Thai Noon

A few hours northeast of Bangkok, American-style cowboy culture thrives.

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.

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.