Guest Post: The Big Buddha Bicycle Race

Friday, April 21, 2017

Hi Everyone!

Just stopping by today with a guest post from author, Terence Harkin. I had the chance to ask about the inspiration for the book and this is what he shared with me. Thanks for coming by the blog today! 

The Making of The Big Buddha Bicycle Race

It was rainy season in Ubon, Thailand, late in the Vietnam War.  We were cooped up in the editorial trailer of the 601st Photo Squadron and Air Force Radio announced an upcoming sightseeing tour to Big Buddha, one of the few sights worth seeing in Ubon Province at the time.  My boss, a former class clown, quipped that a bike race would be more sanuk than a bus trip, but that was the end of it.  That little germ of an idea stuck with me, however.  In 1972, the year after I returned from Ubon, South Vietnam nearly fell and four of the sixteen AC-130 gunships I had been working with—carrying crews of fifteen to eighteen men—were shot down.  It was a shocking reversal.  For two years gunships had operated with impunity, destroying as many as 30,000 trucks along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

I started asking a lot of “why” and “what if” questions, two big ones being “why were the North Vietnamese still able to mount a major offensive after we had decimated their supply convoys?” and “why did I survive and my friends die?”  And I started asking myself, “what if the race had happened?” I started seeing it as an allegory.  The United States went to war with good intentions, but it all went horribly wrong thanks to overkill that turned friends into enemies and thanks to a tragic misunderstanding of Asian culture and history.

I wrote a fifty-page movie treatment for a professor at USC who had served with the OSI—the forerunner of the CIA—in Southeast Asia during WW II.  He urged me to do more research on Asian culture and flesh out the Asian characters.  I couldn’t do much at the time because I had just gotten into the camera union and was working sixty-hour weeks.  And then in 1976 an actor friend introduced me to the head of one of the top agencies in Hollywood.  The agent assured me that Vietnam was box office poison.

Apocalypse Now!, Deerhunter, and Platoon proved the agent wrong.  But my professor was right—those films were strangely provincial, all viewed through an American prism.  There were no Asian characters, just dark shadows shooting from the jungle.  And there was little sense of what I saw every day putting together briefing films—American air power devastating much of Southeast Asia while three million Asians died.

Big Buddha wouldn’t go away.  The story demanded to be told because we kept repeating the same mistakes elsewhere in the world.  It became a novel when I saw the direction the film industry was heading—toward feature films based on comic books and body-function humor.  Big Buddha also became a novel because once I returned to Thailand and started developing the story and characters, it took on a life of its own. It was no longer going to fit into 90-120 minutes of screen time.

I went back to Thailand for the first time in1987—mostly staying in Buddhist monasteries, but also meeting legendary CIA operative Tony Poe, Flying Tigers crewmen who had been in Asia since the 1940s, air controllers at Udorn and Ubon trained by the US Air Force, a restaurateur in NKP who started out as a base cook, and a Lao royalist officer in Nong Khai just released after ten years in a re-education camp.  I can still see his haunted eyes.

1987 turned out to be an important year in other ways as well.  Back in the States I was able to meet and interview Jack Kornfield, Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Anando and Joseph Kappel.  The year I was stationed in Ubon they had been training as monks under the revered forest master, Ajahn Chah.  And they ended up bringing Vipassana (Insight) meditation to the West. 

I also started meeting other veterans, joining a couple of groups and learning that Vietnam veterans were dying of suicide and self-destructive behavior at a shocking rate.  Today, more Vietnam veterans have killed themselves than were killed in action.  And a similar thing is going on with veterans from Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia.

The thing I couldn’t do in 1987 was get a visa to cross the Mekong River into Laos.  I finally got there in 2005—thirty years after the war ended.  Landlocked and traumatized by what they called the American War, Laos was still devastated—major bridges still down, highways and countryside still pockmarked with B-52 bomb craters.  Th big change was that US and Aussie teams were now diffusing unexploded ordnance. 

When I settled in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in 2014, I thought the book was in the pipeline to be published by Texas Tech University Press, their first work of Vietnam-era fiction.  But when they changed directors, overextended, and went into hiatus, they forgot to tell me.  Luckily, by the time I figured out I needed to get back to work pitching the book I had met a former comedy writer for National Public Radio living in Chiang Mai.  He pointed me to a group called Writers without Borders, and a wonderful string of coincidences began. 

One member was the daughter of a doctor who had headed USAID’s team in Laos during the Vietnam War and had grown up around larger-than-life characters like Tony Poe.  I’d done a lot of the writing back in the States, and she was able to catch a few lapses in my memory (like rice fields being golden not “emerald” in hot season).  Most important, she announced that Trasvin Jittidecharak, publisher of Silkworm Books, would be speaking at Alliance Francaise, the former French consulate. 

I knew Silkworm as a quality publisher of non-fiction—I had ten of their books in my library.  But my ears perked up when Khun Trasvin said that because of rapid changes in publishing, largely a result of Amazon’s ascendency, they were thinking about venturing into English-language fiction.  Needless to say, I was first in line to chat with her that night.  Big Buddha ended becoming Silkworm’s first English-language novel.    

Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, and Joseph Heller described the trauma of modern warfare brilliantly.  But I believe those writers suffered from what we now call PTSD.  The main treatment for more than a century was self-medication with drugs and alcohol and doomed relationships. But thanks to Jack Kornfield, Ajahn Sumedho, and their teacher, Ajahn Chah, I’ve been able to explore Vipassana meditation as a more effective means of healing.   Jack Kornfield became a clinical psychologist, writer, and meditation teacher when he returned to the States and has had a major influence on modern psychotherapy.  And now “mindfulness” is being widely applied to aid cancer and heart patients and other survivors of trauma in their recovery.

What makes Big Buddha different from other wartime love stories that have gone before it is the interplay of Eastern and Western cultures.  There is plenty of love and war in Big Buddha and the sequel, The Bronze Begging Bowl, but both books are also filled with the possibility of healing and redemption.


Web site:

Terence A. Harkin earned a BA in English-American Literature from Brown University while spending weekends touring New England with his band, Stonehenge Circus, opening for The Yardbirds, the Shirelles, the Critters and Jimi Hendrix. His play, Resurrection, produced during his senior year, was a winner of the Production Workshop Playwriting Contest. In the US Air Force, despite editing and writing for two underground GI newspapers—Pro Patria Mori and The sNorton Bird—he was asked to write the 1971 history of the combat photo unit he served with at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand.  He won a CBS Fellowship for his screenwriting while completing an MFA at the University of Southern California and went on to spend twenty-five years as a Hollywood cameraman. His credits include Goodbye Girl, The Legend of Billy Jean, Quincy, Designing Women, Seinfeld, Tracy Ullman, MASH, and From Here to Eternity. Working as a cameraman on MASH and the six-hour mini-series of From Here to Eternity had a powerful effect—in both style and scope—on the writing of Big Buddha, a wartime love story filled with the possibility of healing and redemption from the traumas of both love and war.

Brendan Leary, assigned to an Air Force photo squadron an hour from L.A., had it made—until the U.S. invades Cambodia and he is shipped off to an obscure air base in upcountry Thailand, but even then Brendan figures he’ll be working in an air-conditioned trailer editing film for the 601st Photo Flight, a useful detour on his way to Hollywood. Only Brendan is wrong… 

He soon finds himself flying at night over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in a secret air war that turns the mountains of Laos into a napalm-scorched moonscape. He realizes he is trapped, his heart and mind divided between awe at the courage of the warriors he flies with and pity for the convoys of Vietnamese soldiers he sees slaughtered on the ground. As his moral fiber crumbles, he is seduced by a netherworld of drugs, booze…and a strung-out masseuse named Tukada. The Big Buddha Bicycle Race is a last gasp of hope, a project he dreams up timed to match Nixon's arrival in China that can win over hearts and minds in rural Thailand—and make him and his underpaid buddies a pile of money.

As always! Please let us know of any questions - and I'd love to share the link with him once it goes live.


  1. This book sounds fascinating! I have been to Thailand three times. I will have to get my hands on this book.

    1. Really? I have always wanted to go! It looks like a really interesting place to visit! :)