Chok Chai Cowboy
Back when all movies were in black & white, not just when they were trying to be artsy or set a mood, the cowboy was the action hero. He had a gun and a horse. He feared no one and, most importantly, he looked really cool. Hollywood gussied him up a bit, took away the caked on desert dirt and the rotten teeth. It is often overlooked that cowboys, even the good guys, smelled awful. Being around all those horses and cows, living off the land and riding forever under a blazing sun doesn't leave much time or accommodation for personal hygiene. Hollywood quickly cut this feature out of the cowboy of the silver screen. It is a good thing they did too or perhaps a generation of young boys would have more adamantly refused baths, dentist visits and haircuts. Perhaps they would have done so violently with cap guns drawn and brown teeth bared.
However, those children only knew the dashing cowboy hero with his impeccable white hat and his well-groomed horse. His shiny gun and flashy chaps were what they wanted. Those are the cowboy items that ended up under the Christmas tree in households across America. Yet the cowboy could not be corralled within the confines of one nation. No barbed wire could contain the legend and allure of the hero of the plains. Nor so could any borderline or ocean. When those movies galloped into Thailand, the children were watching. Bucking Broncos, spinning pistols, chaps, boots, belt buckles, and hats as big as prairie cakes were the dazzle that kept the kids dreaming well after the theatre house lights were relit. Sure, killing the bad guy, getting the girl and saving the town was all a nice reward but it was riding off into the sunset that was the real reward. Riding off - looking cool. The Thai kids wanted it too. They just didn't have Red Rider Cowboy kits at every store in town. They would have to wait or make due. But times they were a'changing.
One little Thai boy was privileged enough to have not only the cowboy kit but also the whole caboodle to boot. Now he is the owner of the largest private land holding in Thailand. Of course, that land is an enormous American-style ranch. It is also the largest dairy farm in Thailand and there is still enough land left over for acre upon acre of farming. The land has more wide-open majestic splendor than even the heartiest cowpoke could ever hope to wrap his lariat around.
No proper American-style ranch could hope to be authentic without a guided tour. The tour starts off with an old, grainy film explaining the dream and evolution behind Chokchai Ranch. The place is laden with the mark of the CR branding iron, as would be any proper ranch. By the time the film ends everyone is feeling, through and through, like a bunch of rootin' tootin' cowboys and cowgirls. One truly has to stay focused to remember that this is Thailand and not Texas after all.
After the film we are herded into a barn and seated in bleachers overlooking a large thinned out pile of dirt. On the field of play is a cow with its head in a steel bar stock. Everyone seems puzzled about this strange site. What is this cow doing with its head clamped tight and its other end fidgeting wildly? Well, everyone figures out the gist of the show pretty quickly when an extremely large and highly charged bull is walked out behind the cow. It all happens very quickly amidst the gasping and guffawing onlookers. We all emerge from the barn more learned in our scope of cattle breeding. Next, we move on to the milking stations.
The dairy production system at Chokchai Ranch is state of the art. One could easily be watching a milking demonstration in Wisconsin rather than Saraburi, in the heart of the Thai heartland. The milking floor is spanking clean, almost clean enough to eat from. Almost. The demonstration comes off almost nearly perfectly. When a volunteer is picked out of the crowd, she is in for quite a surprise. All the milking is automated, of course. However, the volunteer is a posh young lady who is going to take a stab at hand milking Bessie. She pockets her mobile phone and squats down on a short stool aside the bloated cow as instructed by the veteran milker leading the show. She struggles with the hands-on duty but she seems to be having fun in the attempt. The spectators are having a dandy time watching as well. Although the chic novice fails to produce any milk the cow, however, is not fated to remain bloated. A gushing stream is discharged from behind the animal. It is such a stream that it cannot but emit a large splash pattern that inevitably touches upon the pant legs of our young debutante. Her plucky vigor is washed away in the flood and she is visibly distraught. She would not be with the rest of the group for the remainder of the tour. She left, red-faced with her demure boyfriend. She, fortunately, would be our only casualty of the day. We lost one from our ranks already and we hadn't even made it to the horse rides yet. This was quite a tour!
To the covered wagons! A tractor pulled us around in passenger carts fixed to look like old pioneer wagons. We weren't truly roughing it across the American plains however. There were kiosks every few hundred meters where refreshments (especially Chokchai brand milk and ice cream) were sold cheaply. Oh, if the rugged pioneers had it so good! We walked amongst their sunflower fields and their dragon fruit groves. We learned about their modern irrigation techniques. However, this was a ranch and the big attraction was of course the horses. And this was not simply a dog and pony show. Well, not yet. That would be later in the day.
They came riding up hard and fast, abreast the wagon caravan. They rode like prairie thunder, shaking the earth like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. They were not so ominous however. After all, these were cowboys. These were the good guys. Actually, they were three cowboys and an Indian. The caravan stopped and they led their horses away from us and toward the herd grazing off in the distant. Then we were in for a true visual treat of their talents. They split the herd, roped a few steer, and corralled a few head here and there. They reared their horses who whinnied brashly, proud of their display of strength and speed. After, the show we could ride the quarter horses for a short walk. I took the opportunity to speak with the wranglers. The Indian wasn't really a Native American at all. He was a Thai of course. He said that he had only been an Indian for couple of years but he had been a cowboy all his life. I asked if there was any bad blood between him and the chap-clad cowboys. He laughed and gestured toward his tomahawk. He told me there had better not be. It was my turn to laugh. I chatted so long with him I missed my opportunity to take a ride on a horse. It was now time for that dog and pony show. Actually it was a monkey and pony show but the concept is still the same.
It is easy to say the monkey and pony show was for the kids but too many of the adults were laughing too heartily for me to believe that entirely. There weren't just monkeys either. There were parrots chimpanzees and orangutans. There was even a dog too but he must have just been watching the show because he didn't life one paw to help out. The apes and monkeys were, of course, in their cowboy best riding midget ponies and doing impressive rope tricks. Then it was time for the tots to ride the mini-stallions and their parents to take pictures. The rest of us were quickly herded into the Chokchai Ranch gift shop. I was eager to go because there was a Stetson I had my eye on in there. It looked just like the cowboy's who rode the black horse, minus the trail dust of course. I could take care of that though, no problem. I wondered if they had any chaps in my size. They didn't. In hindsight, I think that might have been a good thing.
Traveling through Asia is a whirling bronco ride of culture shock at every turn in and of itself. Sometimes you can take a turn into a scene straight from back home, truest in every detail, and that is when things ring most odd. On the other side of the world, at Chokchai Ranch the Wild West meets the exciting east as starkly as you can imagine. It is simply unexpected. It is unbelievable. Ultimately, it is utterly enjoyable.
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Published on 3/21/02