Travels June 2008

Thai Noon

A few hours northeast of Bangkok, American-style cowboy culture thrives.
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thai ranch
THE PENSUK GREAT WESTERN RESORT offers pig roasts, saloon-style guest rooms, and 10-gallon hats for rent.


Photographs by Patrick Brown/Panos Pictures

It’s 7:30 on a humid April evening, and the line dancing has begun. Women in cowgirl dresses sway to the music, mouthing the words as they step backward and forward in unison on the stage. After a while they sit down, and I hear whinnying in the distance. A group of horsemen in chaps and buckskin coats thunders up atop black-and-white steeds. Surrounded by guests in bolo ties, I watch, transfixed. It’s my first evening at the Pensuk Great Western Resort—a 40-acre spread in the heart of Southeast Asia. The “cowgirls” are graceful Thai women, the “cowboys” slight, lithe Thai men.

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Nearing the stage, the cowboys perform their version of a Western-movie brawl, alternately pretending to drunkenly slug their buddies and saluting each other with a wai, the reverential bow made with hands clasped together. Instead of ending in a shoot-out, the brawl concludes in the typical let’s-all-get-along Thai fashion, with everyone—the cowgirls and cowboys, the high-society Thai women and foreign tourists in the audience—dancing together on the stage.

“Of course we built the resort here,” one of Pensuk’s managers tells me the next day, as I struggle to understand how Texas landed in the Thai countryside. “This is where the cowboys are.” Thailand’s northeast, the center of the country’s cattle industry, has long been home to Wild West fans. During the Vietnam war, GIs in Thailand (where the U.S. had enormous air bases) brought their Clint Eastwood photos, Ennio Morricone albums, and taste for steak and burgers to the region, and the cowboy culture took hold. To the locals, the sun-baked cornfields of the northeast are kin to the decaying plains and mesas portrayed in Western films, and their traditional music—all jangly guitars and wailing songs of loss—could fit right in at a Tucson bar. Also, northeasterners can identify with the self-reliant cowboy ethos—the region has tried to secede from Thailand and was home to insurgents until just a few decades ago. And so in the past 10 years, Thai entrepreneurs, flush from the country’s economic development, have been opening dude ranches and other Western knockoffs across the northeast. Yuttana Pensuk, a successful Thai businessman, started his ranch in 1995 as a personal homage to the American West, and later turned it into a commercial enterprise. It now hosts hundreds of guests, including a hefty number of foreigners, each year.

Having heard about Pensuk when I lived in Bangkok, during a recent trip back to the capital I decided to see it for myself. Driving out of the city, my friend and I soon left the strip malls behind and were traveling across open scrubland punctuated by stark, serrated limestone cliffs and tablelands. In the distance, occasional rice paddies cut into layered terraces that looked like huge green wedding cakes. Two hours out of Bangkok, cowboy bars, steak houses, and stalls selling fresh, sweet corn crowded the main highway. We turned onto a back road lined with small beef and dairy farms. Cowboys with creased faces, permanent squints, and mouths full of chew (narcotic betel nut instead of tobacco) were herding calves across the road and through the pastures. The occasional Buddhist temple rose incongruously on the horizon, its spires covered with pieces of colored glass that glittered like gems in the midday sun—virtually the only visible sign that this was the Far East, not the Wild West.

Thai tourists like to drive along these roads, going from farm to farm to sample the fresh yogurt and milk, and perhaps venturing off on a guided horseback ride or settling in for an overnight stay. The region is famous for its hospitality; everywhere we stopped, strangers were eager to chat. On the recommendation of friends, we headed for Yana Farm, which sells goat’s milk, goat’s milk cheese, goat’s milk ice cream, and even goat’s milk shampoo, as well as organic fruit—fleshy chunks of papaya and cantaloupe with such a high sugar content that they feel like candy on the tongue.

Later, we pulled off the highway again at a strip of Western-style shops and bars. At the Texas Saloon, we ate inside a replica of a covered wagon, eavesdropping on the conversation of three Americans at a nearby table until our meals arrived—piquant tom yam soup and burgers spiced with local herbs. Then we moseyed next door to Buffalo Bill’s, which advertises itself as the biggest seller of Western products in Thailand; indeed, we could barely walk without knocking over 1950s cowboy lunch boxes, shaggy buffalo heads, and current issues of Western Horseman. “I just like the laid-back Western lifestyle,” one of the owners, a woman named Ing, told us. “It stands for freedom—that’s what the northeast is like.” Ing, who runs the store with her husband, said she lives for a cowboy gathering held in Denver each year.

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Joshua Kurlantzick is fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He blogs at “Asia Unbound.”

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