(2021/22) Buriram v Samut Prakan (League Cup round of 16))
A welcome distraction from our fight for league survival - or is it?
(This will be my second visit to Buriram's magnificent Chang Arena - but a first for Tun!)
So we turn attention to the Thai league cup competition and the fight for a place in the quarter final?
I don't really see it that way. I'm not even sure it's a 'welcome distraction' from our premier league headaches. In fact, it feels like a bit of a 'nothing game', although I'm not sure Buriram fans will agree.
If manager Yoshida puts out a full strength side, we'll get beaten (plus risk the chance of players getting injured). If he puts out a weakened side, we'll get beaten heavily. That sounds awfully pessimistic I know but I can't see the result going any other way.
But Samut Prakan's record at Buriram is not too bad?
We've won once and lost twice but the performances have always been encouraging. In Samut Prakan's first season, we were beaten 3-2, scoring two late goals and almost snatching a dramatic late equaliser. Last season, we were victorious 3-1 with arguably one of the best performances I've seen from a Samut Prakan eleven and a night I will never forget.
This season, the two clubs met in early October. Due to an appointment for a Covid jab that I couldn't cancel, I was unable to make the trip (one of only two games I've missed this season) but I watched the game on TV and Samut Prakan deserved at least a point in what was eventually a 2-1 reverse. Just for the record, that game was played at Buriram's 'second ground' - The Khao Kradong Stadium and not The Chang Arena. which was something of a disappointment for the travelling Samut Prakan contingent.
And it's a first reunion with Buriram manager Ishii-san?
There's going to be a lot of emotion out there. The Samut Prakan players loved Ishii-san, the Samut Prakan fans loved Ishii-san. And of course he will still have a great fondness for the first club he managed in Thai football. It will be great to see him again, along with ex-captain Peeradol, I just hope they are gentle with us.
So what's the plan?
Because Buriram is a six-hour drive from Samut Prakan, Tun and I are going to take it slowly and treat it as a mini road trip. We'll cover the first three hours of the journey on day one and do an overnight stop at a farm-cum-resort in Si Khio (prononced See-Q). We'll reach Buriram some time on day two and after a few hours relaxation, go on to see the match in the evening. We'll leave Buriram the morning after and make our way back home via the Phanom Rung Historical Park and probably another overnight stay before getting back to Samut Prakan on day four. Slow and meandering boys, slow and meandering.
We have to get back home before Saturday because we meet Buriram (again) at home in the premier league hahaha
(Thailand's crop burning season is not the best time to take in views)
Traffic was quite busy on the road to Khorat and it would've taken about three and a half hours to drive from Samut Prakan to our first night's accommodation but Tun had planned a couple of stops on the way. First was a temple known for being home to hundreds of white squirrels and with some panoramic views over Khorat Province (shame the sky was a little bit hazy) and then after that, a quick stop at Sikhio stone quarry. This was the first time I'd ever driven off the main Bangkok-Khorat highway and I was surprised by how 'rural' the villages and communities were. It felt like being up in somewhere more remote, like say Mae Hong Son for example.
(A slice of America in the middle of Khorat Province)
For our first night stay, we opted for The Green Land Farm and Resort in Si Khio, an interesting complex of bungalows, chalets and picnic tables all with an American theme. The owner even had a small museum on-site crammed with vintage American memorabilia. With only two sets of guests checked in that night, you get the impression it's probably some rich person's plaything. A great place if you're a dog lover though. We counted at least five friendly mutts roaming around and looking for fuss.
Twin-bedded chalets start at around 850 baht a night. There's also a restaurant on-site with an extensive Thai-Western menu, which came in handy because you're pretty much out in the wilderness.
(Every Thai football fan should experience the Chang Arena in Buriram just once!)
Wednesday (Match Day)
We covered the journey from Si Khio to Buriram in under four hours and that was allowing for a couple of very generous refreshment stops. I was surprised at how uninspiring that stretch of highway was, with mile after mile of little but flat landscape and frazzled scrub land.
We arrived in Buriram and made straight for our hotel - The Green@Buriram - looking to unwind for a couple of hours before heading off to the match around 4.00pm. Any hotel that has @ in its name will usually mean tiny rooms, not enough shelf space and a lighting system that's impossible to work out - the kind of room you often find at budget airport hotels. The Green@Buriram wasn't quite that bad. It had a terrific on-site restaurant and the beds were super comfortable - but it did feel like I was killing time before an early morning flight to Europe.
(Tun was impressed. I knew she would be)
Anyway, let's get to the football match
I had been to the Chang Arena before so it was a pleasure to act as Tun's guide and show her the outside of the stadium, the attached shopping and restaurant complex and the replica 'Prasart Hin' temple. It really is the finest football stadium in Thailand bar none.
We arrived at the same time as the Samut Prakan team bus so we parked up quickly and were able to watch the squad clamber off and make their way to the players entrance. It looked like a very young, inexperienced group of players with hardly a regular first teamer in sight.
The team line-up was confirmed on the Samut Prakan Facebook page an hour later. Yoshida was clearly focused on the remaining premier league games and had picked what amounted to an 'under strength reserve team'. Three players on the subs bench, who were to eventually play most of the second half, had never featured for Samut Prakan before.
Let's be honest, we never really stood a chance against a club whose much larger playing squad allowed them to select a reserve side, but one still sprinkled with first team names.
The visitors almost get off to the worst possible start. With just 54 seconds on the clock, Kittipong handles in the penalty area and the referee has an easy decision to award Buriram the spot-kick. Up steps Maicon to see his effort kept out superbly by Anusit Termmee's legs and the ensuing rebound is blasted wide. Now that's really got the travelling Samut Prakan fans going - but we know deep down it's going to be an extremely long evening.
Buriram's relentless possession and pressure is rewarded after 18 minutes. A corner is swung over and Congolese striker Jonathon Bolingi opens the home side's account with a downward header at the far post.
The Samut Prakan kids huff and puff, showing plenty of confidence and endeavour but there just isn't enough quality and experience out there to match a side like Buriram. Brazilian striker Maicon makes up for his penalty miss just past the half hour with a clinical side-foot shot from distance and we're already into damage limitation territory.
Half time: Buriram 2 Samut Prakan 0
Samut Prakan send on a trio of squad players for a first team baptism (I can think of worst places to make your debut) but Christians to lions in The Colosseum comes instantly to mind.
Supachai Jadet, also on as a half-time sub, adds a third goal with a looping shot over the Samut Prakan keeper that was meant to be a cross all day long. If there's any doubt about it, then Supachai's immediate reaction and celebration say it all. It's turning into that sort of game for the men in lime green, who find themselves three down with a long 40 minutes still to endure.
The contest morphs into something resembling a pre-season friendly, Buriram content to pass the ball around and avoid any hefty challenges, while Samut Prakan try and fathom how to get into the home side's half and perhaps even muster a shot at goal.
Samut Prakan then get dispossessed in midfield and Kenyan Ayub Masika caps a fine night for Africa by adding Buriram's fourth.
But Buriram aren't quite going to have it all their own way. Srayut Sompim, rapidly becoming a fan favourite, smacks in a glorious free kick in the dying seconds. The two dozen Samut Prakan fans huddled in a corner of the stadium celebrate like we've won the World Cup. Sometimes you just have to seize the moments.
Ex-manager Ishii-san and ex-captain Peeradol came over to the travelling fans after the final whistle to applaud and show their respect. It was possibly the highlight of the evening.
Final score: Buriram 4 Samut Prakan 1
(Ishii-san will always be very special to us. Photo: Official Samut Prakan website)
This is a difficult loss to summarize isn't it? The bottom line is that we put out a side that was never strong enough to compete but of course, we have to get our priorities right.
For Tun and myself, the night in Buriram was part of a north-east road trip with the game being the main event. I'm not sure how I'd have felt about Yoshida's team selection if I'd been one of those fans who faced a six-hour drive home, getting back to Samut Prakan in the early hours of the morning.
I guess the domestic trophy dream will have to go on hold for another season.
On a final note, I know there were only 5-6,000 fans in attendance, but what a great experience for some of those Samut Prakan youngsters tonight.
Who's up next?
We meet Buriram United again on Saturday in the premier league. This will be a very different game to tonight between two full-strength sides. I'm not saying the outcome won't be the same but it will be a very different game.
(One culinary treat you can't miss in Buriram are the meatballs sold in front of the train station. Lisa from pop supergroup Blackpink told fans they were the best in the world - and it looks like the Buriram players agree!)
Thursday (day three)
Shaking off the disappointment of the previous night's result, we had a most enjoyable day in Isaan, driving from Buriram to Aranyaprathet, near the Cambodian border. This was more like it! - driving on B-roads through small villages and into the heart of the wonderful north-eastern countryside. We stopped off to admire the golden Buddha at Wat Phra Angkan before heading on to the Phanom Rung Historical Park and a mooch around a second Hindu Khmer temple at Prasart Muang Tam. Both temples were exceptional and made for some great photos despite the temperature being as hot as Hell.
We stayed the night on the outskirts of Aranyaprathet at a hotel with stories to tell if the box of condoms on he hospitality tray and the red lipstick stains on the pillow were anything to go by. I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions.
(Finally, we had found the real Isaan)
Friday (day four)
Not wishing to stay at the 'love hotel' a minute longer than necessary, we hit the road early and parked up in Aranyaprathet town centre in search of breakfast. If I ever draw up a list of places in Thailand that I might retire to, rest assured Aranyaprathet won't be included. Indeed, had we found a place that was actually uglier and more unkept than parts of Samut Prakan? We did find a delightful coffee shop though that looked completely at odds with its surroundings but served up cappuccino along with a stack of pancakes drenched in maple syrup.
From there we had an amble around the infamous Klong Luek market on the Thai-Cambodia border but it appeared to be a shadow of its former self. With the border closed for two years already and zero tourists around, many of the sellers had shut up shop. Those that remained looked worn down by the daily battle to simply just survive.
We'd seen enough. Our Isaan road trip had reached its end. We pointed the car in the direction of home and were back in Samut Prakan by mid-afternoon.
(Don't worry - they let me out of the cage after the game!)
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