(Huai Kha Kheng is a forest and animal sanctuary in Uthai Thani Province...but I wonder what the legend could be? Are we be about to find out? Image: Uthai Thani FC official Facebook page)
So then, our first away game of the season is at Uthai Thani FC. Perhaps a bit of club background to start with?
Uthai Thani FC (nickname: The Elephants) have a long history, but just not as Uthai Thani FC. They were founded way back in 1937 as The Royal Thai Air Force Football Club.
The club's recent history is similar to Samut Prakan's and involves one of those ridiculous quirks of Thai football where a club is allowed to change its name and relocate miles away to a completely new province. After almost 80 years of The Royal Thai Air Force Football Club going about their business, playing their home games in North Bangkok (and being reasonably successful) the owner decided to rename the club to Uthai Thani FC and move it 200 kilometres north!
This will effectively be Uthai Thani's third season in the Thai league. In the 2020/21 season (after the name change) they finished 17th in the second division and were relegated, but The Elephants bounced straight back at the first time of asking as T3 (North) champions.
Uthai Thani play their home games at the 4,500 capacity Provincial Stadium. This short but well-made video gives you a nice feel for the ground. It certainly looks tidy and appealing on a sunny blue-sky day; shame about the bloody running track though.
(Ace striker Ricardo Santos. Photo credit: Uthai Thani FC official Facebook page)
Who plays for them?
The star of the show is undoubtedly Brazilian captain Ricardo Santos. The 35-year old striker hit the back of the net 30 times in last season's table-topping campaign, at an average of more than a goal a game. Uthai Thani were I'm sure delighted to capture his signature for another season.
Another foreigner at the club is Nigerian winger Adefolarin Durosinmi (let's call him 'Ade') Ade has turned out for at least half a dozen Thai clubs since 2014 with his best spells seeming to come whilst playing in the second tier. His sixteen appearances for Chonburi in Thailand's top flight a couple of seasons ago unfortunately ended with a zero in the goals scored column, although one Chonburi fan told me that he was something of a panic buy and never really given a chance.
Uthai Thani already have three points on the board after starting their campaign with an impressive 4-2 win at Udon last weekend, although an Udon fan told me the scoreline flattered the visitors somewhat. As you would expect, Ricardo Santos got his name on the scoresheet.
What's the travel plan?
With plenty of time on our hands, Tun and I will leave Samut Prakan on Friday morning and return on Monday, making for a total of three nights in Uthai Thani. Truth be told that's probably ambitious for a town that's not on the tourist trail and no disrespect, is famous for its markets and very little else. I have a good friend who works in Bangkok but has a family home in Uthai Thani and returns most weekends. When I told him we planned on spending three nights there, he said "Three nights! Do you know something about Uthai Thani that I don't!" (or words to that effect) - but I'm sure we'll find something to fill the time.
Journey and digs
It was quite exciting to be travelling on an unfamiliar route to a part of Thailand we'd never been to before. The road up to Uthai Thani was in superb condition and traffic was relatively light. Had Tun put her foot down we'd have covered the journey comfortably in three hours but decided to make several stops on the way.
(Tun poses for the obligatory away supporter scarf shot as we near our destination. Just one more kilometre to go)
Part and parcel of any Thai road trip is parking at the roadside to buy whatever is the specialty of that particular province. When you drive through Ayutthaya Province it's 'roti sai mai' - a kind of cotton candy (or candy floss as we called it in England) wrapped in a sweet roti.
We pulled off the highway to take a break at Luangbu Thuat, which is a charming riverside neighborhood with a food market, a traditional wooden Thai restaurant and dominating the skyline, the golden statue of one of Thailand's most revered monks, shimmering in the early afternoon sunlight.
Upon reaching Uthai Thani, we made a brief stop at Wat Tha Sung, the province's most famous temple. The interior sparkles like nothing you've ever experienced; it's like stepping inside the world's largest Christmas decoration.
For accommodation, we'd booked three nights at the Comenethee Uthai Hotel, right in the centre of town and just a few kilometres from Uthai Thani's Provincial Stadium. At 1,200 baht a night, it was certainly on the pricey side for a smallish room in a converted traditional Thai house. In a town like Buriram or nearby Suphanburi, you would get a similar room for almost half that price (and I have), but as I said, Uthai Thani is not a tourist town - what hotels there are available don't really have much competition so prices remain on the high side.
In the evening we wandered up to the night market and riverside area. It was only a kilometre according to our map but we ended up walking four to five times that distance in search of a restaurant that was both open and possible to sit down in (easier said than done in Uthai Thani) Even on a Friday night, everywhere seemed to have closed by 7pm. I wondered if this could possibly be Thailand's most laid-back town. The pace of life seemed slow to the extreme but everyone we encountered on our amble around town was super friendly.
Saturday (Match Day)
With the game not starting until 6.30 pm, we had plenty of time to take in some more of Uthai Thani's attractions. Just a 45-minute drive out of town is the Hu Pha Tat cave and tropical forest, a pleasant place to pass an hour but shame about the double pricing for entrance tickets (20 baht for Thais and 200 baht for foreigners) It certainly wasn't worth 200 baht.
(Careful Tun, remember what happened to that football team In Chiang Rai when they decided to go caving in the rainy season)
Also in that area is Baan Chai Khao, known locally as 'Little Switzerland'. The village is little more than a solitary makeshift restaurant at the side of the road but walk a few hundred metres in either direction and there are enough wild flowers and mountainous backdrops to keep even the most jaded Instagrammer happy.
Pre-match and stadium
Tun and I parked up at Uthai Thani's Provincial Stadium around 5.00 pm and met up with the other Samut Prakan travelling fans near the away end (which I'm pleased to say was partially covered). About 40-50 supporters had made the journey and brought the usual flags, drums and megaphones with them.
For a club that was in the third tier last season, I thought Uthai Thani's stadium was superb. There were two decent stands on opposite sides of the pitch, a modern, well-stocked club shop, and a fan zone with a good selection of food and drink, albeit with no obvious seating area. Full marks also for not shoving away fans into some forlorn, forgotten corner of the stadium. Our view of the action was every bit as good as that which the home fans enjoyed.
(This photo is taken from the away section on the left-hand side of the main stand, looking towards a smaller stand from which the two teams emerge and I'm guessing is for staff and VIPs. That's not a bad backdrop for a football stadium is it?)
On the topic of home fans, I'm not sure I've encountered a friendlier bunch than those wearing the Uthai Thani black and red. An hour before kick off, half a dozen hardcore home fans came over to present us with boxes of local snacks and free tickets for the game (what a shame that Tun and I had already purchased ours) Anyway, it was a wonderful gesture.
To the match itself
Samut Prakan make just one change to the side that lost their opening game to Nakhon Pathom, bringing in defender Wanchat Choosong.
The home side almost snatch the lead in the 10th minute as Samut Prakan centre half Renan Costa dithers around in his own penalty and gives away possession. The Brazilian is relieved to see Anupan pull his shot wide for Uthai.
The relief is short-lived however with the opening goal coming on the quarter hour mark as Samut Prakan are slow to close down Phattharaphon and sensing his chance, the midfielder unleashes a wonder strike from well outside the box. Uthai Thani one-up and on the way to topping the table for a second week running.
With Samut Prakan just not at the races, danger man Ricardo Santos almost doubles the home side's lead but his overhead kick misses the target.
Uthai goalkeeper Panupan is not exactly the tallest keeper in Thai football and he looked distinctly more jittery as the game progressed. Samut Prakan get back into the contest and test him with several long range efforts, none of which he deals with comfortably.
Samut Prakan make a double substitution on 42 minutes and it proves to be a tactical masterstroke as Moldovan striker Petru Leuca opens his account for the Sea Fang with a swivel and low shot that fizzes just inside the post. So we go into the break all square and little doubt which team will feel the most aggrieved - Uthai Thani should frankly have been out of sight by now.
Half-time: Uthai Thani 1 Samut Prakan 1
The second period belongs to Samut Prakan but despite the best intentions, neither side can add to their goal tally. Midway through the half Uthai bring on another one of their foreign players, Brazilian striker Carlos Damian, and his fierce shot moments later is brilliantly tipped over by Thatpicha. There's a heart-in-mouth moment in stoppage time as Santos looks to have been brought down in the area but the referee isn't interested (and thankfully there is no VAR in the Thai second division). Both teams cling on for a point apiece.
Full-time: Uthai Thani 1 Samut Prakan 1
Whilst I'm delighted to see us put our first point on the board, the important question still remains - are Samut Prakan potential promotion candidates, mid-table also-rans or relegation fodder? We've completed just two gameweeks of the T2 season and there isn't a single team with maximum points from their opening two matches, so how wide is the gap between the best and the worst in this division? I think we'll need at least half a dozen gameweeks before things settle down and Samut Prakan know where we they are in the pecking order.
From a personal point of view, it was another terrific football away trip - an enjoyable football match and an area of Thailand I'd never been to but already looking forward to a revisit.
On the Sunday after the game, Tun and I stayed up in Uthai Thani for another day and went to see a rural famer's market, a giant tree, a mosque built from clay, and probably the most beautiful temple I've seen in Thailand. Uthai Thani is a province with a surprise around every corner, not to mention gorgeous scenery, friendly natives and great value eateries. I can't wait to come up this way again.
Who's up next?
It's back to the SAT Stadium for a home game this Sunday (28th August) as we come up against another relegated team from last season, Suphanburi.