|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.