An equal partnership

He’s the youngest son of Chokchai Bulakul – Thailand’s best-known cowboy – so it’s not surprising that he looks perfectly comfortable in a cowboy hat, white T-shirt, blue jeans, and well-worn leather boots. Neither is it surprising that his fiance – and by the time you’re reading this, his wife – looks utterly chic wearing something very similar.

He’s the youngest son of Chokchai Bulakul – Thailand’s best-known cowboy – so it’s not surprising that he looks perfectly comfortable in a cowboy hat, white T-shirt, blue jeans, and well-worn leather boots. Neither is it surprising that his fiance – and by the time you’re reading this, his wife – looks utterly chic wearing something very similar.

Meet Chai Bulakul, executive director of the Chokchai Ranch Group, 30, and Prim, former national tennis champion and model, 23.

We meet at the Chokchai Ranch at Pak Chong, Nakhon Ratchasima, where Chai spent the first four or five years of his life and much of his later childhood. It’s Thailand’s largest dairy farm, with around 5,000 cows kept on 20,000 rai. Around 70 racehorses and numerous other animals call the ranch home too.

But although Chai looks a natural – he even started to ride before he could walk – he’s not caught up in a cowboy dream. "Being a cowboy is not a big thing to me. It was a fun thing when I was younger, but I never thought ‘I want to grow up to be a cowboy!’

"I don’t have a background in cows!" he adds. "My brother went to university in Vermont to study animals, herd management and so on. I took a different route. I’m a butcher man. I spend most of my time cutting steaks." In fact, Chai spends most of his time working with the people who look after the Chokchai steakhouses.

Educated in Australia and the US, Chai speaks with an American accent softened by an Australian clip. The road to the family business took some time, with Chai first concentrating on film. "Right after I graduated in advertising, I worked for the family business for six or seven months. Then I worked for a company called P& C, a production house. From there I became really interested in film-making. So I got a job in casting, then in the grip department, and then I was an assistant director for maybe two years. Then I decided to go to film school."

Chai went to UCLA for three and a half years, studying directing, acting and cinematography. He has made several short films, and still shoots, but on video now rather than film. "Thailand has such a small industry. To shoot on 16 mm means you’ll have almost have no chance of editing it. Digital film is a lot easier and cheaper, and the kind of thing I can do and back edit on computer… Hopefully one day I’ll make a movie about steaks and being a butcher!"

But when we meet, Chai is being kept busy with the opening of the Ranch to the public, which was due to take place on December 21.

"We’ll have tours," Chai explains. "We’ll have like a trailer pulling each group of around 50 or 60 people around. We’ll start with a video presentation about how my dad started off, and some history of beef cattle." Guests will also be treated to a lecture on how cows breed, and they’ll be able to see firsthand how cows are milked, and how the milk gets from the cow to the table.

As well, he’s being kept busy with preparations for his and Prim’s wedding, also scheduled for December.

Prim appears at first to be the quieter of the two, but it doesn’t take long to realise she’s chatty and even a little bit mischievous.

She first became a well-known face at age 16 when she became a national tennis champion. When did she stop playing? "Right after that!!" she laughs.

She had reluctantly started playing when she was eight years old. "I didn’t really like it, but my mother really wanted me to play. So I kept playing until I was about 14 or 15 years old, when I told her I didn’t want to play anymore. She said fine, but you’ll have to give something back to me in return. Around that time I changed coaches, and started to enjoy playing a lot. And then I won! So I quit after that!"

Prim then concentrated on her studies so she could get into university. And she started modelling just before she stopped playing tennis; she was in the right place at the right time. "An agency needed a model who could play tennis to advertise a cream for sports injuries," she explains.

"So finally, tennis paid off!!" Chai jokes.

After studying communications and advertising as ABAC, Prim is now modelling full-time. She was thinking about studying for her masters, but Chai’s proposal changed all that. How did he propose?

"Oh I wouldn’t want that published!!" Chai says with a laugh.

So how did they meet three years ago?

"Through tennis," says Chai. "I used to go to the Polo Club to jog and do things like that, but I started to get bored. I wanted to start playing with other people. So I played tennis with some girl friends at the Polo Club because playing with guys…" he says, shaking his head, admitting he wasn’t up to scratch to play against them. "Then I happened to play with Prim, and she was the first girl to beat me. I was quite impressed."

Was he hard to beat? "No!" she says. "But he is improving. I think he’s better than me now." But, Chai confesses, she still beats him – around three times a week.

Prim also had the edge over Chai when it came to dressage. "I was surprised when I met her, because I asked if she could ride and she said yes… We went to dressage classes, which I had never learned before. When I was a kid we just picked a horse, trained it and rode it. When we joined the class, I thought it wouldn’t be too hard. But it was hard! Really hard!"

They speak respectfully of each other when asked what it is that keeps them happy together.

"Prim’s very much herself the whole time. From day one until now. She hasn’t changed a bit," Chai says. "She seems to take care of me very well. I can be quite busy, doing this and that, and she’ll remind me of little things to do… She’s always very supportive."

"I’m so happy with everything that we do together," says Prim. "I think we’re quite different. I’m always relaxed, he tends to be more tense. When we’re together – I don’t know – we just go together! He is also much older than me, and all of the advice that he has given me is correct. I feel that he is my best friend too."

In ten years time, Chai envisages perhaps living on the ranch. "I love this place."

As for Prim, "Well, if he’s around here, I’ll have to be around here too! With several kids, I hope. And because I’ve studied communications, if there’s anything I can do to help the business in that area, then that would be good too."

There’s some time to kill after the interview while we wait for the light to mellow for the photographs, so we’re offered an impromptu tour through the small open zoo that’s just about ready for tourists. There are several chimpanzees and orangutans, small and glistening hippopotami, emus, ostriches, calves, and various colourful birds – plenty to keep people not that interested in fully grown cows entertained.

And when Chai and Prim finally mount their horses to head to a paddock for some shots, they’re so rapt up in each other’s company it’s as if we’re not really there.

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