Homeless in Chiang Mai

A short guide to three of Chiang Mai’s football stadiums – written for It’s a Habit that Sticks

Homeless in Chiang Mai

In my dreams Somchai is walking through his rice field one evening and he hears a voice whispering, “If you build it, they will come.” He sees a vision of a real football stadium with 20,000 fans cheering for his beloved Chiang Mai. Somchai realizes that if he builds a football stadium, he will leave a legacy unmatched in Chiang Mai sports folklore.

Then I wake up and wonder where we will play next week!

One year ago both of Chiang Mai’s senior professional football teams were based out of the 700th Anniversary Stadium in the 1995 South East Asian Games park north of the city off the Canal Rd (Highway 121).

By the end of the 2019 season Chiang Mai FC (hereafter CMFC) were playing home matches in Chiang Rai and JL Chiang Mai (now Chiang Mai United – hereafter CMU) had found a new home in Lampang.

Move the clock forward to the 2020 season and both clubs have had to find new homes; for now.

After two years of musical stadiums it is no great surprise that when you ask a Chiang Mai football fan for their favorite stadium the response is usually “Anfield.” Maybe it was Thaksin Shinawatra’s 2004 flirtation with Liverpool but the Anfield club has a big fanbase here in the North.

All of this confusion is a shame as Chiang Mai has some of the best supporters in the country; they love their football; their problem is where do they go to watch?

In 2020, and for the first time, the two Chiang Mai sides are playing in the same division (Thai League 2) and both are potential promotion candidates when the season does eventually restart.

There is the small matter of two local derbies to look forward to. These could be strange affairs as a good number of fans who support both teams. Call me old-fashioned but that is hard to do – it would have been like supporting Birmingham City and Aston Villa when I was a kid….it is not done.

The saga of 2019 is reasonably well known. Through 2018 and until mid-season in 2019 the 700th was home to both clubs playing on alternate weeks. This was great for the local vendors who gather outside the stadium on match days.

Then came the decision to close the stadium for renovations so that Chiang Mai could be one of the hosts for the 2019 AFC Under 23 tournament (it seems like a very long time since South Korea beat Saudi Arabia in the final.) The pitch was to be re-laid and other improvements made. Funds were apparently allocated. But no work was done. In the meantime, both clubs had to relocate their home games.

To confuse everyone further both teams returned to the 700th at the end of October 2019 for their final games of the season after some rather hasty repairs to the playing surface. CMU played out a mid-table none-event against Udon Thani. While CMFC held Buriram to a 1-1 draw to win the League One title for their owners – Chiang Rai United FC; ironically the CMFC equalizer coming in the closing minutes from Chiang Rai United loan player, Caique. It was a bizarre night as the players celebrated in front of a near full house.

Come the start of the 2020 season – the AFC Under 23 tournament is done and dusted. Which for some reason meant that this was now the perfect time to finally start work on the 700th and make absolutely certain that the stadium would not be available for the start of the 2020 season. The insides of the main western stand have been gutted to create new dressing, officials, media and medical rooms. That work is supposed (though honestly who knows) to be finished by July (this year!).

Which left both Chiang Mai clubs homeless before the start of their 2020 campaigns in the second division.

Chiang Mai FC meanwhile had new owners – with control of the club being passed from Chiang Rai FC to BG Pathum United FC. The new owners appear to see the potential of the club and have talked of making a long-term investment.

The story is that both clubs approached the owners of the old Municipal Stadium in the city. CMFC made a much more favorable impression and were granted use of the facility.

League rules, in theory, do not allow ground sharing – although no one in Khon Kaen appears to know that. CMU went in search of another stadium that could meet league requirements for the pitch, floodlighting, media, bus access, changing rooms for players and officials and a secure away support area. Eventually CMU settled on the Rajamangala Lanna University of Technology Stadium south of Doi Saket. More on this later; suffice it to say for now that it is in a rural location!

So as we go on a tour of Chiang Mai’s three football stadiums that could be used by CMFC and CMU let’s start at the 700th as I suspect that is where we will all finish up – if not this season then for 2021.

The 700th Anniversary Stadium. Currently closed for renovations.

The official version: The 700th Anniversary Stadium is a multi-purpose stadium in Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai Province, Thailand, built to host the 1995 Southeast Asian Games and to commemorate the 700th Anniversary of Chiang Mai’s establishment at the same time. It was also used for Group G of the football at the 1998 Asian Games – one of the three games saw Uzbekistan beat Mongolia 15-0.

Overlooked by Doi Suthep, the location north of the city is fabulous – with the main stadium sitting at the centre of a larger complex that houses a velodrome, aquatics centre, shooting range, three gymnasia, tennis courts and training facilities. There are two access roads off Canal Road (Highway 121) that will take you into the complex where there is plenty of free parking.

The tragedy is that the last time most of the complex appear to have had any attention was probably back in 1995. The facilities are mostly little used and, in some cases, truly dilapidated.

Architecturally, the 700th anniversary stadium is an earlier version of the newer 80th Birthday Stadium in Nakhon Ratchasima. A continuous single tier, almost a perfect circle, surrounds the pitch, running track and jumping pits. The ring rises on the western side which is covered by a cantilevered roof. That main stand provides covered seating for about 4,500 spectators, dignitaries and the media. These are the only seats in the stadium. The remaining areas of the concrete bowl were built for functionality rather than comfort.

At the north end of the stadium is a large scoreboard. At the opposite end is the SEA Games Olympic flame, long extinguished.

Neither Chiang Mai club attracted big crowds in 2018 but the potential was clear when CMFC home games against SCG Muangthong and against Buriram in 2019 near filled the 20,000-capacity stadium.

The only ticket office is at the base of the main stand; just on the south side of the VIP and players entrance. When the stadium is busy the queues can be long.

A small club shop is usually set up on desks next to the ticket office – this is where you buy your club shirt – and rather oddly your scarf. Very useful in 30C+ temperatures. All around the stadium people are wearing the team shirt. Best of all CMFC is back in blue after a flirtation with Leo red.

Food and drinks are available outside the stadium before you enter. A wrist stamp gives you in and out privileges – useful for half time refills. Beer and soft drinks are sold in plastic cups I case someone can throw a plastic bottle fifty yards onto the pitch.
The food on offer is Thai street food – of every sort. For me, deep friend quails’ eggs wontons, washed down by a Leo. Football catering at its best.

The Western stand is mainly for families, couples and those who need a seat. The VIP/players area is unnecessarily large and usually empty. Inside the stand are flights of stairs to the upper levels; there is no catering inside the stadium. The wash rooms are functional.

Two downsides to the main stand – the lights that line the roof attract an incredible number of bugs. The stand is also separated from the pitch not just by the running track but also by the long and triple jump pits. So, you are sitting some distance from the action.

On the corner to the north of the main stand is the first of two, sometimes, three groups of Chiang Mai’s noisiest and most fun fans. As at most Thai grounds the drums and the chanting will keep going for all 90 minutes and injury time. With a large crowd the atmosphere is terrific.

Continuing clockwise we get to the East stand. Popular with flag waving Chiang Mai ultras, and with many non-Thai supporters who love the atmosphere. This part of the stadium is closer to the pitch and you can stand in a more central position. Don’t even think about sitting in this stand. I don’t like looking into the low lights on the roof of the main stand – but it is a much livelier atmosphere than in the main stand. It is also where both teams will come to after the game for the tribal rituals, and photographs, after the final whistle.

Around past the “Olympic flame” we get to the area set aside for away supporters. There is plenty of space for away fans and the views are the same as from other corners (if a circular stadium can have corners) of the ground.

I like the 700th. I like being in a big stadium; I like the potential that exists for a big noisy crowd. I like to get there early and take in the atmosphere; catch up with a few people that I only ever bump into on home match days but it is always good to see them and hear their news.

Chiang Mai Municipal Stadium. Current home of Chiang Mai FC.

This has been the occasional home of Chiang Mai FC at different times during the last 20 years.

The ground is about 800 metres north of the old moat in one of the older parts of the city; Chang Phuak. Close to the northern bus station it is part of a public sports complex that includes the city’s institute of physical education, with, as is typical, a running track around the football pitch. Jogging on the lane around the outside of the stadium is popular in the mornings and evenings. There is exercise equipment, basketball courts and even petanque. There is nothing modern here and maybe that is its charm.

CMFC have spent decent amounts of money to make this stadium home for the 2020 season; the pitch and floodlights have been upgraded; new seats installed in the main stand, the east stand opened up for spectators and an embarrassment of a temporary stand built for away supporters under the trees on the north side. Fences around the stadium have been covered with CMFC and advertisers branding – in part to stop anyone from watching the games without paying for admission.
The main stand is the only covered area with plastic seats installed in the central areas of the stand; some of the legroom is uncomfortable for anyone over 4 feet tall. The cheerleading and drumming squads gather in the concrete (no seats) north area of the main stand; and also, over on the concrete steps of the east stand.

A temporary stand has been built for away supporters. It is embarrassing. A few rows of metal seats – behind the running track and the steeplechase jump and with a view partly obscured by over-hanging trees. I have seen some poor away supporter stands but this could be the worst. Sorry.

Parking is horrible. Your best bet is some of the small streets to the north and west of the stadium. The access road on the north west side of the stadium is where many people gather before the match with plenty of beer for sale from the local stores. Around the main stand you can buy food and soft drinks. Tickets are for sale opposite the entrance to the main stand.

With an official capacity of just 5,000 (and that would be a squeeze) the old stadium is a far cry from the 700th. However, the central location makes the stadium much more accessible for casual and occasional spectators who also have easy access to bars and restaurants before and after the game.

Even if the 700th is completed before the 2020 season restarts CMFC may decide that enough investment has been made into the Municipal Stadium to stay there for this season.

Rajamangala Lanna University of Technology Stadium. Current home of Chiang Mai United.

The 2020 home of Chiang Mai United is a rural retreat some 45 minutes north west of the city centre.

Head out on the awful 118 towards Chiang Rai. Be careful of the insane roadworks at the junction with the 121 circular road. Head past the hillside temple on your right at Doi Saket and then take the next right onto route 3044 towards San Khamphaeng.

The 3044 is a gem of a country road – winding its way south towards the 1006 and the 1317. The road runs its full length beside a person-made irrigation ditch. Be careful at night.

About 5kms down the road on the left-hand side four floodlight pylons emerge from the treetops. Turn in the entrance to the college, and left to the stadium.

First thing to do – congratulate yourself on finding the stadium.

The club does run coaches from the city out to, and back from, the home games. Details are posted on the club’s facebook page and on the English language fanzine. In fairness the club has done all that they reasonably can to make the best of their new, rather distant, home.

There is a parking area or you can park on the entry road to the college. Stadium is a generous description. There is an athletics track with a small stand on the west side and a small hill along the east side of the stadium. It is actually rather nice in a somnolent fashion.

The ground holds around 2,000 fans. St Blazey AFC in the UK’s South West Peninsula League Premier Division West has a bigger capacity at Blaise Park of up to 3,500.
Locally there are a few coffee shops, rice fields, farms and forests. Away teams must wonder where they are. It is a very pretty spot. We made friends with one guy who was taking his buffalo for a walk.

That’s the thing about CMU’s new home – it feels like the sort of place you might head to for an afternoon tea or a night away from the kids!

A few kms south of the stadium is the Village Green café and retreat – a really nice cafe and coffee shop with some limited accommodation.

It is a very unlikely place for professional football.

CMU has only played just two games there this season. The main stand is where you buy your matchday ticket – there are a few food and drink stalls; but it is early days and the vendors are still a little – how to politely say this – amateur.

Two uncovered temporary stands have been built on the east side of the ground. One on the centre line for home supporters, the CMU ultras (there are not many) and the drummers. Just on the south side of this, in line with the edge of the penalty area, is an even smaller stand for away supporters. It is very temporary. There is also the hill behind the stands where the view is free but a little distant. Behind the hill forests rise upwards. A village cricket team would look more at home in these surroundings!

The floodlights are adequate. The pitch less so. Bumpy and short of grass in places. It is probably in better condition after two months of no football and a little rain.

CMU has ambitions to be the Chiang Mai team. It has recruited players and management who were popular at CMFC. It is locally owned. Carlos Eduardo Parreira is the team manager. Players include ex CMFC favorites such as Evson, Pairot, Nont and Surawich.

When the season restarts, and assuming that at long last the 700th anniversary stadium renovations are complete, then it would be no surprise if CMU return to the 700th.

So, when football does restart I cannot with any confidence be certain where Chiang Mai’s two senior sides will be playing! But we will all be there.

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