A letter from Asia

Cowboys and Indians, Thai-style

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From the grounds of Thailand’s premier cowboy resort, a displaced
Kansan explores the mysteries of the Far East’s Wild West.

By Rolf Potts

Standing in the dusty stables of Pensuk Great Western cowboy resort, the wrangler sizes me up and tells me there’s a problem. “You can’t ride the horses,” he says.

“Why not?” I ask.

“You’re too fat.”

I look down at my body, which is downright lanky. “Too fat?”

“Too fat!” The wrangler grins shyly and gives me a thumbs-up, as if this should be a compliment.

Perplexed, I set off to find Tammy, the Pensuk resort publicist, who’s been acting as my informal ranch guide. I spot her near the front gate, where — dressed in Levis, leather chaps and a Stetson — she is lighting incense at a small Buddhist shrine. “How much do you weigh?” she asks when I tell her what just happened.

“Maybe 180,”

“Oh!” she says merrily. “You are too fat!”

“But I’m six-foot-three!”

Tammy gives me a sympathetic look. “This is an American-style cowboy ranch, but we don’t get many Americans. The weight limit for our horses is 165 pounds. Maybe you would like a free beer instead? Or maybe more bullets?”

I ponder this for a moment. “I guess I’ll take the bullets.”

The Stetson-topped publicist reaches into her Levis and takes out a voucher for the rifle range. “Sorry about the horses,” she says. “It’s hard to find big ones in Thailand.”

Taking the voucher, I count my losses and head off down the road in search of a little gunplay.

When I first heard that the plains of northeast Thailand were home a popular cowboy resort catering to middle-class Thai vacationers, it sounded implausible to the point of being ridiculous. After all, millions of Western tourists flock to Thailand every year to enjoy world-class beaches, culture and cuisine — and it would seem only natural that Thai tourists would also want to indulge in their own stretch of paradise.

But, as I have discovered this weekend, scores of Thai holidaymakers would much rather play cowboys and Indians at this sprawling Western theme-ranch, located some 200 miles northeast of Bangkok. According to Tammy (whose Thai name is Thanawan Chanlar), Pensuk’s 60 log cabin and teepee style rooms are booked up months in advance, year-round. “Thai people love Thailand, but they also want to try something different,” she told me. “They think that cowboy life is very exciting.”

Since I grew up in Kansas, the idea of Thais shunning the wonders of Thailand for an artificial vision of the American West carries a weird kind of echo. When I was a kid, the only tourist attraction within three counties of my home was Wichita’s “Cowtown” — an open-air “living history museum” along the banks of the Arkansas River. There, men dressed as cowboys performed lasso tricks, gave lectures about Wichita’s cattle-drive heyday, and occasionally re-enacted gunfights. Cowtown was interesting enough, but after my third or fourth school field-trip, the place had lost its appeal. I began to dream about other places, far from the doldrums of the plains — places with turquoise waters, white-sand beaches, and jungle-covered mountains. Places, in short, like Thailand.

Hence, it feels a tad strange to be walking through a stretch of Thailand that bears uncanny resemblance to Cowtown. Horses trot along the main road as I make my way toward the rifle range; a cluster of teepees sits by the roadside; cornfields stretch into the distance. A frontier-town strip called “High Hill” — which features saloons, barbershops, and a Chinese laundry — anchors the center of the resort.

Despite such nods to authenticity, however, it’s quickly obvious that this ranch is operated and patronized entirely by Asians. In the saloon, for instance, draft beer is served with ice cubes, and the menu features paad thai and fried rice. Inside the various buildings, the “cowboy” d�cor is a befuddled jumble of spaghetti western, long-haul trucker and American pop-culture motifs. Airbrushed murals of coyotes, cacti, and voluptuous Indian women line the walls of the teepees. An American flag hanging in one of the cabins has the image of an 18-wheeler painted across its stripes. The main road through the resort is marked with “Route 66” signs, and the decidedly anomalous karaoke lounge features oversized pictures of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe.

All of this in addition to the ubiquitous outdoor loudspeakers, which broadcast pop-country hits to all corners of the ranch: As I make my way toward the rifle range, I find myself humming along to “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden”.

When I arrive, I find a seat in the waiting area next to a youngish Thai man named Phon.

“But you can call me Diamond,” he tells me.

“What, like Diamond Jim rodeo hats?” I ask.

“Like Neil Diamond, the cowboy singer.”

“Oh, of course. Having a good time here?”

Diamond smiles and thumbs the brim of his hat. “I love it here,” he says. “It makes me feel like I’m Clint Eastwood. When I was young, I wanted to go to America so I could enjoy this kind of freedom, but now I can do it right here in Thailand.”

“What kind of freedom do you mean?”

“Oh, you know. American freedom: Riding horses and shooting guns. It’s a great way to spend my holiday.”

“But what about the natural parts of Thailand? Don’t you like beaches or the mountains?”

“Thailand is nice, but the beaches are full of fishermen, and the mountains are full of hill tribes. Those are country people; they aren’t very sophisticated. It’s more interesting to come here. It’s more civilized — just like your country.”

Five minutes later, Diamond takes his turn at the rifle range, where he happily blasts away at the paper targets. As I watch him, I feel a little unsettled by his narrow, romanticized vision of America. Like the other Thais I’ve seen at Pensuk, Diamond’s passion for range life appears to be inseparable from his love of cowboy movies. Imagine a Texas-based Asia theme park that interprets the Orient through kung-fu films, and you get a basic idea of how the Thais here interpret the American West.

This said, I’d reckon it goes both ways: were Diamond to hang out with American tourists on their superficial forays into Theravada Buddhist meditation retreats or Patpong go-go bars, he would no doubt be similarly annoyed. Like tourism anywhere, fascination with other cultures is as much a matter of image and fantasy as it is tradition or reality. Just as Americans are drawn to Asian culture by such obviously fictional sources as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, many Asians prefer to see America through the lens of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Pensuk resort simply saves Thais the trouble of traveling around the world only to be disillusioned.

After shooting my own share of bullets, I return to my air-conditioned teepee to prepare for Pensuk’s marquee event — a cowboy and Indian dinner-show extravaganza listed in my brochure as “Drunk Man Cowboy and his Gang — Stunt + Effect”. The event takes place in an outdoor plaza just beyond the storefronts of High Hill town, and Tammy seats me at a table up near the stage. At the edge of the plaza, imitation chuck wagons dispense a variety of spicy Thai dishes (Tex-Mex food, Tammy notes, has yet to catch on). Onstage, a Thai heavy metal band in checkered shirts and straw cowboy hats plays note-perfect covers of Hank Williams and Garth Brooks tunes. Occasionally the band sneaks in a number by Pink Floyd or Black Sabbath, but the one hundred or so Thais in attendance don’t seem to mind as they queue around the chuck wagons. Once everyone has had a go at the buffet line, the cowboy and Indian show commences.

Though I don’t know enough Thai to catch all the nuances of “Drunk Man Cowboy and his Gang”, I’m soon convinced that I’ve stumbled upon the single most politically incorrect depiction of Western life ever performed in public. Indeed, after less than a minute of narrative back-story, the whole production erupts into a paroxysm of violence: Thai cowboys in Lone Ranger masks rush out to slap squaws, lasso braves, chug beers, and shoot off their six-guns; grease-painted Indians whoop, slash scalps, guzzle whiskey, and brandish spears. Fists fly, tables are overturned, and (in what I presume is the “stunt” portion of the show) several combatants are hurled bodily into buildings and fence-posts. In one corner of the stage, a musician from the heavy metal band simulates all the punching noises on an electronic keyboard.

After a prolonged melee, a young Indian is dragged up onstage, stripped to his buckskin trousers, and mock-beaten by the cowboys for ten solid minutes. Then — just when I’m certain that the John Wayne violence is going to degenerate into something more suited to John Wayne Gacy — the stage lights go down, Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart” booms out from the sound system, and a trio of Thai cowgirls starts line-dancing on the roof of a High Hill town storefront. When this finishes, a paunchy Thai Indian chief strolls out into the audience, tells a few jokes (complete with vaudeville snare-rolls from the heavy metal drummer), and launches into a spirited rendition of Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock”. As the final notes of the song fade out, the stage lights flash back on, and the cowboys resume beating the bejesus out of the half-naked Indian boy.

Although these abrupt transitions are accompanied by bits of Thai-language narration, I am nonetheless struck by the surreal, non sequitur grandeur of it all. Indeed, if “Drunk Man Cowboy and his Gang” ever gets produced for video, I suspect it would find a huge cult following among teenage stoners.

Of course, the video version would miss out on the interactive element — which becomes apparent when the cowboys drag the hapless Indian boy into the dining area and invite audience members to take turns slugging him. To my amazement, table after table of blushing salarymen and giggling housewives stand up to get their simulated licks in. Cameras flash and spectators applaud as devastating gut-shots and bone-crunching uppercuts are administered to the crisp accompaniment of the heavy metal keyboard.

While this spectacle snakes its way through the dining area, Tammy leans over and gives me a rather apologetic explanation. “If you make the cowboy show too polite, the customers don’t like it,” she says. “We tried to make it more historical, but the customers got bored. So now the show is mostly just fighting.”

Eventually, the brawl makes its way back up onto the stage, where the evening’s entertainment ends with a surprise Indian triumph. The audience is handed flaming bamboo torches and invited to join the Indians in whooping around a bonfire, and — not wanting to be a killjoy — I join in on the action.

As I take a torch and chant along with the victory song, it’s easy to see how some people might see this part of Thailand as a distinctly negative symptom of cultural globalization. But from what I’ve experienced, this spectacle belongs to the realm of human nature as much as anything. Just as the Californians who seek temporary solace in Nepali ashrams are indulging in an essentially American ritual, Pensuk’s cowboy reverie is an honest expression of the Thai people who seek it out — a celebration not of place, but of mood, novelty and momentary escape from the banal parameters of reality. For all the talk of authenticity, cross-cultural travel invariably comes down to this: a rather limited indulgence in whatever we find most appealing about other parts of the world.

Out in front of the stage, I whoop along with the Indians. I dance in circles and wave my torch. I look up at the stars, and dream that I’m sitting on a faraway stretch of Thai coastline, sipping a beer and digging my toes into the brilliant white sand.

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© Rolf Potts, Vagablogging.net, 2003

Posted by | Comments Off on A letter from Asia  | August 7, 2003
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