Outsiders: Why We Follow Port

 

NB this article was originally written in February 2019 for an anthology of Thai football writing that was never published.

 

In Bangkok’s chaotic Khlong Toey ‘slum’ district, no two houses are alike. Sturdy two-storey brick houses sit next to old wooden buildings leaning so far to one side they look like one gust of wind would topple them to the ground, whilst neat one-room bungalows, kept spick & span by poor but houseproud widows, rub up against jerrybuilt shacks of plywood & corrugated iron, as squalid on the inside as they are outside. Since the early 1970s, when poor rural Thais began pouring into the area looking for jobs at the port and the market, the slum has grown haphazardly to become the jumble of architectural styles we see today, and if there’s one common denominator, it’s the orange and blue stickers on countless front doors – ZONE D HARDCORE; DRAGAN BOSKOVIC 23 GOD; and most commonly, PORT FC: NEVER STOP. For this is Port FC territory, and nowhere else in Thailand will you find a club so inextricably linked with its local community.

 

 

Port is a throwback in many ways, to the early days of English football and works teams like Singer FC (now Coventry City) or Thames Ironworks (West Ham), founded in 1967 by the Port Authority of Thailand who still own the club and its stadium; and it remains a place for the poor working class folk of the area to release their frustrations and have some fun at the end of another hard week. The bond was truly sealed in 2009 when, after a few nomadic years, the club moved to its permanent home, PAT Stadium, just a 10-minute walk from the slums, and nowhere is that symbiosis clearer than when driving along the highway, with that jumble of corrugated iron roofs on one side, and the orange & blue stands of the PAT on the other.

It’s the stadium’s location, along with its core demographic and its structure – no running track (unusually for Thai football), four stands just a few feet from the pitch – that have given it something of a reputation in Thai football. Whilst those who’ve frequented La Bombonera, the Geoffroy Guichard or Celtic Park might find it quiet, its atmosphere is by far the most raucous in Thailand, and in a country where shows of emotion, aggression or anger are avoided at all costs, the PAT is feared by those who don’t quite understand football.

This was brought home to me just a few weeks into my life as a Port fan, when we stopped at a beer garden for some food on the way home from a match. The waiter saw our Port shirts and said “Why do you go there? It’s so dangerous!” Having begun attending matches at Coventry in the mid-1980s, the idea that the PAT could be dangerous seemed laughable, but in Bangkok, the name ‘Khlong Toey’ is synonymous with crime, poverty and general unpleasantness, and that reputation has firmly attached itself to the club, despite the relative gentrification of the Madame Pang era.

The area’s reputation was best summed up by the principal at a charity kindergarten in the area, where most of the slum kids are given as good a start as possible thanks to devoted staff and generous donors. “We find it hard to get Thai teachers to come and work here” she told me. “They are scared to come, and also they think the name ‘Khlong Toey’ on their CV will scare off employers.” The school thus employs mostly alumni – ex-slum kids made good – or less prejudiced expat volunteers.

As an amateur photographer I visit the area several times a month, and whilst ‘slum’ is possibly a bit harsh – this definitely isn’t Mumbai – there’s no denying Khlong Toey provides a massive contrast to the shopping malls and high-rise condos of Sukhumvit, visible on the horizon. There is terrible poverty here, there are people living in conditions that genuinely shock visitors more used to Paragon or Em Quartier, there are drug problems, there are piles of garbage. But what touches me on every visit is the friendliness of the locals. People ask me why I’m there, and happily let me photograph them when I tell them why. Kids stop and pull faces for the camera. Soi dogs bound up for a hug. People proudly show me their tiny houses and share food and drink. On a recent visit on New Year’s Eve I was dragged into so many parties I was drunk by lunchtime. And it’s this character – rough-edged and rundown but friendly and generous at the same time – that makes the crowds at PAT something unique.

 

 

To those who do understand football, there is nowhere better to watch football in Thailand. Get used to Port and you will find the fans at other Thai stadiums somewhat standoffish. Why aren’t they saying hello to me? Why aren’t they sharing their drinks? Indeed, why are they not drinking at all? A Port game is a party, with the area behind Zone C starting to fill up hours before the game with orange-&-blue clad fans eating, drinking, singing and generally letting off steam before, during and after the game. Many don’t even bother to go inside the stadium; it’s enough to wear the shirt, to be there. And anyway, since the Pang era began you can’t drink inside the stadium, and where’s the fun in that?

It’s often said that it’s this atmosphere, in a stadium reminiscent of the grounds we know from home, and which is easy to get to (the PAT is the only stadium in Bangkok accessible via the BTS or MRT), that attracts so many foreign fans to Port, which probably boasts more farang supporters than any other club in the country. And there’s some truth in that – no other stadium in Bangkok ticks all, or in some cases any, of those boxes. But for me it goes much deeper than that.

Whilst Bangkok is a very liveable city for foreigners, it’s a very difficult place to feel at home. It’s too spread out, there’s no centre, it’s not always easy to get around, and the expat community is large and atomised. The Thais are polite and civil, which makes living here agreeable; yet they can be standoffish with foreigners and genuine friendships are rare. After a decade amongst the somewhat less courteous but much friendlier Vietnamese, Bangkok was a struggle. In short, it’s a difficult city to feel a part of, to be part of a community, to have something to hang your hat on and say, this is my Bangkok.

 

 

And for many of us, that is where Port FC comes in. To become a regular at the PAT is to be drawn into a community of like minded fans, a mix of hardcore football geeks, supporters of lower division English clubs, groundhoppers, shirt collectors, and those who just want, or need, a few beers on a Saturday night. Stand in Zone B and you’ll rub shoulders with people from the UK, Australia, Japan, Vietnam, the US, Sweden, Germany and beyond. Some of my closest friendships in Bangkok have been forged here, as has my unlikely role as fan website editor.

But what really makes us feel at home is the welcome we receive from the local fans. Yes, there are occasional mutterings in Facebook groups that there are too many of us, that we’re not real Port fans, that we’ll be gone in a few months, but they are rare. The Khlong Toey fans see us at home games every week, they see us follow Port all over the country – to Chiang Rai, to Ubon, to Songkhla – they see our joy, they see our pain, they see our anger. They see it means as much to us as it does to them, and they see us drink as much beer as they do. And, just possibly, they see it as significant that we chose their club – that we didn’t follow the trophies to Muangthong or Buriram, that we didn’t pick a safe, middle-class club like Bangkok Utd or Bangkok Glass, but that we chose to be here, at a club on the wrong side of the tracks. For they are seen as outsiders in their own city, as are we, and at Port, both of us can find a true home.

 

Tim Russell

Tim Russell

The founder and editor of The Sandpit, Tim has been in SE Asia since 2003 and in Bangkok since 2012, where he runs a travel tech business. Tim has followed Port FC since 2014, and is also a fan of his hometown club Coventry City, and French club AS St-Etienne. He has written for the likes of Football365, ITV.com, NME and The Quietus, and is a regular contributor to God Is In the TV. He's a keen photographer and his work can be seen on his website.

More Posts

Follow Me:
TwitterFacebookLinkedIn

0replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *