The Big Buddha Bicycle Race

Photo : Dan Coffey

The Big Buddha Bicycle Race


The Big Buddha Bicycle Race

Catherine Vanesse

7 July 2018

The first volume of a trilogy, The Big Buddha Bicycle Race is a look back at the presence of American troops in Thailand during the Vietnam War, against a backdrop of sex, drugs & rock’n roll.

When we talk about the Vietnam war, we usually think about American troops fighting the Việt Cộng in the jungles of this former French colony. Possibly, we think of Pattaya, the rear base dedicated to pleasure and rest for the soldiers. We often forget, however, the role of Thailand and the alliance that the kingdom had signed with the United States to fight against communism.

Starting in 1961, Thailand authorized the installation of eight US military bases on its soil: Khorat, Nakhom Phanom, Udon Thani, Ubon, U-Tapao, Sattahip, Takhli, Khon Kaen. By 1967, over 40,000 men from the USAF (United States Air Force) were based in Thailand.

Officially, these bases belonged to the Royal Thai Air Force and were commanded by Thai officers, the war in Laos never took place and all of these bombers were taking off from Okinawa! And yet, it was indeed from bases in Thailand that over 80% of the air strikes that ravaged North Vietnam and Laos took off.

In The Big Buddha Bicycle Race, Terence A. Harkin recounts this secret war through the story of the character of Brendan Leary.

When he arrives in Ubon, he thinks that he will spend his time editing video footage of combat for his Air Force squadron in an air-conditioned room. He expects to come back unscathed from a bloody war.

But things do not go as planned and he soon finds himself doing night sorties on the Hô Chi Minh Trail, in a secret air war that transforms the mountains of Laos into a Napalm-scarred lunar landscape. His heart and his mind are divided between respect for his compatriots and compassion for the convoys of Vietnamese soldiers that he sees being slaughtered.

As his moral ber collapses, he becomes seduced by a world of drugs, alcohol and a masseuse named Tukada. The Big Buddha Bicycle Race is a last breath of hope, a cycling race project aimed at winning the sympathy of the people of the Thai countryside, as well as at earning a financial bonus for both himself and his underpaid companions.

“Everything in this novel is true, except for the bicycle race. The Big Buddha Bicycle Race is an allegory to talk about not just the Vietnam War, but also the conflicts in Thailand, and the image of the US troops for the population,” said Terence A. Harkin during his meeting with the Latitudes team in a café in Chiang Mai, where he has been living part-time since 2014.

Taking inspiration from his own story, Terence A. Harkin takes the reader to Thailand at a time when American troops were present in the kingdom, facing a ravaged Laos, and against the backdrop of an inter-cultural love story in wartime, as well as of the memory of two groups often erased from American history: the soldiers associated with the anti-war movement who risked prison for their ideals, and the aerial commandos, who risked death night after night on the Hô Chi Minh Trail.

“The book mainly deals with the operations on this trail, where nearly 50,000 trucks were bombed. Having edited the videos taken during these flights, then actually filmed the shelling, even today, when I close my eyes, I still see these trucks in flame on the Hô Chi Minh Trail,” commented the author.

Arriving in October 1970, Terence spent a full year in Ubon before returning to the United States to continue his education and start his career as an assistant cameraman. He began working on a script as soon as he returned to the country. Unfortunately, the film industry was no longer interested in the Vietnam War. Lacking money and time, Terence only returned to Thailand in 1987 to do further research for what would become his first novel.

Photo : Henry Lebo

“It took me 20 years to write two books (the second volume of the trilogy, Year of the Rabbit, should come out in 2019 – Ed.), then 10 years for proofreading and corrections and to find a publisher.”

With The Big Buddha Bicycle Race, Terence marks the beginning of a fresco that brilliantly illuminates a troubled period in the history of Thailand in the early 1970s, taking a very critical look at the American presence: we are far from the soldier portrayed as a hero come to save Asia.

“I think that the Americans are unaware that the Vietnam War killed more than 3 million Asians. They usually only know about the 58,000 American soldiers who died during the con ict, it’s shocking,” explained Terence. “In hindsight, I can say that the bombings were not necessary.”

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