(We're on our travels to big stadiums again. That's Songkhla by the way and not Chiang Mai)
So it's Chiang Mai United away and a must-win game.
The White Elephants are bottom of the league having won just one game all season (it hurts that that solitary victory came against Samut Prakan back in early October) Every team leaves Chiang Mai with three points - even bottom-but-one club PT Prachuap won here!
I have it from a reliable source that Chiang Mai United are already preparing for life in the second division and making plans on how to get back to the top flight as quickly as possible. In other words, they're a club resigned to their fate.
A tale of two stadiums
Chiang Mai United play their home games at the 25,000 capacity 70th Anniversary Stadium, which is around eight kilometres north of the city. It was built in 1995 to hold the South East Asian games. Although the view from the away end is apparently awful, the stadium is in a picturesque setting with a mountainous backdrop and I'm looking forward to seeing it.
Chiang Mai United are currently sharing their home with Chiang Mai's other club, second division Chiang Mai FC, who normally play at the smaller but more convenient Municipality Stadium in the centre of the city. However, I believe through February at least, the Municipality is being used as a Covid hospital.
Players to watch?
Chiang Mai United have strengthened their squad in recent weeks by surprising the Thai football world and borrowing both Big Bill and Ekanit Panya from neighbors Chiang Rai. Big Bill might be getting a bit long in the tooth but there are few players in the Thai League I admire more - and Ekanit Panya has always been a talent.
Ex-Samut Prakan midfielder Boworn Tapla has also established himself as a regular starter and has risen to the ranks of vice captain. Good to see him doing well up there because he's a nice lad.
And a new manager?
Brazilian Ailton Silva resigned from his managerial position at Chiang Mai United during the week, obviously feeling the club needed a change. The manager with a remarkable resemblance to Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits (OK a fatter version) took over the position in November 2021. The new man in the hot seat will be ex-Thai international player Surachai Jirasirichote. Oh no! now Samut Prakan are up against the dreaded 'new manager syndrome'.
What's the plan?
Tun and I will once again make a 'mini holiday' of it by flying up to Chiang Mai on Friday lunchtime, seeing the match on Sunday night and then heading straight back home on Monday morning. We leave for the next game at Buriram on Tuesday so there's no time to dawdle.
(The swimming pool at The Yantasri Resort)
Journey and digs
The return ticket from Bangkok's Suwanabhum to Chiang Mai was around 2,700 baht, which wasn't bad at all for Bangkok Airways and that also got us access to their lounge with unlimited coffee and snacks.
As for accommodation, my wife always maintains there's no need to pay more than a thousand baht a night in Chiang Mai and she's absolutely right: the selection of hotels and guest houses is bewildering.
We opted for the Yantasri Resort in the Nimman neighborhood, a lovely complex with the rooms set in tropical gardens. Great value for money if you can secure a room for a thousand or less.
(Is this Thailand?)
Nimman is a trendy area full of restaurants, coffee bars and small eclectic boutiques as well as a night market. Parts of it make you feel like you are back in Europe - sipping cafe con leche at a plaza mayor in a small Spanish city perhaps. Wander down the side streets though and at least half the businesses have closed down. As a local resident told me, 'the Chinese and Korean tourists kept this neighborhood going. Once they stopped coming due to Covid restrictions, much of the area bombed'
(The annual Chiang Mai flower festival)
In the couple of days before the game, we didn't stray too far from Nimman. There were no trips out of town to misty-covered mountains, isolated hill-tribe villages, elephant sanctuaries or temples. Tun and I were feeling far too lazy for that nonsense and we've done it all before anyway. Truthfully. I've never been a huge fan of Chiang Mai. I think there are much nicer places to go if you're looking for a Northern Thailand experience. Chiang Mai is like some huge, open air, interactive travel exhibition - and now it's your turn on the stage!
We did take a stroll down to the flower festival on the Saturday morning, which killed a pleasant couple of hours. In the evening we were recommended an 'arty night market' just a couple of kilometres walk away but heavy rain showers stopped it from being enjoyable. Thankfully, the weather forecast for Sunday's football match was 'cloudy but no rain'.
(250 baht for a ticket in the away end? Are you having a laugh?)
We arrived at Chiang Mai's 700th Anniversary Stadium about an hour before kick off. The ground was much smarter than I expected, having recently been renovated, and felt like a slightly smaller version of Nakhon Ratchisima's 80th Birthday Stadium. 250 Baht for a seat in the away zone was a bit steep though. I'm not sure how you get away with charging possibly the highest away ticket price in Thai football when you're bottom of the league?
Also it's the first time at a Thai league ground (in fact anywhere) where I've been asked twice for vaccination proof - firstly as I went up to the ticket kiosk and then upon entering the stadium. You couldn't buy water in or around the stadium either. It's fair to say Chiang Mai United did their utmost to completely ruin any semblance of a matchday experience.
A seriously depleted Samut Prakan midfield was missing both Kevin Ingreso (ban) and Yuto Ono (injured). Defender Srayut Somphim – an ever present for the first 18 matches - was able to take a place on the bench after a bout of Covid.
The official attendance was announced as 1,247 but it looked nowhere near that number as the teams emerged from the tunnel into a cool Chiang Mai evening with a line of distant dark clouds hinting at just a slight threat of rain.
Chiang Mai United started the livelier with Saksit Jitvijan thwarting an early attack and the on-loan Ekanit going into the book for a trip on Samuel Rosa. Samut Prakan's best chances fell to captain Chayawat Srinawong but he was unable to find the space for a clear shot on target.
As we headed for what would surely be goalless first period, a low cross manages to trickle through the legs of two Samut Prakan defenders and who else but Big Bill Rosimar is Johnny-on-the-spot for an easy tap-in. He scored the winner for Chiang Rai against Samut Prakan in the dying minutes of a game at the end of last season and he's done us again. He just loves playing Samut Prakan does Big Bill!
Half-time - Chiang Mai United 1 Samut Prakan 0
And we started with such high hopes)
The second half proves to be an eventful one for Chaiyawat Buran. After going close to levelling the scores, he receives two yellow cards in the space of seven minutes, the second for an over-the-top lunge at Ekanit after losing control of the ball. Chayaiwat's second red card of the season (or is it three?) means the visitors will have to do without him for the last quarter of an hour. By this time, the home side have already added a second goal through Sirisak Faidong in the 57th minute and are in cruise control.
Samut Prakan throw on Chatri Rattanawong and Phoutthasay Kochalern for the last 15 minutes but it's not going to happen for any of the attackers in front of goal tonight and The Sea Fang limp to another defeat.
That's just two wins this season for Chiang Mai United - and six points at Samut Prakan's expense. An unenviable statistic for both clubs.
Full-time - Chiang Mai United 2 Samut Prakan 0
(Sometimes the journey home can be long. Between myself and Sheffield Jon is Robert, a local expat who supports Chiang Mai's other team - Chiang Mai FC. Rob came along to give us some support and encouragement but was forced to admit it could be second division football for Samut Prakan as well next season)
There was a sense of quiet resignation on the faces of the dozen or so travelling Samut Prakan supporters at the final whistle. Perhaps even with ten matches left to play, it might be prudent to start mentally preparing for life in the second division. And with fellow strugglers Suphanburi winning at home to Nakhon Ratchisima and PT Prachuap grabbing a sensational victory at Buriram, we are now in the direst of straits. We don’t know where the next win is coming from.
The remaining ten league games
I'm admittedly clutching at straws but the only thing perhaps in Samut Prakan’s favour is that seven of the remaining ten games are at home. Buriram and BG Pathum will be tough but Prachuap, Chonburi, Chiang Rai, Khon Kaen and Nakhon Ratchisima are all beatable on our own patch.
Away from home, although I expect nothing against Muangthong or Port FC, we have a terrific record against Suphanburi at their Provincial Stadium so here's hoping for three points there to boost the final tally.
But currently four points adrift of safety, half a dozen wins is a huge ask for a team that’s so far won only three league games all season - and I'm already casting a reluctant eye over next season's potential opponents in Thailand's second tier.
Who's up next?
We hit the road for a midweek league cup meeting with Buriram at the Thunder Castle on Wednesday.
Meanwhile here are the current league standings.