Writer Kristi Eaton hunts out Thailand’s cowboy quarter to find out more about the growing trend.
Chiang May may be known for its many wats, markets and stunning views, but there’s something else visitors to this northern Thailand city may want to consider catching a glimpse of: cowboys.
That’s right. Northern Thailand’s epicentre of culture is home to a small but significant cowboy culture blending the ultimate American icon with an Asian influence. Though men dressed in western-style wear are noticeable throughout Chiang Mai, a city with a metropolitan population of more than 900,000, a university located in Sansai district north of the city is the best opportunity to see and experience cowboy culture.
Maejo University is considered the Kingdom of Thailand’s oldest agricultural-based college. Founded in 1934 as a teachers’ training school, it has transformed over the years into a degree-granting institution that trains students in a variety of areas with agriculture as its base.
The university has placed an emphasis on creating technological-minded students, and the school has set several goals for the future, including becoming an organic university by 2017 that features an organic curriculum and organically grown foods on campus; and a green university by 2023, which entails reducing waste disposal and promoting renewable energy.
But despite the school’s focus on the future, its past is also important. The National Agriculture Museum is located on campus, housing an assortment of historical farm equipment and showcasing past agriculture techniques. The campus’ Cowboy Mall is an open-air gathering space for students, while a row of stores just off campus slightly resembles an Old West town. There, visitors can purchase products made by Maejo University or enjoy a “cowboy-style” dining experience, which means plates of food are brought out for people to share.
The Maejo University campus, which includes more than 400 hectares of farm land for students to practice their agriculture skills, features cows, pigs, chickens, goats and sheep as well as a variety of fruits and vegetables, including large amounts of longan that are sold to distributors in China.
The scenic drive from the main campus to the university farm is peaceful, relaxing and offers beautiful views of Thailand’s vegetation. Red and white barns along with kitschy buildings titled Dew’s Ranch or Jom’s Ranch, and statues of horses are also found on the drive through the area. The push for such a cowboy-centric campus is thanks to Thep Phongparnich, former university president from 2002 to 2010.
Students at Maejo University have long worn blue jeans – another hallmark of American life – but it was Phongparnich who pushed to make the cowboy a central figure at the university. Phongparnich received his doctorate in Agricultural Education at Oklahoma State University in the United States, a school in the heart of America’s wide-open prairies. Like Maejo, OSU is an agriculture-based university, and the often-gritty, manual work of a farmer is on full display for the 26,000 students who attend the school.
Following his studies at OSU, Phongparnich returned to Thailand and decided to try to bring back some of the cowboy culture to Thailand, including Oklahoma State University’s cowboy mascot, which is known as Pistol Pete.
Based on a real-life cowboy named Frank Eaton, the Pistol Pete mascot features a caricature in a wide-brimmed cowboy hat, cowboy boots, vest and long moustache. A pistol adorns the outfit.
Phongparnich started referring to Maejo as “home of the Cowboys” soon after he returned to the campus back in the late 1970s, and today, that moniker is seen throughout the campus, along with cowboy statues.
The cowboy, Phongparnich says, is known for his pride and love of the land and has good relationships with those around him. It’s exactly what he wanted the students of Maejo University to emulate, he says.
The cowboy-style culture is also seen throughout Chiang Mai’s city centre. At the city’s popular Night Bazaar a collection of street vendors sell everything from watches to pants and notebooks, a hodgepodge of food trucks, including one with a cowboy motif, surround hay stacks and barrels used as chairs and tables for diners. Nearby, the well-known lady in a cowboy hat – she’s been featured on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown – serves khao kha moo, or slow-cooked pork leg with rice, just outside the north gate of the city wall.
And street performers, such as 44-year-old Sak Panyakao, use their affinity for all things rural to help make money. Panyakao often appears outside the city wall to show off his country-inspired haul with a friend who sings the Eagles ‘Take It Easy’ as he pounds away on drums made from buckets.
When someone thinks of cowboy country in the US, they often think Republican, and so Panyakao whips out his pristine photograph of former President George W. Bush and poses with it next to his American flag-striped bike and his cow skull. “I love America. America is great,” he says, before asking for a high-five.