HOME ON THE THAILAND RANGE
Except for the food, the pastoral scene is pure John Wayne. Three cowboys decked out in leather chaps, wide brimmed hats and pointy-toed suede boots are taking a lunch break under the blazing noonday sun. Three sleek thoroughbreds tethered to a nearby fence nuzzle their masters for handouts. But the spicy green papaya salad, grilled chicken and sticky rice served in woven bamboo containers definitely doesn't hail from the land of steak and potatoes.
Home on this range is Farm Chokchai, a 3,200-hectacre spread set in the undulating hills of Pak Chong in Thailand's Khorat province, just a two-hour drive from Bangkok. Ever since former U.S. servicemen began settling there after the Vietnam War, Khorat has become known as Thailand's Marlboro country, the epicenter of a small, yet dedicated, cowboy subculture.
The farm's chairman emeritus, 64-year-old Chokchai Bulakul, helped pioneer the Thai cowboy phenomenon over 40 years ago. He grew up watching American westerns and wearing Ray Bans with his Levis 505s. The non-smoking teetotaler made his fortune building airstrips and roads for the Americans during the 1960s and started accumulating land when a hectare cost about $1.20 (all amounts in U.S. dollars) instead of the current $33,000.
After switching herds from beef to dairy cattle, Bulakul passed a heavily indebted farm on to his eldest son Choak in 1993. An astute businessman who spends more time on his Apple G4 than on his horse, Choak turned the company around in two years. Besides breeding dairy cattle for export, he recently started operating daily farm tours and is planning a cowboy-themed resort.
Bulakul claims only those with land, horses and cattle truly merit the cowboy moniker. His more pragmatic son Choak acknowledges that in Thailand, the cowboy spirit is sometimes a statement of fashion more than one of lifestyle.
Nearby in downtown Pak Chong, Bill Viscome, a native of California, has created a shopping and dining complex called Buffalo Bill, with an ambiance that feels more contemporary America than small-town Thailand. Every weekend, the BMW's and Mercedes of local politicians, media personalities and landed gentry line the dusty road outside the shop. Aside from the huge selection of imported belts, boots, bolo ties, jewelry and hats, visitors can stock up on saddles, bridles, Whoopin' Ass Hot Sauce, magazines and American Indian headgear.
Next door, Viscome's Texas Saloon Bar and Restaurant is a little Thai shop that's been transformed into an authentic Wild West fantasy land. The front windows are filled with cowboy paraphernalia and collectibles, and inside, one wall replicates a two-storey pioneer town storefront, complete with life-sized figures hanging out of the second-floor windows. Real western food (the only buffalo wings in Thailand) is served inside little covered wagons, and the walls behind the bar are lined with license plates, posters and figurines reminiscent of the 1800s. Buffalo Bill is so successful that it now has a second branch in Bangkok's swankiest shopping mall, the Emporium.
For Thai and Asian tourists looking for an extended western-style experience, the Pensuk Great Western Resort, sprawled over 16 hectares in Khorat province, is the place to camp out. Located about 250 kilometers northeast of Bangkok, the Pensuk offers a Disney-esque version of the Wild West with a dash of kitschy Thai.
Inside the front entrance, a Thai spirit house stands on a base decorated with carvings of dour-faced red Indians. The 60 rooms feature elements including airbrushed murals of deserts, faux fireplaces or mounted ram and buffalo heads.
Up the driveway, past a dusty corral, lies a phantasmagoric replica of a 19th-century ghost town built on either side of a tarmac Main Street. Two other western-themed villages and a four-teepee concrete Indian reservation are arrayed around a grassy Thai-style park planted with tropical flora. At sundown, Pensuk guests gather outside on hay bales, eat a mediocre Thai buffet and watch a campy, un-P.C. showdown between the cowboys and Indians.
Copyright © 2002 Jennifer Gampell