Nepali Times
Follow the drugs, the money, the past

The Devil's Road, a novel by Tom Vater, is a great read. It's the story of three 1970s hippies driving a rickety bus overland from Europe through Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India to Kathmandu. Long on naivet?, short on funds, they get involved with a couple of young women, a mysterious Frenchman, a set of Siamese twins who work as cabaret singers, some holy men, and drugs. Big time drugs. The deal they strike in Pakistan, they think, is their opportunity to pay for the entire trip. But get in trouble when it all goes terribly wrong in Kathmandu and the money disappears.

Twenty-five years later the hippies return to Nepal, back on the trail of the lost drug money. One is travelling with his son. I won't tell you what happens next, nor the story's climax, only that it's a riveting read all the way from Hanuman Dhoka to Khumbu.

Vater is a good writer with an eye for detail and the ability to set a scene with authentic dialogue and evocative description. Somewhere east of Peshawar boy meets girl: "On the wide veranda that extended past the four guestrooms facing the valley, two western girls in their twenties were lounging on deep pillows, a freshly split watermelon on a steel tray in front of them. The younger one rose.

Dressed in tight orange pants, flared at the bottom, and an Indian-looking white pyjama top, that seemed to have most of its buttons missing, she offered a glimpse of her tanned breasts to Dan, the first arrival to stumble through the door. Her shortly cropped hair showed off a long row of finely crafted Aftghani silverware arranged along her right earlobe. The heavy jewellery emphasised her strong cheekbones and beautiful red lips.

He noticed all this in less than three seconds..."

In Kathmandu, father and son converse in a taxi, comparing Nepal then and now: "'So has it changed, Dad?'

Dan stared through the window, unable to take his eyes off the chaotic traffic they headed into. Trucks, buses, cars, motor and cycle rickshaws, motorbikes, scooters, ox carts [sic], hand-pulled carts, bicycles, cows and pedestrians jostled for space on a narrow two-lane street. Chattering rooftop monkeys applauded the confusion...

'Yes, it has changed. No, it hasn't. I don't know. But they do have a real airport now. And slightly better roads. And far more traffic... And internet, supermarkets, air-con hotel rooms, bars, nightclubs. In Thamel... you can get anything you want. Even Marmite...'

Tom Vater first came to Asia in 1993 on assignment for the British Library. He was captivated, and stayed on as a travel-journalist, criss-crossing south and southeast on various assignments. He writes in English and German and specialises in strange tales and happenings. Among his feature articles on Nepal is an encounter with Maoists in the hills, a description of animal sacrifice at Dakshinkali, and an interview with the serial killer Charles Sobhraj (firmly ensconced in a Kathmandu prison).

Vater has also published a well-received travel book, Beyond The Pancake Trench: Road Tales from the Wild East (Orchid Press, Bangkok, 2004). It has been described as "a wholly enjoyable book, free of the pomposity that dogs many travelogues and... the antithesis of the coffee table book" (The South China Morning Post).

The Devil's Road is available at Mandala Bookpoint and Vajra Books in Kathmandu, at Orchid Books in Bangkok, and online at or

The Devil's Road to Kathmandu,
Dragon's Mouth Press,
Hong Kong, 2006,
366 pp,
Rs 860

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)