my honour to introduce to you mr Tom Vater. Tom is a published author, a long time journalist in the field, co-owner of a publishing house “Crime Wave Press”, and a long time explorer of the world, with a heavy focus on South East Asia. He has done everything from magazine and newspaper features, documentary screenplays, illustrated books, travel guides, travelogues and novels, and travel has always had strong roots throughout. You can find a lot of interesting facts about and tid bits of Tom’s escapades by reading any number of his articles found within this realm, or through any of his published work around the internet and in many large book stores, including the large online corporation Amazon. For a more personal view into what drives Mr Vater, we thought this would be a good opportunity to get behind the scenes. Today we’ll find out a little bit about what has motivated him to continue exploring the uncharted off the beaten track world.

tom vater profile

Meet world explorer Tom Vater
Photo credit: Aroon Vater

Introducing, Mr Tom Vater

Though your origin is German, you’ve explored Southeast Asia in a serious way. Can you tell us a little bit of what drew you to this part of the world and what seduced you into staying?

Two friends invited me to India in 1993. When I got off the plane in Delhi, I instantly knew I was hooked. I had found my grail. As I descended the stairs into the immigration hall, the smell of sweat, urine, floor cleaner, petrol, bidis, tobacco, hashish, spices, cooked food and frying fat, hope and despair blew me away. Once I had cleared customs and walked out of the arrivals gate I faced a human wall of thousands of men. I had no idea why they were there. They didn’t look like they were waiting for anyone. And they all looked the same. Every one wore a moustache and none of them looked aggressive. I had come to a place where no one seemed to be in charge and many people loitered. I fell in love with that reality, so very different from the European way of life, that very moment. I stayed five weeks, returned to the UK where I had lived for almost fifteen years, sold everything I owned and came back to Asia as quickly as possible. I’ve never looked back.

Your first novel, The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu, must have been inspired by some pretty interesting off-the-beaten path experiences in Nepal and India. Why is your book named as it is and what is a travel moment that inspired some element of the book?

At a party, I overheard a conversation between three men who had done the overland hippie trail in the 1970s. They’d driven a Bedford van from London to Goa and done a drug deal in Afghanistan which financed their travels. That was the germ for the story. In 1998, I did the overland from Kathmandu back to Europe myself with my then British girlfriend. In Pakistan’s Swat Valley, we were semi-kidnapped by a wealthy and pretty friendly dope dealer and apple merchant. We were offered endless cups of tea on his sprawling, beautiful property. Our host had his own personal joint roller and we got more and more wasted and the sun started to go down over his apple trees and he insisted we stay overnight – we were clearly being pressured not to leave this man’s country home. He kept making excuses why we could not be taken to our guest house a few miles away. Only when we got up, picked up our bags and started walking, did he relent and had a car take us to the guest house. We were sufficiently creeped out to immediately change accommodation. In subsequent days, he kept trying to find us. For me that was the beginning of The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu and I started writing the first pages of the book soon after. Amazingly, the book is now out in a new edition and it’s just been published in Spanish.

Tom Vater Angkor travel guide

Tom Vater has written and contributed to several travel guides!

I’m sure that through your Southeast Asian exploration you’ve seen amazing places and experienced some unique things. What is one of your most unique travel memories?

Encounters with remarkable people are amongst the great highlights of life on the road. I recently had dinner with a Shan ‘entrepreneur’ in Mandalay. He got very drunk and then drove me and a friend around town in his very large car. He drove very, very slowly. The more drunk he got, the more articulate he became and at the point of total inebriation he seemed to reach an amazing lucidity – he was suddenly incredibly well versed in Southeast Asian history and we had a fascinating conversation about the region’s infamous bandits, the secret war in Laos, the CIA in Burma and his attempts to build a brewery of a well known western beer brand just as sanctions kicked in. He lost his investment and made up the money by turning to more nefarious activities.

Besides intriguing characters, many journeys also stick in the mind. Some years back in Laos I traveled with my wife up the Nam Ou river for three days on a longtail boat. The trip from Nong Kiaw up to Muang Khrua and Phongsali was a magical, Conradian journey. We watched monkeys live the high life in amazing primordial jungle along the shore, a hunter with his prey – a young leopard type cat, a river snake and spectacularly dressed minority people at a local market who thought us at least as strange as we thought them. The market was full of animals I had never seen before and the visit proved to be my chance to sample fried bat, a culinary experience I never sought out again.

Sacred Skin, your non-fiction book on the art of Sak Yant tattoos, was written after spending a year living in close proximity to tattoo masters and developing close relations with them in order to learn more about their art. What inspired you to embark on this project? In a few words, what was the experience like?

My wife Aroon Thaewchatturat, who photographed the book, and I wanted to document an aspect of Thai culture that had not been covered extensively. I had been following sak yant since I had been on an assignment to the tattoo temple Wat Bang Phra in 2003. We were attracted to the sacred tattoos because they are a form of cultural expression used especially though not exclusively by Thailand’s underrepresented and marginalized working class. To give people who have hardly any voice a platform definitely attracted me to the subject. What’s more, Thailand’s sak yant community is also very self-contained, a world of its own, both in spiritual and social terms. Devotees and masters have long established relationships. There’s a strong feeling of community and trust. To be able to enter this world while documenting it was a huge privilege and we continue to be in touch with both masters and devotees.

Tom Vater sak yant

Tom researching Sak Yant tattoos for his book “Sacred Skin”
Photo Credit: Aroon Vater

I hear you were involved in the filming of a pride festival documentary in Myanmar. How did you get involved in it and what was the experience like?

My brother Marc Eberle was at the Taungbyone Nat Festival north of Mandalay to shoot a film about a gay dwarf sex worker called No-No. I was at the festival to research a chapter on the Nats (37 nature spirits many Burmese believe in) for my new non-fiction book Burmese Light (with photographer Hans Kemp). Being able to accompany the film crew gave me an insight into the heart of the festival. I got to hang out with No-No’s personal spirit medium, a wonderful transvestite called Ah Ba Lay Mdy and we attended trance like dances during which gaudily dressed mediums plied their devotees with alcohol while a seemingly free-forming orchestra made an incredible racket. Most of the mediums are cross-dressers and that’s why the event attracts so many gay Burmese as well as countless ladyboys. The days were intensely hot and it was incredible to see people thoroughly lose themselves in a godly inferno of music, faith and alcohol.

Also, you clearly have a pension for crime fiction with your publishing house Crime Wave Press. Have you traveled anywhere you felt the presence of crime? What is the most dangerous travel situation you’ve found yourself in?

As a journalist I investigated some instances of crime and violence. I spent three weeks in Sonagachi, Kolkata’s largest brothel area. The building I worked in (with my wife, photographer Aroon Thaewchatturat) housed some 9.000 women and was ‘overseen’ by an internationally well known NGO who was there for AIDS prevention but actually profited from the women’s misery. This story continues to get about 5000 hits a month on my website. I also covered gang rape in Cambodia, the civil war in Nepal, and the 2011 unrest in Bangkok. In 2003, I interviewed Charles Sobhraj, arguably Asia’s most infamous serial killer, prior to his current conviction.

Crime Wave Press (www.crimewavepress.com) is a Hong Kong based fiction imprint that endeavors to publish the best new crime novels, novellas and True Crime titles from and about Asia to readers around the globe. Founded in 2012 by acclaimed publisher Hans Kemp of Visionary World and me, Crime Wave Press publishes a range of crime fiction – from whodunits to Noir and Hardboiled, from historical mysteries to espionage thrillers, from literary crime to pulp fiction, from highly commercial page turners to marginal texts exploring Asia’s dark underbelly. So far, we have published seven books, all as ebooks, some also as paperbacks. We have sold foreign rights for two titles and are currently signing new authors.

Tom Vater in Phnom Penh

Tom Vater in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Photo Credit: Conor Wall

If you could give one piece of advice based on your own adventures to our travelers out there today, what would it be?

The difference between a tourist and a traveler is that the traveler does not know when he will return home. Buy a one way ticket and hit the road. Keep an open mind, trust people you meet on the way and always follow your curiosity. It won’t always be comfortable but you will see things you might otherwise never have known existed. Forget about the pancake trench, the backpacker fleshpots, the fancy hotels, the roads much traveled. Do your own thing, find your own way. And write it all down.

Another special thanks to Tom Vater for sharing his stories and inspiration for off the beaten track travel! Don’t forget to follow his website, and get the latest news on all the incredible stories from the road he’s published!

Find out more about Tom Vater at www.tomvater.com, on his Facebook page or follow Tom on Twitter @TomVater.

Any writers out there who have a crime novel with an Asian focus or location, get in touch via Crime Wave Press.

Tune in next time when we interview our next off the beaten track world explorer, and sign up for email or RSS notifications so you don’t miss any of the excitement! 

About the Author:

Mittie's travels have taken her to the jungles of Ghana, the lakes of Bolivia, the rainy knolls of Romania, the beaches of Greece, the castles of France, the mountains of Peru and throughout the coat of many colors, otherwise known as Mexico. A traveler to the core, she agrees with Robert Pirsig’s quote, “I’m happy to be here, but still a little sad to be here too. Sometimes it’s better to travel than to arrive.”

4 Comments

  1. Adam Pervez May 14, 2013 at 10:50 pm - Reply

    What an incredible guy! Thanks for doing this interview.

  2. Ash Clark May 16, 2013 at 5:56 pm - Reply

    Great interview. I loved the way he described his first experience of coming to India for the first time at the start…

  3. Alana - Paper Planes May 18, 2013 at 12:23 pm - Reply

    Looks like I’ve found some new reading material…

  4. Corinne May 18, 2013 at 1:16 pm - Reply

    Wow! Impressive stories. Great interview. It worked. I’ll go buy some of his books now. Thanks.

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