Beyond the Pancake Trench - Road Tales from the Wild East
184 pages, 15 x 21.5 cm, English
About the author:
Tom Vater, writer, photographer and filmmaker is based in London and Bangkok, but is more likely to be found in the back of a bus, train, plane or boat somewhere on the road in Asia. He has worked on a number of travel guides, released several CDs of ethnographic music from Asia with the British Library and is co-author of two documentaries for Arte/SWR. His articles appear in numberous papers and magazines around the world.
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.
The Andaman Association
Last changed 30 March 2006