(We're off to the picturesque Ranong Provincial Stadium)
Before we get on to the main topic...a brief diversion
Yes, having nothing better to do last Sunday evening, Tun and I decided to take in the T2 game between our local rivals Customs United and Chiang Mai United, two teams both currently above Samut Prakan in the table. It was also an opportunity to catch up with one of my favourite ex-Samut Prakan players Yuto Ono. Great to see you again Yuto and thank you for making the time for a chat.
It turned out to be a very poor match with Chiang Mai United eventually running out 2-0 winners. My biggest take away from the evening was that in my opinion, Samut Prakan are far better than both of those teams. So why are we not higher in the league?
OK, back to the match in question - Grand Andaman Ranong v Samut Prakan. This is the first time the two clubs have met?
Yes it is, although Tun and I spent an enjoyable few days in Ranong several years ago so we're no strangers to the area. The town itself wasn't much to write home about but the surrounding province and the nearby islands were lovely.
It's a bloody long way from Samut Prakan?
You're certainly talking about a good 7-8 hour drive if you're not willing to take a flight. In addition the airport is over 20 kms from the town centre with virtually no public transport options apart from taxis. It's definitely one of the pricier away jaunts when you factor in flights, car hire and accommodation.
A bit of club background
The Andaman Sharks have been around since 2010 but it wasn't until 2015 that the club became Grand Andaman Ranong United. After almost a decade in the third tier of Thai football, they finally won promotion to the second division in 2019 and established themselves as a lower mid-table club.
Although Ranong's away form has rarely been anything to get excited about, their strength has always been in their home fixtures. Geographically isolated, the 7,000 capacity Ranong Provincial Stadium can be a tough place to pick up points. Ranong is one of the wettest provinces in the country and I remember years ago, a foreign teacher who lived there told me 'sometimes it feels like it never stops raining in Ranong'
Anyone who has caught a Ranong United home match on TV (especially during the rainy season) will have been astounded by the atrocious waterlogged state of the pitch and how on earth a football match could be allowed to even take place. Let's hope things are a little drier for Samut Prakan's visit.
What's the stadium like?
Thai football blogger Rob 'Mr Championship' Scott describes it as one of the prettiest Thai football grounds in terms of location and backdrop but ýou're in for a miserable time if it's raining, and there's always a fair chance of that. However, thankfully the away section is covered.
The Andaman Sharks are having a terrible season?
They have won just one of their opening 15 games - a 2-1 win at Phrae in early September - and currently lie bottom-but-one in the T2 table. Their normally solid home form has deserted them this season and they are yet to win a game on their own muddy patch.
Who's banging in the goals for them?
Nigerian striker Julius Ononiwu is currently Ranong's top scorer. I can't find much info about him other than he's 33 and this is his second spell at the club.
What's your plan?
If you're going to do the journey, you may as well make it worthwhile so we're flying down on the Friday, the match is on Saturday and we'll return to Bangkok the following Tuesday - so a total of four nights in Ranong.
Journey, digs and first night in town
The flight took less than an hour from Don Muang Bangkok and on arrival at Ranong's sleepy little airport, with no baggage to hang around for, we were in our rental car within ten minutes. After a very pleasant lunch stop at the 168 Cafe on the highway into Ranong, we got to our digs around 2.30 in the afternoon. We had reserved four nights at The Iconic, a 3-star boutique hotel right in the centre of town. For 1100 baht a night, the room was OK (certainly not worth any more) The lack of window meant there was no natural light coming in but at least there was a kettle with a couple of proper mugs and half a dozen decent clothes hangers (it doesn't take much to make me happy). It was as Tun described it - 'an adequate enough hotel for a football trip'
Once darkness fell, we had picked the perfect first night to be in town, with the nearby walking street market opening for the start of the high season, and with much pomp and ceremony I might add. Local dignitaries were there to cut the ribbon, along with dancing troupes and various street musicians. With all the locals out and about taking photos, gorging on street food and generally having a good time, there was a terrific buzz about the place. I was seriously going to have to revise my opinion from five years ago, when I perhaps unfairly described Ranong town as being 'a bit on the dull side'
(In an old cafe near the walking street, I got to taste ice cream with frozen egg for the first time...and delicious it was too!)
We woke up early to grey skies and rain but thankfully rain showers in Ranong never seem to last that long. Our game didn't start until 5.30 which gave us most of the day to check out what attractions the town itself had to offer. After a fine Halal breakfast of chicken curry and roti, we hit the road.
(Generally, I'll eat as much curry and roti as you can shovel at me)
An enjoyable day included a stroll around the first Ranong Governor's house, something history-loving Tun was eager to see because both King Rama 5 and King Rama 9 had stayed there at some point. We also made a quick stop at his elaborate grave, which occupies a huge plot of land just off one of Ranong's main highways. Our final stop in town was a traditional Chinese house which had once upon a time been Ranong's first ever bank. It was an absolute must for the Instagram crowd (not that there are too many around)
(Tun swotting up on her Thai history at the Ranong Governor's house)
As we drove away from a cafe, where we had stopped for some light refreshment, we spotted Samut Prakan's Japanese midfielder Sho Shojima, doing a bit of sightseeing himself while his team-mates lazed around the hotel. We pulled in, enjoyed a brief chat, and wished him well for the upcoming match.
Being down in this part of the world puts you at the closest point to the border with Myanmar so we parked up on the Thai side to view the nearest Burmese community, Victoria Point, clearly visible from just across a narrow stretch of water. We continued down the coast to what had once been a private beach but was now a spooky-looking, abandoned resort. We never found out whether the business had been decimated by Covid or just had to close for lack of customers.
(Yep! That's Myanmar over there)
To the match itself
We arrived at the ground early, eager to reel off plenty of photos. Ranong's Provincial Stadium might be falling apart at the seams but it can boast a preposterously gorgeous setting. We met up with the other 7-8 Samut Prakan fans who had braved the journey, including four lads who had travelled down by van and pitched tents on the beach when they reached the halfway point in Prachuap Province. A truly remarkable effort!
As we all stood around trading banter in the car-park, someone arrived with a fistful of match tickets that Samut Prakan had paid for. OK, it was only a saving of 80 baht a ticket but it was still a lovely gesture from the club.
(Good to see Samut Prakan's ace club photographer Nong Bonus had made the journey down as well)
To the match action and I'm guessing there are a few injury problems in the Samut Prakan squad. Young defender Nattapong was handed just his second start of the season and there was also a place for Decha in midfield.
The first meaningful chance of the game falls to Samut Prakan in the 9th minute but Nittitorn scoops his shot over the bar. Prakan fans don't have to wait long though for a goal to celebrate as just five minutes later, a spot of penalty box pinball ends up with Pardsakorn rifling his shot home. I'm still not sure whether Nittitorn's assist was intentional or a pure fluke but we'll take it.
25 minutes into the game and Ranong have offered nothing, looking every inch a side in the relegation zone, but they get a route back into the contest when Rachata Moraksa (rapidly becoming Samut Prakan's best player) is adjudged somewhat harshly to have pushed a Ranong attacker in the area. Nigerian forward Julee calmly slots home the spot kick to put the home side level. Chances are few and far between for the remainder of the first period.
Half time: Ranong United 1 Samut Prakan 1
The second half becomes a story of two teams struggling to find any pattern of play and squandering what rare chances come their way. Wonder kid Yotsakorn's chip over the crossbar with 20 minutes remaining is as close as Samut Prakan come to adding a second goal.
Ranong's Tassani is shown a second yellow for dangerous play on 78 minutes but the visitors fail to make the one-man advantage count for what time remains. Sho Shimoji's swivel and volley is well saved by the Ranong keeper but the crowd of just 274 already know where this game is heading in terms of the outcome.
Final score: Ranong United 1 Samut Prakan 1
(Oh well, we didn't get the three points but at least it was the chance to tick off another Thai football ground)
I suppose we should be grateful for the travel opportunities that following Samut Prakan City offers, because as for the main event, that was another pretty forgettable 90 minutes football. What happens to that lovely fluid passing game that we see at home matches? In away fixtures we tend to become embroiled in more of a 'scrap', surrendering possession far too easily instead of stamping our authority on a game.
This result means that we have taken just two points in our last couple of games against the division's bottom clubs when really only six points would do. That's not good enough if we have aspirations of a top six play-off spot. That's also just one win in our last NINE league and cup games. I think both players and fans alike are quite looking forward to the December / January break and perhaps a chance to press the reset button. I know I am.
It wasn't all doom and gloom though. When we returned to the hotel after the match, the receptionist informed us that they had been unable to clean our room due to staff shortages - so they upgraded us to a larger and much nicer room at no extra charge. That was certainly an unexpected but welcome end to the day.
We stayed on in Ranong for another two days.
You know what I said earlier about rain showers not lasting long in Rayong, well forget it. The rain started falling just as we left the hotel to try out a different Halal restaurant for breakfast and it piddled down non-stop all day long. In fact I think there should be road signs just as you enter the town that say 'Welcome to Ranong - please make sure your windscreen wipers work because you're sure as hell gonna need them!" We had no choice but to grin and bear it...and get wet.
We drove about 60 kilometres north to the Kra Isthmus, where you can almost reach out and touch Myanmar just 100 metres across the river. The area has a complex history of scuppered plans and disputes between various countries, which you can read all about if you Google 'Kra Isthmus'.
No Thailand road trip is complete without wandering around a temple and we spent a goodish length of time at Buddha Suwan Chedi. You can climb to the top of its pagoda for some great views over Ranong Province. However, its star attraction is the very impressive gold-painted rock copied from the original rock at Kyaik Htee Yoe Pagoda in Myanmar.
Nearby is the community of Thap Lee, which is famous for one thing - 'salapao Thap Lee', Chinese dumplings with assorted fillings. Sellers line both sides of the main highway, every one of them looking to tempt passing motorists by boasting they have the finest dumplings.
As the weather worsened, we ended the day, or rather the afternoon, at the delightful Cafe Cocoa, where they make their own chocolate on-site. My word the cakes and chocolate drinks were good!
(I wonder how many of the famous Thap Lee steamed dumplings Tun can eat?)
I didn't think the weather could be any worse than Monday's but it was. We managed a stroll along a deserted beach at The Laemson National Park in the morning but all our afternoon plans were washed out by heavy rain. We seriously needed to get out of this place before we developed webbed feet, but joking apart, we became quite fond of Ranong town during our short time there.
Who's up next?
We are away to Chiang Mai FC on Sunday 11th December. This will be the last game of 2022 with business resuming on the 7th January after the mid-season break.
We would love to but disappointingly, we are going to have to give this one a miss for several reasons. Firstly, it's a public holiday and a long weekend so Chiang Mai will be rammed with tourists. Due to supply and demand I guess, the domestic airlines have jacked up their fares to double and triple what they would normally be. Tun simply refuses to pay it and I suppose I'm in agreement. However, the main reason is that we are off to Vietnam for a 10-day holiday on Wednesday 13th so the whole thing just felt too rushed had we decided to take in the Chiang Mai game.
Oh well, it's only the 4th game we've missed this season so we're not doing too badly.