Thai Premier League All Stars vs. Chelsea : 24 July 2011.
Day One : The Madness.
From Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok …my flight landed at around 1.15pm on Friday 22nd. July. No time to dwell too much on the muted team performance the previous night in the cauldron of the Bukit Jalil stadium. Another city to explore and, on Sunday, another Chelsea match. But first, some fun.
I quickly made my way through customs at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport – sleek, slick and functional – and I soon met up with my mate Adie, who had just arrived on a domestic flight from his home city of Chiang Mai. Adie was in the same year as me at Frome College from 1978 to 1983 and was one of the stars of the school team. Adie played with distinction as a covering centre-back in a back four and had lovely positional awareness, close control and tackling ability. I played on the right wing in the 1978-1979 season, but soon fell out of the first team the following year. Adie went on to play many games for the school first eleven, but my football career fell away as my support for Chelsea grew and grew. Adie went out to Thailand in 1996 as a VSO worker, met his wife Waraya (who was his Thai language teacher) in Bangkok and moved north to Chiang Mai a few years ago. Adie visited Frome last year just as our championship season was concluding and attempted to sway me into visiting his new home in the near future. Well, as we all know, our tour of Asia was announced a while back and so I quickly decided to go ahead and book flights to encompass football and friends. Rather than follow the team on to Hong Kong, I wanted to visit Adie and Waraya in Chiang Mai instead.
There was slight drizzle outside as we quickly hopped into a – wow – pink taxi cab. In the 45 minute drive to our hotel in downtown Bangkok, we soon updated each other with news from both our lives. Over to our right, I spotted the curves of the Rajamangala Stadium where the game against the Thai League All-Stars would be played on Sunday. I quickly realised that Bangkok was on a different scale to that of Kuala Lumpur. KL had its share of skyscrapers, for sure, but they were in that condensed area of the Golden Triangle. Bangkok’s skyscrapers were all around. Adie pointed out the tallest one as we sped west. We curled round, off the elevated freeway, then down into the craziness of the city itself.
Our hotel – the Ibis Riverside – was nestled in a curve of the Chao Phraya River as it flowed south through the western part of central Bangkok. We checked in and I pulled the curtains in our room back.
The view that greeted me allowed me another one of those “moments.”
Below me was the fast-flowing river, visible over tropical tree tops, and there were several small boats navigating their courses. On the eastern bank, there were several high-rises to complete the scene. It was a real jaw-dropper. It was another sight which will be saved forever in my memory bank of images. I could have stayed there, nose pressed against the window, for hours, or at least until Nando scored again. Adie was the person to thank – or rather his wife Waraya, who had booked the room on the back of her previous stay at the hotel as a VSO employee.
At 4pm, we headed out, the whole night in Bangkok ahead of us.
Here we go.
We managed to locate a small ferry boat to take us across the river. While we were lining up at the ferry pier – which was typically surrounded by a fast food and drink stall – Adie pointed down to the ground, just to my right.
It was a pig, sleeping in the afternoon sun.
“Bloody hell, mate. A pig!”
We made our way across the river on a little flat boat and the fare was just 7 baht, or just 15p. I snapped away like a fool, capturing every riverboat we passed. I didn’t want to miss anything. We had heard that Chelsea were to stay at the Shangri La Hotel – just across the river from us – and so our first port of call was in this hotel. Two beers, some nuts, plus more chat about our personal lives. Adie had visited Frome back in April, but there is always gossip to share. No sightings of any CFC personnel, so we decided to move on. We were headed into town on the monorail. However, just as we were queuing up for our tickets at the Saphan Taksin stop, Adie quickly advised me to stop talking and to stand still. The Thai national anthem is played over tannoys at every public space at 8am and 6pm and so we stood still for thirty seconds, along with everyone else on that platform.
Another “moment” for sure.
Three stops away, we alighted at Sala Daeng and I was ready to breath in whatever Bangkok had to throw at me. For thirty minutes or so, we wandered the close streets of Patpong 1, 2 and 3, right in the epicentre of the fabled Bangkok show bar area. Street stalls, open air cafes, fake DVDs, fake designer gear, locals eating noodles and rice, fake football shirts, noise, colour and a little sleaze, with a few chaps hustling us to enter the various show bars which opened up onto the streets. I peered inside and wondered “shall I, shan’t I?” I bought a “Clockwork Orange” T-shirt for just 200 baht from a busy stall under the monorail. I spoke to Adie about one of Juve’s firms being called “Arancia Meccanica” and the real world, the football world and my world overlapped once again.
And still the street hustlers wanted us to pay a visit to the local delights…
“One Night In Bangkok” indeed.
Adie fancied some food and so from about 7pm to 9pm, we sheltered in the relative calm of an Irish pub – “O’Reilly’s” – and had three pints of Singha…they are Chelsea’s beer sponsors after all. We ordered some food – chicken in satay sauce and some spring rolls – and had a great time. We spoke about our school days and our time in the same school and cricket teams. A few other topics were aired, but we kept coming back to football, the game that ties so many of my mates together. We spoke about Asia’s particular love of English footy, way ahead of any other league, way ahead of Serie A, La Liga and the Bundesliga. Adie kept asking me why English football was so loved and I did my best to respond. I guess I used the words “history, passion, humour, noise and tribalism.” Dotted around the bar were several western male tourists “of a certain age” sitting with local Thai boys. The pub was busy and I half-expected a familiar Chelsea face to appear…maybe Saturday night. Sitting in a bar in a foreign land, I was reminded of one of my favourite jokes, which I shared with Ade : –
“An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman were shipwrecked and found themselves on a deserted island. Within a few weeks, the Irishman had found a way to ferment the local fruit to make alcohol and had opened a pub. The Scotsman had got into a fight with the Irishman and had been banned from the pub. And the Englishman was waiting to be introduced.”
Next up was the appearance of The Better Band, a local Beatles tribute band, and they played many Beatles’ songs. In their wigs and suits circa 1964, they did a good job to be fair. Paul McCartney even sang with a slight Scouse accent, which I guess is no mean feat. I spoke to Ade about the reports that I have been writing for CIA and we tossed a few ideas about what the Bangkok edition should be called. Adie suggested “Tales From The Big Mango” in lieu of the city’s modern nickname. It would certainly be better than “Tales From The City Of Angels, The Great City, The Residence Of The Emerald Buddha, The Impregnable City (Of Ayutthaya) Of God Indra, The Grand Capital Of The World Endowed With Nine Precious Gems, The Happy City, Abounding In An Enormous Royal Palace That Resembles The Heavenly Abode Where Reigns The Reincarnated God, A City Given By Indra And Built By Vishnukarn”. Bangkok has the longest place name in the world, allegedly. Feeling on top form, we then continued our walkabout and we ended up outside, and then inside, “The Finlandia” show bar. Twenty minutes later – and after just one beer, costing a couple of quid – we were back in the crowded streets and our lives were richer with another Bangkok moment.
For the record – ‘cus I know you all want to know – there were no table tennis balls but just 30 pretty bored Thai girls a-dancing on stage.
It had to be done, though. Tick that box, so to speak.
Next up, some more food and Adie sat us down at a cheap and cheerful café, with me just kicking back, enjoying some banter and aiming plenty of puns at poor Adie. We had a few local delicacies, including a crab which had been fragranced with a selection of Thai spices. I haven’t eaten too many crabs in my life and I was getting more and more frustrated as I toiled away, attempting to get as much flesh out of the little sucker as possible. At least the Singha beer was going down well. As I finished the meal, I spotted a local Thai gentleman in a Liverpool shirt and so I quickly showed him video film on my phone from the 3-1 game at Anfield in 2008. He growled and so I blew him a kiss and his little group of friends roared with laughter.
We crossed the roared and flagged down a tuk tuk, that funky three-wheeled vehicle which is such an iconic part of Asian life, and gave the driver instructions on how to reach our next attraction. I had pinpointed the open air bar on the 63rd. floor of the State Tower as a “must-see” attraction on this first night. Well, the tuk tuk drive was magnificent, a real adrenalin rush, with the exhaust roaring behind us and the traffic whizzing past. Waves to fellow tuk-tukkers, smiles to cab drivers.
“One Night In Bangkok.”
As we stepped out onto the roof terrace, my mind went ga-ga. What a sight – a clear dark night, starlit, with the illuminations of a million city lights stretched out to the horizon. Car lights, street lights, hotel rooms, reds, yellows, whites. We stepped into the crowded circular Sky Bar, itself illuminated, and tentatively ordered a couple of expensive beers. The barman was an Italian and so I decided to introduce myself –
“Sono tifo di Chelsea.”
He then told me that Didier Drogba and a few other Chelsea players had been up at the bar two hours earlier. If anything, that validated us being there, two mere mortals from Frome. We took it all in. Deep breathes. Photos of the vibrant Bangkok night down below. We sipped at the beers, wanting them to last forever. It really was a magnificent end to my first night in the Thai Capital. Pigs, river boats, Thai Beatles, Pat Pong’s vices, beer and Thai food, the city below from the Sky Bar above.
Chelsea in town.
There was still time for one more surprise.
“Chris Axon – what the fcuk are you doing here?”
I quickly turned around and a work colleague bounded across the bar to greet me with an outstretched hand.
“Batty – what the fcuk!”
Batty has worked with me at Herman Miller for eight years and, unbeknown to me, had just arrived in town the night before with his girlfriend Jo. He had spent a few minutes on the other side of the circular bar working out “is that Chris Axon???” The penny suddenly dropped…”must be him – Chelsea are in town.” Well, what a small world…what a cliché, but how true. We spent the next thirty minutes rubbing our eyes, sharing a few stories and wallowing in the absurdities of this crazy world. He had just visited Hong Kong and was only in Bangkok for three days. That our paths should cross in a bar 63 stories up in the Bangkok sky is surely a magnificent impossibility.
But, no – nothing is impossible in Chelsea World.
We called another tuk tuk – though it’s all a little blurred – and we raced back to the Ibis, our backsides only a foot or so from the ground, across the bridge over the Chao Phraya River and we collapsed into our beds at about 2am.
Day Two : The Tourist.
Adie was clearly not used to such an alcohol intake and was rather delicate first thing. I felt fine and, after a lovely buffet breakfast, we were out and about at just after 10am. The day was spent fizzing up and down the Chao Phraya River, visiting a few of Bangkok’s must-see sights. Of course, it had to happen; we bumped into Batty, not once, but twice on the Saturday…once on the ferry boat as we headed up to the Grand Palace and once inside the temple which housed the famous Emerald Budha.
“See you in about two hours, then.”
The Grand Palace was magnificent. It was another jaw-dropper. I was surrounded by gold-leaved temples and chedis, or pagodas, and while I snapped away, Adie secretly took a few photos of me. Adie loves his photography, like me, and taught me a few tricks about the art while I was with him. Being surrounded by all of that gold, especially on such a hot day, was almost hypnotic. For a few moments, I experienced what it must be like to be Roman Abramovic. We had to take off our shoes and caps to enter the revered temple of the Jade Buddha and for a few reflective moments, I sat in silence.
We then aimed for the temple which housed the Reclining Buddha or Wat Pho. This was another mesmeric sight. This Buddha is around 50m in length and is again gilded in gold. The toes are festooned in mother or pearl. It’s quite magnificent. With all of this gold around, I dubbed my visit to Bangkok a “gilt trip” and Adie groaned once more.
Death by a thousand puns.
Outside, more street markets; DVDs, Budha mementoes, second-hand toys, second-hand books, sex aids, plastic flowers, fresh fruit, pineapples and bananas, wooden phalluses, dried fish, coconuts, fake T-shirts, fake handbags, tat of every description, West Ham season tickets.
We caught the ferry boat back to the pier by the Shangri La Hotel and I decided to see if any players were hanging around. I waited in the reception area for a good hour or so. I spoke with an ex-pat, who had travelled down to Bangkok from Northern Thailand. He told me that he had paid the equivalent of £35 to attend the so called “High Tea With Chelsea FC” at the hotel on the Friday. He was far from impressed as he was one of around 250 fans and only the manager and four players attended, away on the top table. It was a bit of a farce, according to him. Bruce Buck and his wife arrived and I slowly walked over and greeted him with a memory from last season –
“The last time I saw you was at Frankley Services on the M5 after Stoke away.”
He looked a bit guarded and his response surprised me –
“Did you abuse me?”
I laughed it off and said “no, not at all.” We chatted a little and I asked his wife to take a photo…I had my trusty Yankees cap pinned to my belt and he noted it and patted his chest, saying “ah, close to my heart.”
Soon after, a minibus dropped Josh, Alex and Graeme Le Saux off and I had the smallest of chats with Berge as he raced through the foyer. I knew that the Chelsea squad were off to the stadium at around 5pm for some public training. I spotted Cathy and a few others arrive, back from a hot day visiting the sights. They had plans to visit the training session, but I was giving it a swerve. I lounged around and spotted a few CFC personnel – names unknown – and wondered what their roles were in the grand scheme of things. What were their names? What were their roles? Their motivations? Their qualifications? Their impressions of Andre Villas-Boas? Were they enjoying the trip? Were they missing their loved ones? It made me think. I asked one of them about the team’s departure time for the training session and the fact that he was an American surprised me. Not sure why, though.
I got the nod that the team would be boarding the coach from a tucked-away service bay to the side. For about 45 minutes, with rain clouds threatening, I hung around in the hope of getting some good photographs of the players as they boarded the coach. In the end, the photos were disappointing and I questioned my sanity on more than one occasion. I felt, ridiculously, like a school kid at a pop concert and was tempted to head back to the Ibis. I stuck it out though – and was rewarded when I spun around to get a good shot of JT giving me the thumbs up from his seat. I also made him chuckle when I said “Beth from America says hi!”
On the ferry back across the Chao Phraya, the rain cascaded down and I hoped that Cathy et al had decided to forego the training session.
Saturday night was quieter than Friday – I swam in the hotel pool, while the rain came down and there was occasional sheet lightning which lit up the sky. The boats on the river were still floating past and it was another lovely moment. The rain lashing down on my skin, the swimming pool warm, the smile on my face constant. The rain increased in intensity and it was gorgeous.
“I’m going to swim underwater, Adie – I’m getting wet here.”
Day Three – The Game.
Of all my time supporting Chelsea Football Club, attending games and watching my heroes, the pre-match of Sunday 24th. July 2011 was unlike no other. We were up nice and early and began the morning with a pre-breakfast swim at around 7am. After a hearty breakfast – nice to know that pork sausages, fried eggs, fried potatoes and baked beans have found their way to Thailand – we set off for a walk around the Chinatown area of downtown BK. Across the river once more, then up a few miles on the ferry boat. From about 10.30pm to around 2pm, we slowly walked through street after street, bazaar after bazaar, delicately avoiding oncoming traffic and pedestrians alike.
I knew that I was in for a treat when Adie lead me down a slight passageway which got narrower and narrower until we turned a corner and ended up almost entering somebody’s house. There was a blurring of space – “Adie, is this a shop, a private kitchen, or a shared area between several families?” – and it felt like I had entered another world.
In fact, of course, this is just what I had done.
Every spare inch of alleyway was devoted to commercial pursuits. Here comes another list of products, but this could go on forever; food of every description, including raw and cooked fish, exotic fruits of every shape, colour and size, textiles, mobile phones, walking sticks, electric drills, fishing rods, bags, fake DVDs, radios, car engine parts, batteries, toys, shoes, fake designer gear, nuts, vegetables, magazines, old toy cars, bags of fried fish stomachs, hats, caps, jewelry, furniture, mirrors, incense sticks, electronic goods, dried flowers, football shirts, car stickers, anything, everything.
And every few yards, locals were sat on the floor, crouching over little stoves cooking their meals. Bowls and bowls of rice, meat, noodles, fish, vegetables, fruit and a thousand variations. There was a blurring again of what I saw before me; is this a stall selling food, or just simply a worker cooking up their own food?
Adie had taught me a new way to photograph, slowing to a standstill, spotting a subject and shooting from the hip. I took several photos like this and the results were OK. I remember the intense look of concentration of one very small Chinese gentleman who was delicately folding pieces of gold to make intricate origami displays. The look of a bored young girl texting a friend while sat behind textiles and ribbons. A woman devouring some food. A chap sat at a café, smiling with a passer-by.
With every step, a hundred different sights. With every breath, a different aroma.
I said to Adie – “and in four hours time, we’ll watch some millionaires play football.”
We stopped off at a couple of street-side cafes and guzzled some drinks in the heat of the day; an iced cappuccino, a lime cordial, a lychee yogurt smoothie.
And the streets got narrower and narrower. At times it was impossible to move as the people slowed to gaze at the goods on sale. I don’t suffer from claustrophobia, but at times I just wanted to break free and find some clear space.
Eventually we broke free of Chinatown and headed north, over a canal and towards the Golden Mountain, which was another golden temple on the highest piece of land in central Bangkok. We quickly ascended the steps, took a few photographs and spotted a few skyscraper landmarks. Time was moving on and we needed to head over to the game. We caught a cab – thank heavens for air-conditioning – and soon witnessed another taxi ploughing into a poor woman and her cart of fresh fruit, sending them sprawling onto the road.
On the thirty minute cab ride out west, we sped past a massive advertisement for Singha beer, which used the tagline “Spirit Of Champions” with four Chelsea players’ faces and the CFC badge. It was a remarkable sight, thousands of miles from West London. As we approached the stadium, the traffic slowed, Chelsea shirts were beginning to be spotted and the expectation levels began to rise with each minute.
We were dropped off outside the main – and as far as we could ascertain, the only – entrance to the stadium. The heat was now getting more intense, but my Yankee cap was doing a fine job. After a little confusion about choosing the correct line at the busy ticket booth, I quickly picked up our three tickets. I spotted Aggie from the Cyprus Blues and had a little chat. Thankfully, Cathy, Jim and Jayne soon arrived and I could relax. We decided to head inside and get out of the sun. Cathy and I posed with my “Vinci Per Noi” flag once again. The atmosphere outside was of excitement, but it was quieter than Kuala Lumpur. There were a few tents nearby containing various products, including a Chelsea FC stall, a Coke stall and a local radio tent, with a loud DJ creating a din. The game was dubbed the Coke Super Cup and there was a twenty foot tall Coke “running man” statue outside the stadium. Quite a few locals appeared to be selling tickets and I wondered if the gate might fall way short of a full house. Adie had seen Leeds, Arsenal, Manchester United, Barca, Real and Brazil over the years at the stadium…I hoped and prayed that we would fill it.
Thankfully, we had great seats under the cover of the sweeping roof of the west stand. Middle tier, right on the halfway line. These tickets were 2,000 baht or around #45. There was a cooling breeze and we were fine. Opposite, on the east terrace, thousands of Chelsea fans were sweltering in the late afternoon sun and I noted hundreds of multi-coloured umbrellas sheltering the poor souls. It was time to play spot the Chelsea flag. The lads from Weymouth were sat a few rows in front of us and I am sure their flag was close by. Opposite, we spotted the two Bletchley Blues flags, a Walton On Thames flag, a Pattaya Blues flag, an Indonesia Blues flag, a Singapore Blues flag, a Melbourne flag and a Rising Sun flag. It was a good show. VPN was missing – I couldn’t be bothered with the hassle.
The Chelsea players came onto the pitch and went through their choreographed pre-match routines.
The Snappy Dresser –
Chris – pink.
Again, thousands of CFC flags had been draped over some seats and these were waved with gusto. The stadium took a while to fill up. Still the sun beat down.
There were fireworks during the pre-game show and then a Thai couple appeared high above the north terrace on a platform. They were suspended from two cables and slowly made their way to the running track, as if floating on air. Let’s see something similar at Chelsea next season, with maybe Cathy and Dog floating down from the West Stand roof with five minutes to go before kick-off.
The teams appeared down below us and the crowd roared. Difficult to gauge the attendance, but – like KL – the crowd kept arriving deep into the game.
Great to see Petr back between the sticks for the first time this season.
The game began but it was a poor opening thirty minutes or so, with the Thai team showing more spirit and know-how than the Malaysian team a few days earlier. Soon into the game, all was quiet in our section and I shouted out –
“Come On Chelsea!”
…and, much to my amusement, this was met with a few “oohs” and “aahs” and even a few claps from the locals around me. Cathy and I spoke about doing some ZZs later.
Cech did well to get down and block a Thai shot on 31 minutes. That man Torres, still looking leggy and distant, skewed wide on 37 minutes and we all groaned. At times, the atmosphere was very quiet. Then, the ball broke to Frank Lampard and he adroitly despatched the ball low into the goal from over 25 yards out. It was a typical Fat Frank Goal and the crowd roared their approval.
Cathy disappeared at half-time and didn’t re-appear until later in the second-half. I suspect that she was off on the hunt for some Strongbow. Adie asked me how I thought the top six would finish up in 2011-2012 and he was quite shocked when I predicted that the title would go to Manchester United. My top six were: Manchester United, then Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham.
I caught both of the next two goals on film. Jose Bosingwa’s cross-cum-shot evaded the despairing, and comical, efforts of the Thai ‘keeper and bounced in off the far post. Soon after, a burst through the middle of the park by Ivanovic and a lovely ball through by Young Josh. He kept his cool and dispatched the ball with aplomb and the entire World and his Dog made cynical comments along the lines of “good job it wasn’t Torres.”
One of the highlights of the game for me was a crunching tackle by John Terry on a Thai player and I suspect that the said player is still having recurring nightmares about it. Josh looked busy and impressed. The star of the show was Hilario, on for Petr at the break, who made a succession of fine saves around the hour mark. Top marks. Ivanovic charged around all over the place and didn’t seem to be affected by the heat, though I am sure it was very humid and draining. Rather them than me.
The place was still quiet, though.
My “Come On Chelsea, Come On Chelsea, Come On Chelsea” chant didn’t stir the locals and so I left it at that. A couple in front of Adie and I were annoying the hell out of me. They virtually ignored the game and instead kept taking photographs – and sickly ones at that – of each other. It was just as well that Cathy wasn’t around to witness such a pathetic sight. Just after Cathy returned to her seat, Florent Malouda lashed high into the net and it was 4-0 to Chelsea.
JT looked rather embarrassed to collect another cup, but all thoughts were quickly forgotten as a glittering array of fireworks lit up the Bangkok night. It was a spectacular end to the night’s entertainment and provided a fitting end to my two Chelsea games in Asia. This was a much better performance than the game in KL and the team looked more at ease. I hoped that the man with the clipboard was starting to make an impact.
Adie and I let the crowds subside and were some of the last to leave the stadium.
I collected twenty plastic cups from the terraces which were all logo’d up with “Coca Cola Super Cup Thailand 2011” and had the images of Didier, Frank, JT and Nando on them. They will go to a few close friends.
Outside, the crowds were still to disperse. There was a noisy atmosphere out in the streets, with buses and cabs racing past us as we walked a few miles west to get away from the congested area. Adie also pointed out motorbike taxis, but that would have to be a Bangkok experience for next time. Lots of smiles with fellow Chelsea fans as Adie and I marched on, walking at pace away from the stadium. It felt, actually, just like a walk away from a game in Europe. Maybe Rome or Barcelona. Lots of shouts, lots of noise, lots of colour. I had to keep reminding myself that – no – this was Bangkok.
I said to Adie “at least there’s no chance of getting whacked out here.”
I also commented that although Bangkok was a wilder city than Kuala Lumpur, the atmosphere was not half as good.
At around 9am, sirens wailed behind us and the Chelsea team coach – also logo’d up in the colours of Coca Cola – raced by. I punched the air as the coach drive by and realised what a lucky soul I had been. The next time I would see the boys play would be in Stoke, but that seemed a lifetime away.
We dipped into a 7-Eleven for a bottle of ice-cold green tea and then luckily nabbed a cab back to our hotel. Time was running out for a Thai buffet, so instead, I devoured a burger and fries, along with two bottles of Singha. Not until now do I realise that these were the only beers that I had to drink the entire day. And what a day. That wonderful day in Chinatown and Chelseatown.
That wonderful day in Bangkok.
After Bangkok, I had a relaxing time in Chiang Mai and one moment brought a smile to my face. On the last day, I was busy visiting a last few sights and was just about to leave a temple when a local lady in her ‘sixties approached me. I think she was aiming to get me sign up for a local tour. She asked me where I was from and as soon as I said “England” she was keen to ask me another question.
“Ah – which football team do you support?”
It made me laugh…one world, one game, one team anyone?