Global Cultures

Tom Vater, author & traveller

November 2015

Tom Vater has a dream job: as a travel and guidebook writer, he constantly explores Asian roads to get the details right and inspire others to start their own adventures.

Tom's love affair with Asia started in 1993 when he visited India for the first time. “As I arrived at New Delhi airport and walked into the arrivals hall, assaulted by a cacophony of smells and orderly disorder, I was sold. I realized that my future would be here," he says.

In 1995, Tom left London without looking back. He spent his first three years in Asia on a small British Library's grant recording the music of the indigenous peoples of India, Pakistan, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, The Philippines, Indonesia, Nepal and Iran.

Upon reaching Thailand in mid 1995, he had second thoughts on life on the road. “I met so many young backpackers attracted by a life of hedonism in the tropics. They engaged little with local people and culture, and had no particular goals for their travels," he remembers. In Trat, a small town near the Cambodian border, a bar conversation gave Tom a wild idea: to cross illegally into a nation still at war with itself.

The next day, he jumped into a fiberglass boat without knowing this would become a life-changing experience. He sailed to Koh Kong as Vietnam-backed Cambodian government troops lurked in the tall grasses on both sides of a murky river. Upon disembarking at the town's flimsy jetty, Tom encountered the horror of a society at war for the first time. The following day, police deported him back to the Had Lek border, where a gaunt man shouted for him from the Cambodian side of the fence.

“Can you help me, please?" With eyes full of hope, he gave Tom a letter. "I have not seen my sister in Phnom Penh for seven years… I hope she is still alive. Please help me get this to her."

Tom immediately learned a life lesson. That desperate Cambodian had given him a gift: the clear understanding of the importance of reporting meaningful stories.

Since that first grim trip, Tom returned to Cambodia many times to research the country's beautiful culture, landscape and society on the rebound after a half century of war.

He has written a novel, The Cambodian Book of the Dead, authored Moon's guidebook to the stunning temple complex of Angkor Wat, and co-authored an illustrated book - Cambodia, Journey into the Land of the Khmer - with American photographer Kraig Lieb. 

Tom confesses that the travel writer's life has its ups and downs, but he gets to explore a lot and loves it.  “I am 47 years old and able to manage my time as I see fit, being continuously involved in new projects all around Asia."

To those thinking of following his path, Tom suggests to “read a lot, travel a lot and write a lot, and eventually you will find your niche. Work in as many disciplines as you can to survive financially, but don't expect to get rich overnight. And if your goal is a regular income and family life, do something else. At last, remember: it's a great life."

Buddhist monks inside the Bayon temple