So, it's the weekend before Christmas and the long journey to play Trat FC away?
Yes, probably not a trip I would have hand-picked to take on in late December but it is what it is.
Unless you're willing to splash the cash on a flight, it's a journey you have to do by bus as well - and that'll take at least five to six hours from Bangkok's Eastern Bus Terminal (Ekkami)
Boutique airline, Bangkok Airways, own and manage Trat's tiny provincial airport and therefore have the monopoly on the Bangkok to Trat route. With no low-cost competitors grabbing a slice of the pie, not only does the return ticket cost the best part of 6,000 baht but I've heard you can add another 1,000 baht to get to and from the airport by shuttle. That's all a bit costly for a Thai football match I feel, so I'm going to tough it out on the bus.
How are Trat FC doing this season?
It's been a struggle and they're currently one from bottom with only 7 points to show from their 14 games, which includes just a solitary point from their home matches. Last week, they were 3-0 up at home to Khorat - and still lost! (getting three red cards and going down to eight men didn't help)
Let's not beat around the bush, these guys are one of the favourites for relegation and we're surely looking to take three points back to Bang Plee this weekend. Anything less than a Samut Prakan win would be a disappointment.
A little bit of club background?
The White Elephants were formed as recently as 2012 and after starting life in the regional leagues, earned promotion to the second division in their very first season. They reached the dizzy heights of the Thai Premier League in 2019 and had a decent inaugural campaign, finishing 10th in the table and reaching the quarter finals of the FA Cup.
Trat FC play their home games at the Trat Provincial Stadium, which apparently holds just 6,000 fans (so only 20% bigger than our SAT Stadium) but it feels appreciably larger when you're there.
And this game's a bit special for Samut Prakan's Brazilian striker, Tardelli?
Yes, Tardelli had two wonderful seasons here in 2017 and 2018, when Trat were playing in the second tier. Stats of 39 goals in 60 appearances would be the envy of any striker.
What was the score in this fixture last season?
A 1-1 draw, which was disappointing given that Trat were bottom of the league at the time.
Journey and digs
I hadn't been to Bangkok's Eastern Bus Terminal (Ekkami) for about 25 years but it was pretty much as I remembered. Ekkami doesn't serve as many destinations as its counterparts like Morchit Bus Station, so it retains a much more intimate atmosphere. Its ticket counters and bus bays are all easy to navigate.
I opted for a private company called Triple T, who run both minibuses and minivans from Bangkok to Trat via Chantaburi. I absolutely refuse to use minivans unless there is no other option available but felt the minibus was worth a try. It's a 24-seater vehicle that in terms of size, falls somewhere between minivan and full-size coach. It proved to be a huge disappointment. There was a lack of legroom, no seat recline and it all felt very cramped. However, we covered the distance to Trat in less than five hours, including a 10-minute toilet stop.
For accommodation, I had booked a couple of nights at the JP Grand, a fairly new and impressive-looking hotel located on the edge of town, a five-minute walk from the bus station and a thirty-minute hike to the football stadium should hiring taxis prove troublesome.
The JP Grand was superb. Unlike the quirkier, boutique joints I had stayed at on recent trips to Khorat and Buriram, this was a proper hotel with a swimming pool, uniformed receptionists and a good-sized restaurant with a charming coffee shop attached.
Staying here made for a refreshing change because I find you can overdo 'quirky' at times and long for something, dare I say, a bit more corporate.
A Friday night in Trat.
Darkness fell and I wandered down as far as Thana Charoen Road. I'd read in several travel guides that this was Trat's 'entertainment zone', heaving with 250 baht a night guesthouses, beer-bars, open-air restaurants and massage shops. Alas, only one corner bar was open and the only customers were a group of expat foreigners, all laughing raucously and giving the joint a rather cliquish air, so I kept on walking.
I ambled down a number of narrow sois but they were all dangerously dark and every business appeared to be closed for the foreseeable future. Then I jumped six feet in the air as a German Shepherd dog threw itself against a mesh fence in a valiant attempt to rip my leg off. Walking around Thai provincial towns at night really is for the foolhardy. Realising I'd probably exhausted all my entertainment options in Trat for one evening, I slunk back to the hotel and grabbed a last beer in the restaurant before it closed at 8pm.
I thought Buriram was quiet when I was there a few weeks ago, but Trat made it look like Las Vegas.
It's Match Day!
I was awake well before 5.00 am, so just the 13 hours to kill before kick off then. After a forgettable hotel breakfast, I walked down to the bus station to book my ticket back to Bangkok the following day. This time I went for Cherdchai Tour and their large VIP coaches. The term VIP generally means little in Thailand, but it was sure to be more comfortable than the minibus I came down on.
Just around the corner from the bus station were the Trat Botanical Gardens. I spent an hour there wandering around the lake and savoring the cool breezes, but like so many provincial attractions that could be wonderful but aren't, the park clearly lacked funding and was almost decaying before your very eyes.
I meandered back to the hotel via a different route and passed a bar and restaurant complex that looked just the ticket. Why couldn't I have found this place last night!
After a long lunch and futile attempts at an afternoon nap, it was time to hit Trat's Provincial Stadium. I didn't fancy the half hour walk to the ground so got the hotel receptionist to call me a taxi (actually it was a songthaew) - 100 baht well spent.
What were your impressions of the stadium?
Surprisingly, far better than it comes across on television. Outside the ground, there is plenty of parking space, a charming Trat FC coffee shop, a club shop and the usual row of food and drink vendors with plenty of concrete benches to sit on. I found every person I came into contact with - even the guy who checked my ticket at the away zone entrance - to be exceptionally cheerful and friendly.
Although the stadium's exterior is a bit shabby in places (as they are at virtually all premier league grounds), once inside, it's tidy and well-maintained. The seats in the covered away zone were spotlessly clean (no tissues needed to wipe things over) and even though the pitch has a running track around it (the pet hate for many travelling supporters) it didn't detract that much from either the view or the atmosphere. Overall, I was very impressed with the set-up and thought what a shame it would be if Trat were relegated from the top flight. Alas, it's looking a distinct possibility.
It looked like I was the first Samut Prakan supporter to arrive so after an iced chocolate in the Trat FC coffee shop (where I was the only customer) I took the opportunity to chat with some of the management staff and backroom boys, including Khun Jame, the club's official photographer, Khun Jiab, our very personable chief executive, who's in charge of the purse strings, and the young man who handles the media department. You get more time to chat with these guys at away matches - and I love that.
To the match itself
Roared on by 60-70 noisy travelling supporters, Samut Prakan, in their familiar blue first strip, played possibly their best 45 minutes of the season. Tardelli looked hungry to continue his excellent goal scoring run, Jaroensak was going past defenders at will, Yuto Ono and Jakkapan were controlling the midfield and Ernesto and Bureerat were winning virtually every 50-50 tackle. It was rapidly becoming the complete performance.
The opening goal on 20 minutes was brilliant in its simplicity and execution. A floated chip over the defence, Teerapol takes the ball to the byline and pulls it back for Tardelli to side-foot into the roof of the net for his 9th goal of the season. He falls to his knees and kisses the turf in delight. This is clearly a striker enjoying his football.
Three minutes later and the visitors are two-up. Jaroensak, Samut Prakan's Mr Assist' provides the cross and Yuthapichai chests it down and connects sweetly on the half volley for his first goal for the club, although the Trat keeper will know he should've done better. Yuthapichai looks delighted as his team-mates jump on him in, hurl him to the ground and ruffle his hair in celebration.
The evening gets even better on the half hour mark as we witness the most bizarre of own goals. Was Trat defender, Chirapong, simply trying to chip the ball back to his number one or hoof it out of the stadium? Whatever it was, he gets it horribly wrong and executes a sublime lob over his keeper. It's the kind of thing you could attempt a dozen times on the training field without success.
Trat 0 Samut Prakan 3 and that is surely game over. Jonathan Reis rattles the crossbar in a rare attempt at goal for the home side but there are more treats in the Samut Prakan Christmas stocking - and it's always nice to see Aris Jarifovic get on the score-sheet. The big Slovenian heads home a Jakkapan cross on 38 minutes to give us a four-goal lead at the interval. We'll certainly enjoy our half-time beer.
I see little point in going into detail. Samut Prakan took their foot off the gas and whilst Trat did come into the game a little more, there were no further additions to the score-line. Both sides hit the woodwork in the second period but there was no way back for the home side, in front of what turned out to be their smallest crowd of the season (just 1,202)
Great performance! You can only beat what's put in front of you and yes, Trat are staring at relegation down both barrels, but any premier league side would've struggled to cope with us during that first 45 this evening. We can now banish any ridiculous talk of relegation ourselves as we move up to 6th in the table and set our sights firmly on the top four or five.
Kudos once again to the travelling supporters who made the trip because that's a fair old trek from Samut Prakan to Trat.
Did you make it back home yourself OK?
The bus journey back to Bangkok's Eastern Bus Terminal seemed to take forever, just shy of 7 hours in fact. The seat was comfortable enough but the driver made far too many stops en route. But all journeys, regardless of how long, are worth it when you win 4-0 away.
Who's up next?
We take on our biggest local rivals, Port FC, on Sunday 27th December (although fair to say Port fans don't really consider us rivals). Unfortunately, I'll miss this game because we are on holiday down in Phuket. Following that there's the New Year break, so it means my next game will be away at Bangkok United on January 10th. Whoopee! - my favourite ground. Not.
On a final note, the draw for the FA Cup round of 16 was made on Tuesday?
Yes, Samut Prakan drew Muangthong United away, so that's another trip to the SCG Stadium in Pathum Thani (we played there in the league back in September).