TOURISM IN THAILAND
With its rich natural resources and diverse tourism promotion activities, Thailand has become one of the world’s most popular destinations for international tourists. Moreover, Thailand is famed for services and the warm hospitality shown toward visitors, with new hotels, resorts, and accommodations of various types launched all over the country to accommodate tourists, both domestic and foreign. [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]
Thailand is arguable more into developing tourism than any other country. Competition is very fierce. If one hotels has a new idea other quickly follow. If a new thrill business opens, copy cats quickly follow. Even the military runs camps for tourists. One tour operator told Conde Nest Traveler, “The Thai tourism industry has a very narrow and formulaic view of tourism. Nobody will do try anything new until it’s a proven success. If what we’re doing here turns out to be successful, you’ll probably see a lot more attention focused on this area.”
Diethelm & Co., a Swiss company that established itself in Thailand in 1906, is a dominant force in the tourism industry. It also is involved in the distribution of consumer goods. apparel and pharmaceutical products, engineering, property management and international trade.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Thailand: 5. Cultural: 1) Ban Chiang Archaeological Site (1992); 2) Historic City of Ayutthaya (1991); 3) Historic Town of Sukhothai and Associated Historic Towns (1991). Natural: 4) Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex (2005); 5) Thungyai-Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuaries (1991)
Properties submitted on the Tentative List (4): 1) Phimai, its Cultural Route and the Associated Temples of Phanomroong and Muangtam (2004); 2) Phuphrabat Historical Park (2004); 3) Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex (KKFC) (2011); 4) Wat Phra Mahathat Woramahawihan, Nakhon Si Thammarat (2012)
Thailand landed an impressive one-two rnking in the city cetagory when Bangkok and Chiang Mai were named the top two cities in Travel and Leisure's 2010 World's Best Awards. Chiang Mai's ranking of second was up three spots from the 2009 awards. Bangkok and Chiang Mai were rated the No. 1 and No.2 cities in Asia by Travel and Leisure in 2006. That year they rnaked No. 3 and No, 5 respectively in the world. Phuket was rated the 10th top island in the world by Travel and Leisure in 2006.
Tourism has had both positive and negative impacts on Thailand’s environment. On one hand ecotourism has helped raise awareness on issues like deforestation and poaching but on the other hand the rush to develop has strained natural resources and damaged the environment in places like Phuket and Pattaya. The peak tourism season begins in October.
Tourism and the Thai Economy
Tourism makes a larger contribution to Thailand’s economy (typically about 6 to 7 percent of gross domestic product) than that of any other Asian nation. In 2004 some 11 million tourists visited Thailand. However, terrorism in southern Thailand and in Indonesia and natural disasters, most notably the December 2004 tsunami, have taken their toll on tourism. One of the negative side effects of Thailand’s tourism industry is a burgeoning sex tourism industry and a related threat from human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immune deficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS). [Source: Library of Congress]
Tourism is of great importance to the Thai economy, both in terms of growth and stability, for, besides the income generated from tourism as hard currency circulating in the country, employment for the people in the service sector, hotels, restaurants, and entertainment places also benefits from tourists. [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]
The tourism industry in Thailand employs 2 million people, or about seven percent of the country’s workforce. Thailand earns more than $10 million a year from tourism, up from $7.7 billion in 2002, $8.1 billion in 1996 and $7.2 billion in 1995. Tourism is one the largest sources of foreign revenues along the with the export of agricultural products, automobiles and textiles. Tourism money often helps Thailand get a trade surplus.
The tourism industry accounts for around six or seven percent of Thailand’s GDP. To compare, the Thai automotive industry accounted for 12 percent of GDP in 2011, while manufacturing led the way accounting for 36 percent of GDP.
Thai beach and resort tourism is increasingly facing competition from Vietnam and Bali.
Types of Tourism in Thailand
Ecotourism. Thailand abounds in pristine natural attractions, in a surprising diversity of forms, embracing forests, mountains, waterfalls, rivers, and seascapes, as well as islands large and small, all of which suit adventure tourism activities such as rock climbing, riding the rapids, and diving. They can also accommodate ecological tourism, from trekking to bird watching, and they can learn about the ways of life shared by humans and animals at various elephant centers. Agricultural tourism, another industry on the rise, include such activities as visits to orchards, tea plantations, and vineyards. [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]
Conservation tourism is a growing trend, because of the global warming phenomenon. And the uniqueness of Thailand’s natural and cultural resources helps make both visitors and hosts keenly aware of the need to conserve and preserve the world they are passing on. For this type of tourism, visitors tour natural and cultural sites with a sense of responsibility; their objectives are to learn about and enjoy the destinations, as well as create opportunities for residents and the Thai economy, so that resources of the country are used sustainably.
Historical tourism: Thailand has several interesting historical sites available for tourism, such as the historical parks in Ayutthaya and Si Satchanalai, where the past glory of the Thai Kingdom can be felt, or the archeological sites of Ban Chiang and the Dinosaur Museum, which take visitors back to ancient times.
Cultural tourism. Tourists find much of interest in Thai art and culture. Therefore, numerous attractions in Thailand give tourists the opportunities to learn about Thai culture, including the lifestyle of residents or ethnic hill tribes by leading the same way of life, practicing crafts or agriculture through the home-stay accommodations, or even learning muay thai boxing and Thai cookery. Many tourists spend days touring Buddhist temples and museums to see the important works of art on view.
Rest and relaxation tourism. Whether relaxing in nature, or resting to enjoy the convenience of the accommodations, tourists may simply take a long, tranquil sojourn in Thailand, with diverse beautiful landscapes perfect for peaceful relaxation, whether resting in isolation to enjoy nature by the sea, on an island, up on the mountain, or enjoying five-star services at hotels and resorts all over the country.
Recreational tourism. The unique art and culture of Thailand have been combined with the new advances of the modern world. Thus, all kinds of conveniences and fun-filled activities are ready to welcome tourists, who, apart from enjoying peaceful rests, can also unwind with every kind of activity available in Thailand, whether they find themselves at golf courses, zoos, amusement parks, or night entertainment places.
Shopping tours. Thailand offers an unbelievable range of merchandise for tourists who want to shop to their hearts’ delight. There are world-famous brand-name products side by side with Thai products, Thai brands, foreign brands, and local folk products, all made available at leading compartment stores, along walking streets, weekend markets, or at many villages and towns, not only in Bangkok. Tourists can enjoy shopping in all major provinces in Thailand, all complete with foreign and Thai goods for their shopping enjoyment.
Tours to neighboring countries Situated at the heart of Southeast Asia, and served by excellent communication systems, on land, water-borne, and air-borne, Thailand has an edge as a travel center for tourists, who can choose to travel in Thailand and make a trip over to neighboring countries, including the Lao PDR, Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, or even Vietnam and China.
See Separate Article on MEDICAL TOURISM IN THAILAND
Foreign Tourists Numbers and Tourism Statistics for Thailand
For years, Thailand has been ranked among the top tourist destinations of the world, with about 50 percent of tourists coming from East Asia, followed by Europe and America. Most foreign tourists choose to tour Bangkok, followed by the South and the central region, while Thai tourists prefer touring the central region, followed by the Northeast.
Even after the devastating floods of 2011, 19 million tourists visited Thailand in 2011, a 20 percent jump from 2010. Some 13.8 million visitors came in 2006, the year of the coup, nearly 20 percent more than 2005. There were 11.7 million visitors in 2004; 10.8 million in 2002; 7.8 million in 1997; and 7.2 million foreign visitors in 1996, a seven percent increase from 1995. In 1960 about 120,000 foreign tourists visited Thailand. In 1963 the number of foreign visitors to Thailand jumped 49 percent.
Percentage of foreign tourists by continent: 1) East Asia, 52.37 percent; 2) Europe, 27.22 percent; 3) The Americas, 6.19 percent; 4) Oceania, 5.47 percent; 5) South Asia, 4.85 percent; 6) Middle East. 3.09 percent; 7) Africa, 0.81 percent. [Source: Tourism Development Office, Ministry of Tourism and Sports]
Top ten nationalities of foreign tourists visiting Thailand: 1) Malaysia, 12.56 percent; 2) Japan, 7.89 percent; 3) Korea, 6.11 percent; 4) China, 5.66 percent; 5) United Kingdom, 5.63 percent; 6) Australia, 4.77 percent; 7) the United States, 4.57 percent; 8) Laos 4.36 percent; 9) Singapore 3.92 percent; 10) Germany 3.72 percent. Others 40.82 percent [Source: Tourism Development Office, Ministry of Tourism and Sports]
Percentage of tourists, by regions visited (Thai, Foreign, Total): 1) Bangkok Metropolis, 13.79 percent, 32.12 percent, 21.08 percent; 2) The North, 16.94 percent, 18.22 percent, 17.45 percent. 3) The central region, 34.25 percent, 22.57 percent, 29.61 percent; 4) The Northeast, 18.25 percent, 1.06 percent, 11.42 percent; 5) The South, 16.76 percent, 26.04 percent, 20.45 percent. [Source: Tourism Development Office, Ministry of Tourism and Sports]
Thai Tourists amd Asian Travelers to Thailand
Most of the foreign tourist come from east Asia with Malaysians first, Japanese second, and Koreans third. About 1.3 million Japanese visit Thailand a year. According to one study, 80 percent of the Korean tourist that visit Thailand are members of group tours.
Mainland Chinese now make up a large portion of foreign tourists. In 1997, 2.6 million Chinese traveled outside of China. Many of them went to Thailand on five-day package tours that included flight from to Bangkok, meals and accommodation. At that time Chinese tourists spent $45 a day compared to $40 a day by Japanese tourists.
The future of Thai tourism is pinned on the Chinese. Chinese tourists are regarded as pushy, culturally insensitive and interested mostly in shopping. Men often come indulge themselves in Thailand’s sex industry, eat wild animals and check out the transvestite shows.
Tourism is growing among the Thais themselves as they become more affluents. In recent years South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and other Asian countries have begun lauching cmapaigsn to woo Thai tourists. In the 1990s an estimated 40 million Thais took domestic leisure trips. International travel is growing at three times the world average among Koreans, Taiwanese, Thais and Malaysians. At one time 1 million Thai tourist abroad spent more than 6 million foreign visitors in Thailand.
Arab Travelers to Thailand
After the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York many visitor from the Middle East who in the past traveled to the United States and Europe began switching to Thailand and Southeast Asia. AFP reported: “The number of Middle Eastern arrivals in Thailand jumped 52 percent over the past five years to 304,047 in 2005, with 80 percent of them coming here for vacation, according to the state-run Tourism Authority of Thailand.[Source: AFP, September 10, 2006 **]
"It's not good. It's very, very difficult to get a visa. Also there are problems, you know. As an Arab, I don't want to go to the US," Matar, a 48-year-old businessman from the United Arab Emirates, told AFP. Instead, Matar travelled to Thailand, becoming one of a rising number of Middle Easterners who holiday in the mainly Buddhist country after visa restrictions largely closed off the United States and Europe in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. **
“Unlike Asians and Westerners who tour mainly as couples, Middle Easterners travel with families, and like other holidaymakers in Thailand, they often seek medical care during their stay, feeding a "medical tourism" boom. Growing tourism demand from Middle Easterners, who each spend over 90 US dollars per day on average, has also helped boost the Thai retail sector. Siam Paragon, the kingdom's biggest and glitziest shopping mall that houses some 300 top end brands, including France's Chanel and Italy's Dolce and Gabbana, says 30 percent of its foreign customers are from the Middle East. "Due to high demand, we plan to hire two Arabic-speaking staff and the number can increase in the future," says a Siam Paragon official. **
“Besides procedural restrictions, a change in way Arabs are viewed in the West has also pushed more Middle Easterners to seek alternatives in Asia, Ruben Toral, group marketing director at Bumrungrad International Hospital told AFP, "Beyond just the physical barriers that have been put on visa applications and immigration policies, there are invisible barriers that they feel in these countries. People will stare at you, people will call you terrorists, people don't understand the prayer timing. These are things that penetrate the heart and soul of people. Toral said the influx of Middle Eastern visitors will continue to grow here due to "friction and tension (in the United States and Europe) that were further exacerbated by September 11 and the whole campaign on terror"."They just don't feel comfortable in those countries. ... No one wants to feel unwelcome. That's just the bottomline.” **
Famous and Top-Ranked Hotels in Thailand
Hotels in Thailand have placed high in the Travel and Leisure ranking of the best hotelsin the world are: Bangkok: The Mandarin Hotel, Peninsula Hotel, Shangri-La Hotel, JW Marriot Hotel, Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel, Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit. Chiang Mai: Four Seasons Resort. Phuket: JW Marriot Resort & Spa.
Travel and Leisure’s top hotels in Thailand in 2013: 1) The Peninsula Bangkok in Bangkok (95.72,No. 11 in the world ); 2) Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok in Bangkok (95.04, No. 18 in the world); 3) Four Seasons Resort, Chiang Mai (92.68); 4) Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, Chiang Mai (92.38); 5) Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel & Towers in Bangkok (90.78); 6) Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok (90.46); 7) Shangri-La Hotel, Bangkok (90.42); 8) Sukhothai in Bangkok (90.35); 9) Lebua at State Tower in Bangkok (89.41); 10) Anantara Golden Triangle Resort & Spa in Chiang Saen(88.80); 11) JW Marriott, Bangkok (88.00); 12) Le Méridien, Chiang Mai (87.69).
Travel and Leisure’s top 100 hotels in the world in 2006: Peninsula Hotel in Bangkok (No.4); The Oriental in Bangkok (No. 9); Four Seasons Resort in Chiang Mai (No. 11); Banyan Tree in Phuket (No. 33). Amanpuri in Phuket (No. 41); The Sukhotai (No. 75)
Travel and Leisure’s top 50 hotels in Asia in 2006: Peninsula Hotel in Bangkok (No. 3); The Oriental in Bangkok (No. 7); Four Seasons Resort in Chiang Mai (No. 9); Banyan Tree in Phuket (No. 11). Amanpuri in Phuket (No. 13); The Sukhotai (No. 21); Shangri-La Hotel in Bangkok (No. 27); JW Marriot Resort & Spa in Phuket (No. 30); Royal Orchid Sheraton Hoetl and Towers in Bangkok (No. 36); Grand Hyatt Erawan in Bangkok (No. 42); the JW Marriot in Bangkok (No. 46).
Travel and Leisure’s top hotels in the world in 2004: Peninsula Hotel in Bangkok (No.3); Four Seasons Resort in Chiang Mai (No. 10); The Oriental in Bangkok (No. 15); Amanpuri in Phuket (No. 56); Shangri-La Hotel in Bangkok (No. 83).
Travel and Leisure’s top 25 hotels in Asia in 2004: Peninsula Hotel in Bangkok (No.1); Four Seasons Resort in Chiang Mai (No. 3); The Oriental in Bangkok (No. 4); Amanpuri in Phuket (No. 12); Shangri-La Hotel in Bangkok (No. 17); Four Seasons Hotel in Bangkok (No. 19); JW Marriot Resort & Spa (No. 21); Banyan Tree in Phuket (No. 25).
Among the 25 top hotels in Asia 2002 in in a Travel and Leisure ranking were the Peninsula in Bangkok (1), the Four Season Resort in Chiang Mai (3), the Oriental in Bangkok (4), Amapuri in Phuket (12), the Shangr-La in Bangkok (17), the Four Season in Bangkok (19), the JW Marriot Phuket resort (21), and the Banyan Tree in Phuket (25).
Ownership of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel
The first hotel in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group was the Mandarin, Hong Kong, currently the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, established by the British corporation Jardine Matheson Holdings Ltd. in 1963. In 1974, it bought Thailand's prestigious Oriental Bangkok Hotel, currently the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok, that is famous as the hotel where many well-known novelists such as W. Somerset Maugham stayed. These two hotels are the group's flagships, even though the group boasts 28 hotels. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, May 22, 2012]
Edouard Ettedgui Ettedgui, the company’s CEO, was born in Morocco in 1951 and assumed his current post in 1998. Since he became chief executive officer in 1998, the group has shifted into an expansion mode in many countries including the United States and those in European nations. It began London operations in 2000 and in New York in 2003. It also opened the Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo, its first hotel in Japan, in Nihombashi, Tokyo, in 2005. The number of hotels in the group, including those in the planning stages, is now 44.
The group has a unique management policy known as "sense of place." The group incorporates the culture of the city where its hotels are located in the room decor, while maintaining the chain's common brand image worldwide. The Mandarin Oriental hotels are also known for their high-quality restaurants. According to the 2012 Michelin Guide, 11 of the hotels' restaurants garnered a total of 14 stars.
On why the company use the word "oriental" in its name, Ettedgui told the Yomiuri Shimbun: "Asia" is a geographic notion. But when you speak about the "Orient," it isn't geographical, it's mystical. It makes you speak about travel. When you look at those old tales of traveling, it is all about hospitality. It is about good food. And it is about the art of relaxation. These are the three major concepts of the Orient, I think.[Source: Osamu Maruyama, Yomiuri Shimbun, May 22, 2012]
On the kind of hotels Oriental is try to create, Ettedgui said: “I'm in the business of creating legendary hotels, which must be a reflection of the best thing in that city or country. It's important that the local population embrace the hotel, more so than the international traveler. For example, our property in Paris does not serve Chinese food. In Paris, we do french food--but we do the best. If you present the best of that country, the local people will appreciate what you are doing, they will talk about it, and then the international traveler will stay with you, too.
How do you ensure a hotel retains its quality? “Our hotels are very expensive. The question is not if it is expensive, but if it is worth it. Every time I speak with the general managers of each hotel, they have to explain, "Why is it worth it?" You start with a guest's point of view, then I change to "let's make it happen." As the CEO, I can make it happen.
On Oriental’s aggressive expansion, Ettedgui said: “Our expansion has been done in a careful, steady manner. We try to open hotels in clusters. For example, in the United States, we first opened our property in New York, then we opened in Miami, Washington...all this was done within a few years. We first try to grow in important cities. If you're successful there, the effect on the brand is exponential. It was same in Europe. We bought a hotel in London first, then we did so in Munich, Prague.
See Hotel Fires
Banyan Tree Resorts
Banyan Tree Holdings Ltd. has established resorts in more than 20 locations around the world. It opened the first Banyan Tree resort in Phuket, Thailand, in 1994. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “When you think of resort hotels, you think of lazy days lounging on the beach as the waves lap the shore. So when Banyan Tree opened its flagship hotel in Phuket—far from the beach—in 1994, there were a few eyebrows raised. Instead, Banyan Tree brought the beach to the hotel, in the form of private pools for each villa. At the time, even large resort hotels with a few hundred rooms only had a handful of villas with their own pools. This decision, combined with the tropical surroundings and body treatments that rejuvenate guests' minds and bodies, set tongues wagging and helped catapult Banyan Tree into a global brand. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun/Daily Yomiuri, July 24, 2009 ]
Banyan's sister brand, Angsana, which was launched in 2000, has lower prices and is targeted toward a younger market, but still seeks to retain the Banyan ambience and quality of service. The company is branching out to city hotels. After all, some people like to visit cities rather than distant tropical destinations, and being in the middle of a bustling city does have its own appeal. The stunning panoramic view from the Banyan luxury hotel in Bangkok has won over many tourists and businesspeople.
As of 2009, Banyan Tree had resorts in 26 locations in 13 countries and territories as far-flung as Australia, China, India, Laos, Mexico and the Maldives. In addition, the company operates 71 spas, 67 retail galleries and two golf courses. Plans to open resorts in Africa and the Middle East are in the pipeline. Although Banyan Tree's head office is in Singapore and the firm is listed on the Singapore Stock Exchange, it does not consider itself a Singaporean company. Among Banyan Tree's 10,000 employees, "We have over 50 nationalities, and we have no dominant nationality," Executive Chairman Ho Kwon Ping said. "That creates a unique culture of its own."
Banyan Tree is headed by Ho Kwon Ping. Born in Hong Kong in 1952, Ho studied at Taiwan's Tunghai University, Stanford University and National University of Singapore before becoming economics editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun/Daily Yomiuri, July 24, 2009 ]
Ho Kwon Ping told the Yomiuri Shimbun: “We focus a lot on building the brand. We don't look at just isolated aspects of hospitality. We don't look at just service standards or price of hotel rooms or anything like that. Every Banyan Tree hotel is designed by our own architects and interior designers because we believe a brand is quite physical in its appearance. We create many things that help the brand be remembered by people.
Is that very difficult? It is quite difficult. It isn't just a matter of spending money on advertising. Customers can feel a brand...and so it must be a unique and different experience. It is an issue of getting everybody who is involved in the business from the architect, to sales and marketing people, to your food and beverage people, to the housekeeping people. Everybody must know what the vision of the brand is, and then it comes together.
Our very first hotel in the Banyan Tree Group was the Banyan Tree Phuket. So you would think that it is the oldest hotel, it will have the least innovation. But we kept on adding, we kept on improving. We were the first hotel chain to have every single villa having a single pool. Now other hotel groups have swimming pools for every single villa, but we introduced in Phuket a new concept called "double-pooled villa." One swimming pool is around your bedroom--very romantic--and another swimming pool is outside. That has become very popular.
Are these all your ideas? No. We have great brainstorming sessions. I am like the kid in the classroom after the teacher left for 10 minutes who then gets up on the table and starts shouting and thinking about having a good time. I try to stir things up with new ideas. I am the key agitator. I have to try to create a creative atmosphere, where people can come up with good ideas.
Cowboy Tourism in Northeast Thailand
Joshua Kurlantzick wrote in The Atlantic: “It’s 7:30 on a humid April evening, and the line dancing has begun. Women in cowgirl dresses sway to the music, mouthing the words as they step backward and forward in unison on the stage. After a while they sit down, and I hear whinnying in the distance. A group of horsemen in chaps and buckskin coats thunders up atop black-and-white steeds. Surrounded by guests in bolo ties, I watch, transfixed. It’s my first evening at the Pensuk Great Western Resort—a 40-acre spread in the heart of Southeast Asia. The “cowgirls” are graceful Thai women, the “cowboys” slight, lithe Thai men. [Source: Joshua Kurlantzick, The Atlantic, June 2008]
“Nearing the stage, the cowboys perform their version of a Western-movie brawl, alternately pretending to drunkenly slug their buddies and saluting each other with a wai, the reverential bow made with hands clasped together. Instead of ending in a shoot-out, the brawl concludes in the typical let’s-all-get-along Thai fashion, with everyone—the cowgirls and cowboys, the high-society Thai women and foreign tourists in the audience—dancing together on the stage.
On the drive there, Kurlantzick, wrote: “Two hours out of Bangkok, cowboy bars, steak houses, and stalls selling fresh, sweet corn crowded the main highway. We turned onto a back road lined with small beef and dairy farms. Cowboys with creased faces, permanent squints, and mouths full of chew (narcotic betel nut instead of tobacco) were herding calves across the road and through the pastures. The occasional Buddhist temple rose incongruously on the horizon, its spires covered with pieces of colored glass that glittered like gems in the midday sun—virtually the only visible sign that this was the Far East, not the Wild West.
Later, we pulled off the highway again at a strip of Western-style shops and bars. At the Texas Saloon, we ate inside a replica of a covered wagon, eavesdropping on the conversation of three Americans at a nearby table until our meals arrived—piquant tom yam soup and burgers spiced with local herbs. Then we moseyed next door to Buffalo Bill’s, which advertises itself as the biggest seller of Western products in Thailand; indeed, we could barely walk without knocking over 1950s cowboy lunch boxes, shaggy buffalo heads, and current issues of Western Horseman. “I just like the laid-back Western lifestyle,” one of the owners, a woman named Ing, told us. “It stands for freedom—that’s what the northeast is like.” Ing, who runs the store with her husband, said she lives for a cowboy gathering held in Denver each year.
“We arrived at Pensuk in the late afternoon. The main drag looks like a spaghetti Western set, with “saloons” on either side of the road. Inside our room, in a fake storefront—the resort’s guest rooms are set in faux saloons, teepees, even a county jail—nearly every available surface was covered with kaleidoscopic murals of mesas rendered in psychedelic colors and bizarre shapes; it was as if R. Crumb had channeled Georgia O’Keeffe. Even the bathroom had a Western motif: on the toilet seat, somewhat disconcertingly, was an eerie painting of a horse’s head that seemed to be staring straight at me.
“For the next couple of hours, I ambled around the resort, passing through rolling pastures and across drought-burned earth dotted with coconut palms, giant jungle ferns, and small clumps of bushes. Horses huddled in the shade of the palms, seeking refuge from the 95-degree heat. Thai children ran in circles around a teepee, whooping, while their parents peered inside and snapped pictures. Guests tested their skills at the archery range, and resort staff roasted a whole pig over a fire. A band in cowboy hats and flannel shirts played a strange, countrified Thai version of “Imagine.” A lone peacock strutted and flashed his colors in one corner of the property, and a ranch hand led a horse carrying a boy in a 10-gallon hat around a field at a moderate trot. (Pensuk rents cowboy hats, in case you come unprepared.)
“The following morning, I awoke early to pink sunlight filtering into my room. While the other guests slept, I hiked to the edge of the property. In the adjacent fields I could see crumbling spirit houses, their bases cluttered with offerings of fruit. I was reminded of the area’s deep Buddhist roots and of temples I’d visited during earlier trips. In some parts of Southeast Asia, archaeological restorations of Buddhist monuments have resulted in Disney-esque structures. Not so in Thailand’s northeast. Like the rugged landscape and creased cowboy faces, the ruins here look weathered; their imperfectly cut stones are bleached by the harsh sun and worn smooth by monsoons and centuries of monks’ footsteps.
“After my friend woke, we sat down to a Pensuk breakfast, an orgy of meat, and then headed to the nearby Farm Chokchai. With some 8,000 acres of wild grasses and sunflower fields, Chokchai is the biggest dairy farm in Southeast Asia. We signed up for the complete farm tour, which began with a viewing of grainy black-and-white footage of Chokchai cattle drives from the early 1960s. Next, a guide in jeans and a checked shirt led us from the milking station to a pen, where she provided an elaborate description of how to artificially inseminate a cow. Finally, we moved on to the stables, where farmhands were showing off their calf-roping and branding skills and giving riding lessons. “The cowboy life can be seen everywhere in Thailand,” Choak Bulakul, the head of the Chokchai company, told me. “We are making it accessible to everyone.”
Why Cowboy Tourism in Popular in Thailand
Joshua Kurlantzick wrote in The Atlantic: “Thailand’s northeast, the center of the country’s cattle industry, has long been home to Wild West fans. During the Vietnam war, GIs in Thailand (where the U.S. had enormous air bases) brought their Clint Eastwood photos, Ennio Morricone albums, and taste for steak and burgers to the region, and the cowboy culture took hold. To the locals, the sun-baked cornfields of the northeast are kin to the decaying plains and mesas portrayed in Western films, and their traditional music—all jangly guitars and wailing songs of loss—could fit right in at a Tucson bar. [Source: Joshua Kurlantzick, The Atlantic, June 2008]
Also, northeasterners can identify with the self-reliant cowboy ethos—the region has tried to secede from Thailand and was home to insurgents until just a few decades ago. And so in the past 10 years, Thai entrepreneurs, flush from the country’s economic development, have been opening dude ranches and other Western knockoffs across the northeast. Yuttana Pensuk, a successful Thai businessman, started his ranch in 1995 as a personal homage to the American West, and later turned it into a commercial enterprise. It now hosts hundreds of guests, including a hefty number of foreigners, each year.
“Thai tourists like to drive along these roads, going from farm to farm to sample the fresh yogurt and milk, and perhaps venturing off on a guided horseback ride or settling in for an overnight stay. The region is famous for its hospitality; everywhere we stopped, strangers were eager to chat. On the recommendation of friends, we headed for Yana Farm, which sells goat’s milk, goat’s milk cheese, goat’s milk ice cream, and even goat’s milk shampoo, as well as organic fruit—fleshy chunks of papaya and cantaloupe with such a high sugar content that they feel like candy on the tongue.
Cowboy tourism is also alive in the Thai cities. Kurlantzick wrote: “Back in Bangkok, I did suddenly notice signs of cowboys everywhere. Yuppies with trilling cell phones tore into gargantuan hunks of meat at Chokchai steak houses. The theaters were showing Thailand’s own gay Western, a Brokeback-esque flick with the relationship played for laughs. Here and there on the floor of the skyscraper canyons were cowboy bars where singers crooned odes to their women—and their water buffalo.
“One evening I stopped in at Tawan Daeng, a cowboy bar on the northern outskirts of the capital. Young men and women dressed in flashy pants and skimpy dresses sat at long tables on three sides of a dance floor, downing huge amounts of cheap whiskey. The walls were hung with photos celebrating the northeast’s greatest country singers, some of whom, like their American counterparts, died tragically young. A 10-piece band took the stage, belting out mor lam, electrified Thai country music with keening changes of pitch. Flanked by dancers dressed like American cheerleaders, the singer leaned forward and began weaving a long ballad about his woman, who—in fine country-western tradition—had left him for another man. Couples hit the dance floor, blending American-style square dancing with slow, classic Thai moves. The song ended with a wailing mouth-organ solo. The waiters brought another round of whiskey, and the singer took the mike again.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
Last updated May 2014