Friday, 22 November 2013

Tom-Tom where you go last night? Thai Noon for cowboy junkies

From the Vaults: A little yarn I knocked out for Time a few years back. The Cowboy Way, Thailand's way - same same but different

They descend in droves in buses from Bangkok, in their freshly-pressed checked shirts, shiny boots and Stetson knock-offs. Rawhide chokers abound, as do gleaming belt buckles bigger than fists, emblazoned with screaming eagles, US flags and broncs rampant. Some affect spurs and fringed, flapping chaps.

Legs bowed in homage to John Wayne, or perhaps from three hours stuffed in a bus, they clink and swagger their way to concrete teepees and log cabins, past paddocks full of  horseflesh and a main street straight out of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns. Strategically-placed speakers echo with Ennio Morricone’s haunting twangs and whistles.

Welcome to Pensuk Great Western resort, the closest thing to the Wild West in the Far East and paradise found for city slickers with a hankering to play cowboys and indians.

"I love this place,'' says Somsak Sukphisit, 38, an accountant from Bangkok with gold-rimmed spectacles, a sheriff’s star and a white 10 gallon hat. “You can forget about your problems here and make believe you’re a real cowboy. This has always been a dream of mine.’’

Sprawled over 40 acres in Nakhon Ratchasima province, about 250km north-east of Bangkok, Pensuk Great Western is the brainchild of Yuttana Pensuk, a cowboy junkie who made his fortune peddling karaoke to rich Japanese tourists in Bangkok.

 "I've always been crazy about the Wild West,'' says Yuttana, who as a boy would gorge on the celluloid exploits of John Wayne and Gary Cooper, as well as Thailand’s homegrown cowboy heroes in the so-called “pad thai Westerns’’. His dream began to take shape eight years ago, when he bought a cornfield within driving distance of Bangkok.

"Originally it was just for friends - a couple of houses and some horses to ride,'' he says, squinting proudly over his spread from under a voluminous black hat. "Then I took a trip to California to look at some old ghost towns and get some ideas.'' Now, 200 million baht later, he presides over a full-fledged Westworld. You almost expect Yul Brynner, as the gun-slinging robot-run-amok, to loom around a corner and call you out.

The resort holds 150 guests, and it's packed each weekend, mostly with Thais. Yuttana says it’s booked solid on Saturday nights until mid-January. Weekdays see more than 1,000 Hong Kong tourists visit each month, and a marketing push into Japan and Taiwan has begun.

There are 60 guest rooms and each is a cornucopia of cowboy kitsch; lurid airbrushed murals of deserts and "doggies'', cowhides tacked to walls, faux fireplaces. Ram and buffalo heads goggle glassy-eyed from walls. It's straight out of the Kowlong Tong love hotel school of interior design, which might explain the brisk trade in feather-fringed rawhide whips in the souvenir shop (if not the Ku Klux Klan figurines).

More weird decor awaits in the grand dining room. The wagon-wheel lights, bison heads and fibreglass chiefs puffing peacepipes hold few surprises, but it's hard to know what to make of the lime-green neon coyote or wall hangings that resemble roadkill.

The most-requested rooms are the teepees, set in the centre of the resort amidst a forest of day-glo totem poles. Sleep past check-out time in the Dodge City bungalows and experience the thrill of being told to "get out of Dodge''.

Over at High Hill, each room has a shop frontage. You can pretend you're the farrier, the sheriff, the banker, the barber or the barkeep. If you didn't bring your own cowboy finery, rent a hat, chaps and cap-shooting six-gun and have hours of harmless fun stalking the dusty streets pretending you're Clint Eastwood. "Dyin' ain't much of a livin,'' I snarl at a smiling gardener dressed as a Confederate soldier, who obviously has no idea he’s facing the itchy-triggered, eye-puckered Outlaw Josey Wales.

You can learn to ride, shoot rifles and bows and arrows, play a hand of poker or sit in the saloon. The highlight, however, is the Saturday night cowboy show, a bone-crunching paean to untrammelled violence.

Remember Gene Hackman as the ultraviolent sheriff Little Bill in Eastwood’s Unforgiven? He looks like the worst kind of wimp next to these guys. Watch the squaw get slapped! Marvel as the cowboy gets scalped! Wince as the redskins get a beating out of Sam Peckinpah’s most fevered dreams! And wonder at the insurance premium as 50 or 60 guests in varying degrees of inebriation are handed flaming torches to whoop and hop around a bonfire.

Yuttana sits back with a whisky and soda, happily surveying the spectacle. “That’s my wife,’’ he grins, nodding towards a nimble-toed filly leading the guests in a  boot-scootin’ line dance as Billy-Ray Cyrus wails about his achey-breaky heart.

The firewater has loosened his tongue and he is waving his arms about. “This is just the beginning. I’m going to build another 50 or 60 rooms. We’re going to make this the Texas of Thailand.’

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