Travels June 2008

Thai Noon

A few hours northeast of Bangkok, American-style cowboy culture thrives.
thai ranch
HOME ON THE RANGE: The Pensuk resort boasts a thematically appropriate front desk


We arrived at Pensuk in the late afternoon. The main drag looks like a spaghetti Western set, with “saloons” on either side of the road. Inside our room, in a fake storefront—the resort’s guest rooms are set in faux saloons, teepees, even a county jail—nearly every available surface was covered with kaleidoscopic murals of mesas rendered in psychedelic colors and bizarre shapes; it was as if R. Crumb had channeled Georgia O’Keeffe. Even the bathroom had a Western motif: on the toilet seat, somewhat disconcertingly, was an eerie painting of a horse’s head that seemed to be staring straight at me.

For the next couple of hours, I ambled around the resort, passing through rolling pastures and across drought-burned earth dotted with coconut palms, giant jungle ferns, and small clumps of bushes. Horses huddled in the shade of the palms, seeking refuge from the 95-degree heat. Thai children ran in circles around a teepee, whooping, while their parents peered inside and snapped pictures. Guests tested their skills at the archery range, and resort staff roasted a whole pig over a fire. A band in cowboy hats and flannel shirts played a strange, countrified Thai version of “Imagine.” A lone peacock strutted and flashed his colors in one corner of the property, and a ranch hand led a horse carrying a boy in a 10-gallon hat around a field at a moderate trot. (Pensuk rents cowboy hats, in case you come unprepared.)

The following morning, I awoke early to pink sunlight filtering into my room. While the other guests slept, I hiked to the edge of the property. In the adjacent fields I could see crumbling spirit houses, their bases cluttered with offerings of fruit. I was reminded of the area’s deep Buddhist roots and of temples I’d visited during earlier trips. In some parts of Southeast Asia, archaeological restorations of Buddhist monuments have resulted in Disney-esque structures. Not so in Thailand’s northeast. Like the rugged landscape and creased cowboy faces, the ruins here look weathered; their imperfectly cut stones are bleached by the harsh sun and worn smooth by monsoons and centuries of monks’ footsteps.

After my friend woke, we sat down to a Pensuk breakfast, an orgy of meat, and then headed to the nearby Farm Chokchai. With some 8,000 acres of wild grasses and sunflower fields, Chokchai is the biggest dairy farm in Southeast Asia. We signed up for the complete farm tour, which began with a viewing of grainy black-and-white footage of Chokchai cattle drives from the early 1960s. Next, a guide in jeans and a checked shirt led us from the milking station to a pen, where she provided an elaborate description of how to artificially inseminate a cow. Finally, we moved on to the stables, where farmhands were showing off their calf-roping and branding skills and giving riding lessons. “The cowboy life can be seen everywhere in Thailand,” Choak Bulakul, the head of the Chokchai company, told me. “We are making it accessible to everyone.”

A week later, back in Bangkok, I did suddenly notice signs of cowboys everywhere. Yuppies with trilling cell phones tore into gargantuan hunks of meat at Chokchai steak houses. The theaters were showing Thailand’s own gay Western, a Brokeback-esque flick with the relationship played for laughs. Here and there on the floor of the skyscraper canyons were cowboy bars where singers crooned odes to their women—and their water buffalo.

One evening I stopped in at Tawan Daeng, a cowboy bar on the northern outskirts of the capital. Young men and women dressed in flashy pants and skimpy dresses sat at long tables on three sides of a dance floor, downing huge amounts of cheap whiskey. The walls were hung with photos celebrating the northeast’s greatest country singers, some of whom, like their American counterparts, died tragically young. A 10-piece band took the stage, belting out mor lam, electrified Thai country music with keening changes of pitch. Flanked by dancers dressed like American cheerleaders, the singer leaned forward and began weaving a long ballad about his woman, who—in fine country-western tradition—had left him for another man. Couples hit the dance floor, blending American-style square dancing with slow, classic Thai moves. The song ended with a wailing mouth-organ solo. The waiters brought another round of whiskey, and the singer took the mike again.

Joshua Kurlantzick, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is the author of Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World (2007).
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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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