Thai League football gets the senses working overtime as fans go on a journey that stimulates the parts that other leagues cannot reach.
As supporters and players long for the return of Thai football, here’s a look at what we’re missing and what we can look forward to when normality returns.
The sense of anticipation on the approach to a new football stadium is one of the greatest feelings a fan can experience.
Some of the most celebrated football arenas in the world loom large over a vast expanse of land, while others creep up on you, almost lost in urban sprawl.
It’s fair to say that the sight of most Thai League stadia can be a little underwhelming for anyone who has been to likes of the Allianz Arena, the Nou Camp, Old Trafford or Celtic Park.
While Rajamangala Stadium is an imposing structure for international fixtures, the closest thing the Thai League can offer is the Chang Arena in Buriram.
The home of Buriram United has the advantage of being a purpose-built football stadium and it’s 32,000 capacity makes it a decent size, standing on the edge of town, part of a large leisure complex and not far from the Chang International motor racing circuit.
Other medium-sized stadia include Nakhon Ratchasima’s provincial ground, an oval-shaped theatre of football that can officially hold 25,000 but has been known to squeeze in another 10,000.
Bangkok United’s Thammasat Stadium is of a significant scale when it comes into sight but its location on a university campus means you are closer to the faculty of law than the nearest pub.
BG Pathum United’s steep, tiered main stand would be better if it was matched by a similar structure opposite, rather than an empty patch of land.
Ratchaburi’s compact stadium has an impressive dragon-shaped façade that gives the perfect photo opportunity for first-time visitors and the mountains in the background make for a picturesque viewing experience in the fading light.
Sukhothai’s less modern Thung Talay Luang Stadium is another compact arena and its aesthetic attraction lies in its lakeside setting.
Once you have negotiated the concrete jungle of Muang Thong Thani, the SCG Stadium is a football fortress that may be small in scale but can be big on atmosphere once you get inside.
Talking of atmosphere, the PAT Stadium in Bangkok’s Klong Toey is also relatively unimpressive from a distance, with its rickety structure on three sides. Like the SCG Stadium, Port FC’s home ground is much better appreciated on the inside where the fans bring it to life. From the main stand, there can also be a pretty good view of the Bangkok skyline at dusk.
Many of the Thai League stadia are owned by the local councils rather than the clubs themselves, which means maintenance and design are not always exemplary.
However, there are also plenty of quirky locations that give unique characteristics. Until last year, to access an Army United game, you were effectively on a Thai army base, without the strict security you might expect.
Police Tero are similarly linked with some men in uniform and have adopted the ‘Police Club’ as their home, a stadium sitting within the grounds of a police compound.
Now defunct PTT Rayong’s ground blended into its environment in a leafy park, while away trips to Chiang Rai United are no problem thanks to the stadium being a short walk from the airport.
The modest fan bases of most clubs limit stadium capacities to ensure that the sight of a Thai League ground may not yet generate the same sense of awe from the outside as what would be expected in many other football countries.
However, there is a lot more to the fan experience than the appearance of the stadium. Sight is also the colour and the spectacle on the pitch.
A large proportion of fans wear the team colours, usually the shirt. There is no need for hats, scarves and gloves in the tropical climate so the most popular item of merchandise is the replica jersey, usually available at a friendlier price than you might find in the leagues of other football nations.
Clusters of fans in the club’s colours gather to socialise before the games, feasting on the abundant food options available and drinking beers in large plastics cups with ice.
There is generally an interesting demographic, with a healthy gender balance and a high number of young fans who will hopefully pass on their loyalties through future generations.
The quality football on the pitch varies significantly from the slick football sometimes played by teams near the top of the table and the chaotic affairs between the lower level teams, often with some slapstick defending.
The quality of the pitches is often not the best, which contributes to the poor spectacle sometimes on display with the turf taking a real beating during the rainy season which runs from May to October.
However, regardless of the match, the fans always generate an atmosphere because of the…
Thai fans like drums. Sometimes uplifting, sometimes deafening, sometimes rhythmic, sometimes monotonous, sometimes irritating, but always present.
There is barely a moment in a Thai League game without at least a hint of a drumbeat from one corner of the ground. There are often competing drumbeats from rival sets of fans, while the noise is complicated further by the fact that many clubs have competing factions within their own support… with their own drums.
Drumming is hardly unique to Thai football, with the samba beat of the Brazilian supporters a long-time feature of the game, gaining global fame at World Cups.
Like the Brazilians, the drums are often played spontaneously as fans haphazardly work their way through what is usually a limited playlist, resulting in the repetition of the same chants a good 10 times in 90 minutes.
A notable exception is the Buriram United support, which has a well-choreographed choir, chanting and swaying in time to their chosen beat as the cheerleader with a megaphone leads the way.
And the chanting rarely lets up. Generally, in the ebb and flow of a game in other countries, there are lulls and then frenzied noise when there’s a goal or a controversial decision or nasty tackle. While there is plenty such noise, lulls in Thailand are rare or non-existent.
Some fans get so caught up in the chanting and singing that they pay very little attention to what’s happening on the pitch.
Those who are paying attention, curse and swear at the referee and often yell ‘Oi’ as is the custom in Thai boxing when there is an action flashpoint or a nice flowing move.
And, naturally, there is always that one fan who, for the benefit of those around him, spends most of the game shouting abuse at the ref or opposition players just to play to the gallery. Possibly amusing at first but ultimately annoying, this is the fan you don’t want to sit too close to.
In contrast with the most serene of Thai environments – the temple – this is not a place for peace and meditation. It is a place to cheer, sing and shout in anger when seen fit.
The one thing that separates Thai fans from many others is that voices are very rarely raised in anger against their own players. Even when their teams are performing with a lack of passion or competence or both, the supporters almost always stay with them.
There may be an occasional moment of frustration but even in the worst moments and after the worst defeats, a hardcore of fans stays to sing to their team. After a disappointing result, the players sometimes look embarrassed but it is all part of the ritual and part of the noise.
Outside the stadium, most of the fans disperse but some may remain to continue with the drumming and chanting. Some turn their pickup trucks into mobile karaoke booths and, particularly with sides from the northeast, Luk Thung (Thai country music) booms out of speakers while well-oiled fans dance along.
It’s fair to say that Thai fans certainly bring the noise to a football match but there are also particular smells and tastes that become synonymous with Thai football over time.
SMELL and TASTE
If you love the smell of grilled meat in the evening, the smoky exterior of a Thai football stadium is the place for you.
Outside almost every ground, the unmistakable aroma of well-marinaded barbecued pork hangs in the air and whets the appetite. The taste does not always meet the expectations created by the smell, with gristle and disproportionate cuts of fat forming part of the skewered treat, but part of the learning process is identifying which stall serves the best stuff.
Quality and quantity vary significantly depending on which ground you visit and the smells can be equally varied, though there is always grilled meat somewhere.
If it is not pork, it may well be northeastern or northern sausage. The pungent and garlic heavy northeastern version competes with the more herbal and spicy northern sausage for the attention of hungry fans.
The less pleasant odour of hot oil also features heavily at a Thai football ground near you. Fried chicken is another ever present staple, with deep fried sliced pork also popular for those that like a bit of crunch with their swine.
Other options include the nasty looking pink processed sausages that only the brave will try, while various processed meatballs tend to have a significant following, with an obligatory spicy dipping sauce that tends to taste better than it looks.
Bangkok United is a bit more advanced in its offerings, with the arrival of food trucks. There, you can find fresh brewed coffee and kebabs of the chicken shawarma variety.
The Thammasat Stadium still offers the basics for the pissed-up carnivores but there are also options for the more discerning consumer.
On a hot day at a football stadium, savoury food is best accompanied by cold beer. The craft beer revolution has yet to take hold in the Thai game so options tend to be limited to Thailand’s two biggest selling mass-produced budget beers – Leo and Chang.
Beatles or the Stones? Blur or Oasis? Messi or Ronaldo? To these two eternal and pointless debates, we can add the Leo or Chang question. Leo’s lighter, slightly sweeter and gassier brew often gets the nod over Chang’s heavier body.
However, which beer is available at which ground depends very much on club sponsorship and, chances are, you won’t get a choice unless you have earned the trust of a stallholder who keeps a secret stash of the wrong brand.
One thing is for sure, significant consumption of either brand will result in a hangover that could keep you in bed until 5pm the following day.
But the inevitable hangover can wait as you gulp your way through several large bottles of either brew before, during (sometimes) and after games.
Unfortunately, a combination of the bad behaviour of a few louts and the puritan streak in Thai society have led many stadiums to ban the consumption of alcohol.
As a result, half-time breaks are often extended as fans need more than 15 minutes to queue for the toilet, buy a beer, neck their beer and find their way back to their spot. Many an early second-half goal has been missed due to the no-alcohol policy present at the less progressive grounds.
BG Pathum United play in the Leo Stadium, so there is no compromise there, with draught beer sold inside. In other places, the rules tend to be stricter, with clubs like Suphanburi and Chonburi seeing crowds drop in part due to their zero tolerance policies.
Of course, if you don’t like beer, there is always water and sugary soft drinks with colours that make you feel unhealthy just by looking at them.
Although the soft drinks won’t give you that 5pm hangover, it’s how you feel at the game that is important.
TOUCH / FEEL
The fifth sense may be the sense of touch and there is always the possibility of hugging a stranger when your team scores a goal and handshakes with your heroes when they greet the fans at the end but how you feel at a game is more significant than touch itself.
It is one of the great luxuries of life in Thailand that you will never feel the biting cold of a January wind at a game or feel the chills that a cold rain brings.
In contrast, you will feel hot, damn hot. The level of heat just depends on the time of year but you should dress accordingly.
The omnipresent replica shirts are the perfect clothing item, with the quick dry technology soaking up all that sweat and lightening the load.
Cotton heavy tee shirts may appear a sensible choice in a hot country but they cling to your body and form a map of the world with the resulting sweat patches. There is then a white, salty outline when the tee-shirt dries out later on. Stick with the team’s shirt at all costs.
Of course, if it’s not the sweat that is drenching you, it is the rain. For the fans, the tropical storms prompt a fight or flight response. Many of those who have failed to bring their brollies and ponchos scurry for cover regardless of the timing of the storm during the game. Some heroic fans simply rip off their tops and sing in the face of the pouring rain.
The rain can have a welcome, cooling effect if it is a quick shower but there are other times when it comes in frequent, heavy pulses. Just when you think it’s safe to emerge from shelter, back it comes, heavier than ever.
The threat of rain looms large over games from May to October and when dark clouds gather, many will just stay at home.
Over protective parents fear their children might catch a chill, while many are worried by the prospect of the inevitable traffic jams that precipitation brings.
If you can overcome the fear of the threat of rain, you may just be rewarded by a match at which the clouds change direction and leave you to enjoy the games in sweat-soaked rather than rain-soaked clothing.
All in all, Thai football is undoubtedly a feat for the senses. The eyes can enjoy the sight of its state of the art modern stadia or the crumbling terraces of a municipal ground. They can also take in the vibrant colours of fans decked out in team shirts.
The nose can relish the aroma of charred meat and tolerate the stench of stale beer and cheap cooking oil.
The tastebuds can savour succulent cuts of grilled pork, washed down with cold beer, cooling down a body that is seeping through its pores to prevent it from overheating.
The sensory journey through Thai football is one all that all fans should try and experience on multiple occasions.