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Travel Watch: The Wild, Wild East

4 minute read
JASON GAGLIARDI

They descend in droves, not on horseback but out of buses from Bangkok, in freshly pressed, checked shirts, shiny boots and Stetson knockoffs. Rawhide bolo ties abound, as do silver belt buckles bigger than fists, emblazoned with eagles, U.S. flags and broncs rampant. Some sport spurs and fringed, flapping chaps. Legs bowed in homage to John Wayneor perhaps from three hours stuffed in a busthey clink and swagger their way to concrete tepees 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 the haunting twangs and whistles of Ennio Morricone’s score from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

This is Pensuk Great Western Resort, the closest thing to the Wild West in the Far East. “I love this place,” says Somsak Sukphisit, 38, an accountant from Bangkok with gold-rimmed spectacles and a sheriff’s star. “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 16 hectares in Nakhon Ratchasima province, about 250 km northeast of Bangkok, Pensuk Great Western Resort 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 Pensuk, 38, who as a boy gorged on the celluloid exploits of John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Thailand’s homegrown heroes in pad thai westerns. Eight years ago he bought a cornfield within driving distance of Bangkok. “Originally it was just for friendsa couple of houses and some horses to ride,” Pansuk says, squinting proudly at his spread from under a black ten-gallon hat. “Then I took a trip to California to look at some old ghost towns and get some ideas.” Now, $4.5 million later, he presides over a full-fledged dude ranch where the Duke himself wouldn’t feel out of place.

Each of the ranch’s 60 guest rooms is a cornucopia of cowboy kitschlurid, airbrushed murals of deserts and li’l dogies, cowhides tacked to walls and faux fireplaces. Ram and buffalo heads goggle glassy-eyed from walls. The decor is straight out of the love-hotel genre, which might explain the brisk trade in feather-fringed rawhide whips in the souvenir shop (if not the Ku Klux Klan figurines). In the grand dining room, wagon-wheel lights, bison heads and fiberglass Indian chiefs puffing peace pipes add to the over-the-top frontier scene, but it’s hard to know what to make of the lime green neon coyote or wall hangings that resemble roadkill.

The resortfor reservations, call (66-2) 530-7111is booked solid on weekends until mid-January, mostly by Thais. But more than 1,000 Hong Kong tourists visit each month, and a marketing push into Japan and Taiwan has begun. The most requested rooms are the tepees, set in the center of the resort amid a forest of Day-Glo totem poles. Over at the High Hill area, each room has a shop frontage. You can pretend you’re the farrier, the sheriff, the banker, the barber or the barkeep. And if you sleep past checkout time in the Dodge City cabins, you can experience the thrill of being told to “get out of Dodge.”

If you didn’t bring your own duds, rent a hat, chaps and cap-shooting six-gun and have hours of harmless fun stalking the dusty streets pretending to be Clint Eastwood. “Dyin’ ain’t much of a livin’,” I snarl at a smiling gardener who is dressed as a Confederate soldier and obviously has no idea he’s facing the squinty-eyed outlaw Josey Wales with an itchy trigger finger.

Guests can also 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 untrammeled violence. Remember Gene Hackman as the brutal sheriff Little Bill in Eastwood’s Unforgiven? Bill looks like a wimp in comparison to these Thai guys. Watch the squaw get slapped. Marvel as the cowboy gets scalped. 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. Pensuk sits back with a whisky and soda, happily surveying the spectacle. “That’s my wife,” he grins, nodding toward a nimble-toed filly leading the guests in a boot-scootin’ line dance as Billy Ray Cyrus wails about his achy-breaky heart. The firewater has loosened Pensuk’s tongue, and he is waving his arms around in enthusiasm. “This is just the beginning,” he says. “I’m going to build another 50 or 60 rooms. We’re going to make this the Texas of Thailand.”

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