Buriram away. The magnificent Chang Arena. Excited?
Just a bit. This is the stadium I've most wanted to experience on a match day.
It doesn't matter where Buriram are in the league or what kind of season they're having, they are the biggest name in Thai club football.
What kind of season are they having?
By their standards, poor. They are currently in 8th position, having won just five of their opening twelve matches. The Chang Arena has long been considered 'a fortress' but both Muangthong and Nakhon Ratchisima have left there with all three points this season.
Unfortunately, The Thunder Castle have started to find their form at just the wrong time for Samut Prakan. A 5-1 home win against bottom club Rayong was probably nothing to get too excited about, but the 3-0 away win at Sukhothai last week was impressive.
What was the outcome of this fixture last season?
Buriram won 3-2. They were 3-0 up until Samut Prakan scored twice in the final five minutes. If memory serves me correct, we even squandered a chance to grab a miraculous point in the dying seconds.
Tell us a bit more about The Chang Arena itself?
It's most commonly referred to as The Chang Arena because of the club's sponsorship deal with Chang Beer, but its official name is the 'New I-Mobile Stadium'. It's also called 'Thunder Castle Stadium' and 'Buriram Stadium' depending on who you're talking to.
It can hold 32,600 spectators and has parking space for 500 cars and a thousand motorcycles. It must be murder getting away after the game if there's a good crowd in.
The stadium took just 256 days to build, which earned it a place in the Guinness Book of Records for the fastest construction of a FIFA-standard football arena. What on earth would we do without Wikipedia, eh?
The journey and digs
I decided to fly up for this one so booked a return flight with Nok Air for just under 3,000 baht. Air Asia also flies the Bangkok-Buriram route but I didn't find their flight times to be as convenient and I prefer Nok Air anyway.
Actually, the early afternoon flight from Bangkok's Don Muang turned out to be the worst experience I've had with Nok. Maybe because it was a smaller plane but the cabin was stuffy, there were no drinks on offer unless you were in the premium seats and there was an unpleasant odor coming from the direction of the toilets at the rear of the plane. Thankfully I only had to endure it for 45 minutes.
For accommodation, I had booked a couple of nights at the centrally-located Qoo Hotel, if only because the Nok Air shuttle bus from Buriram Airport to Buriram City drops off and picks up there. I didn't see any point making life difficult. My single room was perfectly adequate for a bloke just up for a football weekend and I couldn't complain at 650 baht a night (no breakfast included)
A Saturday night in Buriram
A good friend of mine is a regular at the motor sport events that are held in this part of the world, but he never ever stays in Buriram overnight. He prefers to drive the hour and a half from Khorat because it makes for a livelier base. "Buriram is just too quiet for me" he says. And I realised what he meant as after sunset, I ambled along its dimly-lit streets in search of entertainment. Buriram is a very peaceful place indeed.
I had a beer and an evening meal in The Bamboo Bar, one of the city's most popular farang haunts, and I was one of barely half a dozen customers. Then after a 10-minute stroll around the night market (seen one, you've seen them all) I stuck my head into several bars but they all looked uninviting and hurting for business, so I passed. I ended the evening just sitting outside the hotel and enjoying the cool season breezes. Shame there wasn't a world to watch go by.
I'll say one thing about Buriram though. It's spotlessly clean. There's not a scrap of litter to be seen and you get the impression the Buriram folk take an enormous pride in their hometown.
It's also something of a 'football city'. Glancing through windows as I passed, there wasn't a single pub or bar not showing live Thai football on TV. Opposite my hotel was a giant screen similar to what you'd experience at a drive-in movie. That was also showing one of the evening's games. And everywhere you looked, someone was wearing either a Buriram football shirt or some item of clothing with the club's crest on it. I wouldn't mind a percentage of the shirt sales up here!
It's match day!
Buriram v Samut Prakan didn't kick off until 6.30 so much of Sunday was about killing time in a sleepy town. I slept in as late as I could but it's not something I do well in unfamiliar hotel rooms.
I treated my arteries to a full English breakfast at Jimmy's Sports Bar and then walked into the city centre along the main Jira Road, which seemed to consist of mainly educational institutes, the provincial court and various other government buildings that look grey and forlorn on any day, but especially on Sundays. Eventually you reach a couple of man-made lakes, which won't win any awards for beauty, but bodies of water in the heart of a city always lift the spirits. I lingered for half an hour on a wooden bench and felt like a man with all the time in the world. Alas, there's only so much walking around a Thai provincial town you can do.
In the afternoon, I had arranged to meet up with another valued member of our football family - the group of us who chat on Twitter about all things Thai football.
Jamie has been following the Thai Premier far longer than I have and been a season ticket holder at Buriram for a number of seasons. It was an absolute pleasure to meet him at Jimmy's Sports Bar (my second visit that day) for Sunday lunch and to spend time with him before and after the match. With a Chinese curry and a traditional Sunday roast inside us, Jamie took me on a short drive around the Chang Arena neighborhood to show me Buriram United's impressive training facility and a few other football-related landmarks. With still two hours to kick off, he dropped me off at the stadium to take some photos while he went off to run a quick errand.
Did the Chang Arena live up to the hype?
I'd seen it on TV, I'd viewed it inside and out on Google image search but I think it's even more impressive when you're up close and personal. I honestly don't know where to start. The water fountains in front of the main entrance, its megastore and shopping avenue and full-size branches of McDonalds and KFC, it's own 7-11 convenience store decorated with the Buriram club crest, the towering stands on all four sides of the ground, the proper turnstiles as you enter the stadium. I just stood there in awe.
Good turnout of Samut Prakan fans?
I guess if you asked most Thai football fans where their dream away trip would be, most would say Buriram. Even so, where the hell did all those Samut Prakan supporters come from? There must have been 200-250 of us. But these weren't the part-time, unfamiliar faces of Samut Prakan folk now exiled in the north-east, certainly not. I recognised many of them from home games down at Bang Plee. They might be fans who don't travel away that much in a season - but they had pooled cars, hired minivans and nailed pram-wheels to a plank of wood to be there for this one. We're talking a 12-hour round trip here and that's not counting rest stops. A pretty remarkable effort.
To the game itself. First half?
Before kick off, there was a minute's silence to honour Diego Maradona as his black and white image was displayed on the electronic screen. I thought that was a nice touch.
If you're a professional footballer in the Thai league and you're not 'up for it' for a game under lights at The Chang Arena, then there must be something wrong with you, but I sensed from the off that Samut Prakan were up for this one. None more so than Barros Tardelli. who had a couple of long-range efforts in the opening 25, firing one straight at the keeper and the other just past the post. Buriram also had their moments and there was some shaky defending and lack of communication in the Samut Prakan back line.
But it was the visitors who took the lead on 25 minutes. Teerapon Yoyei does exceptionally well to win the ball in the centre circle and feed it out to Jaroensak on the right wing. From there 'Pee Tae', whose stock seems to be rising with every game, hits a low shot that somehow manages to sneak past two covering defenders and the keeper. There's an extremely delayed celebration in the away end as due to a combination of distance and the glare of floodlights, none of us are quite sure if it's a goal or not. But Jaroensak has wheeled away towards the corner flag, with team mates in hot pursuit, so I guess we must be 1-0 up. Let's go mental! ("That right winger of yours was a menace all evening. He looked dangerous every time he got the ball" - Jamie)
The celebrations became a moment to savor but a one goal lead was never going to be enough and Buriram striker, Scepovic, is looking the man most likely. He spurns two opportunities as we move closer to half time but it's a case of third time lucky as his clever backward header on 44 minutes, loops up and over the diving Pathiwat and The Thunder Castle are back on level terms. Half time - Buriram 1 Samut Prakan 1
So all to play for second half?
We need to fast forward a bit. Japanese midfielder, Yuto Ono, put a tweet out the day after the match saying that heated words were exchanged between Aris Jarifovic and one or two of his fellow defenders during the half-time interval. Thankfully, accusations eventually turned to smiles and handshakes but it did force Samut Prakan's rearguard to buck their ideas up.
Buriram start the second period on the front foot. Ingreso blasts one wide and Supachok misses a sitter, somehow managing to get the ball tangled under his feet and presenting Pathiwat with an easy grab. Then comes the best moment of the evening for the team in yellow as Chakkit Laptrakul picks the ball up on the left wing, moves inside and unleashes a long range 'worldy' to the Buriram keeper's left. What. A. Goal. The away fans have a perfect view of this one. Let's go mental again!
Buriram huff and puff but that second equalizer just won't come. There are shouts for penalties and shots are cleared off the line. It's backs to the wall stuff. What Samut Prakan really need now is a third goal to dare I say, put the match to bed - and Barros Tardelli provides it. Ingreso loses possession cheaply but well outside the penalty area. However, Barros fancies it and hits a screamer into the top left-hand corner. Have we seen our two goals of the season scored in the same half?
The Samut Prakan contingent cast anxious glances towards the electronic clock and count down the minutes. Eventually, the final whistle blows and we've beaten Buriram 3-1. I'm hugging blokes I've never seen before in my life. As we file out of the away zone, those who are facing a six-hour drive home couldn't give a monkey's. It's a night that no one wants to end. Everyone's in the mood to party.
Football, bloody hell. I know this is not the unbeatable Buriram of seasons gone by, but even so - that was a fantastic result. My everlasting memory won't be the final score or the quality of our goals, it will be the away support, because that's the loudest I've heard us in the fan zone and we got behind the team from first minute to last. The players did their bit - and we did ours! I feel proud of everyone associated with the club.
I met Jamie standing by his car on the opposite side of the stadium (I think every other Buriram fan had gone home already). Jamie took the defeat very graciously and I'm certainly not the type of guy to rub it in, not until we have a trophy cabinet and a stadium as impressive as Buriram's.
We adjourned to an expat pub and I kept Jamie's beer glass full for an hour or so because it was the least I could do. And we parted as still very good friends.
The morning after
I caught the 7.30 Nok Air flight back to Bangkok and the Samut Prakan team and management staff were on Air Asia's 7.25, so naturally our paths crossed at the airport. I gave the thumbs up, a pat on the back or a few congratulatory words to a number of the players and also to manager, Ishii-san.
It was far too early in the day for selfies and small talk and maybe it wasn't just me who had celebrated the victory with a beer or two.
Who's up next?
Attention turns to the FA Cup round of 32, with a home tie against Maejo United, this Saturday 5th December. Kick off 6.00pm.