An expat life can be a lonely affair. When setting roots in a new city, there comes a point when you may ponder that inevitable question: How do I make friends? It's not an answer you can find in a Lonely Planet guidebook. Nor can you find it at the bottom of a beer bottle. Most expats come to Chiang Mai expecting something new, but some end up stuck in a rut of to-ing and fro-ing from work to home while coping with loneliness, boredom and homesickness.
Meet some expats in Chiang Mai who have found a way to defy the friendless life -and even earn a six-pack while doing it. They've all joined a sports team.
Chiang Mai is increasingly becoming a thriving home base for sports enthusiasts. Cricket, Ultimate Frisbee, softball, rugby, ball hockey, football; whatever it is, Chiang Mai's got the perfect social outlet to save expats from a life of isolation (and in many cases, you don't even have to be very good at sports)!
The game is in its eleventh minute and a player is already down on the ground, gripping his crotch in agony. "Argh," he screams. "It hit me right in the tip." A ball to the balls; the last thing a player wants.
Welcome to the first ball hockey tournament in Chiang Mai. It's the 2nd of February and players are on an unshaded but otherwise decent public court at Futsal Heaven. The game is on momentary pause on account of the injury, which doesn't bode well for the Chiang Mai Highlanders, who are trailing by three points to the Thai Stix, a more experienced team from Bangkok. This is the first time the Highlanders are playing competitively against another team. Up to that point, they had just been playing amongst each other. And up to six months ago, the team itself was nonexistent.
It was by a combination of chance and passion that a ball hockey team was conceived here in Chiang Mai. Finnish expat Ozzi Jarvinen talked to a friend about starting up the game he used to play back home. That friend then talked to another friend who talked to another. And pretty soon, 19 expats flocked to the sport as if someone yelled out "Free Donuts!" and a team was born. A number of the players are from Finland and Canada (unsurprisingly) with a spattering from Australia, America and Sweden. Not bad considering the first semblance of a team was five players and a goalie fashioned out of cardboard.
"When I first got here, nobody was playing hockey," says Ian Cartwright, 32, who moved to Chiang Mai from Canada in 2009, never expecting to see his childhood sport here. "The best thing is that it's something you love to do from back home. You're meeting people with a common interest instead of going to the bar, which are the people you don't want to be meeting. A lot of people in the bar scene can be idiots."
The hockey team is one of the reasons why another Canadian, Nicholas Brown, 35, stayed in Chiang Mai longer. "It's just a great time to have fun with your friends, play a sport we're all familiar with and get a sense of home," he says. "A lot of people who work abroad get lonely sometimes, or homesick, so this is a chance to get together."
Some find it strange that a game traditionally played in cold climates has made its way to the decidedly not cold city of Chiang Mai, especially since there's no usable ice rink in the city. In a way, it perfectly illustrates the ability sports have to transcend borders.
At game's end, the Highlanders succumbed to the quick shots of the Stix and lost five points to one. Nobody's sulking here though, as players exchange handshakes and fist bumps before gearing up for rounds of beer at the U.N. Irish Pub.
When you look at the history of sports in Chiang Mai, ball hockey is just a baby. Take a look at the Chiang Mai Cricket Team, played on the stunning grounds of the oldest members club in Thailand, the Chiengmai Gymkhana Club, which was established way back in 1898, where cricket has been played on and off ever since. The team boasts an international collection of 60 or so members who range in age from 13 to 65, and come from as far away as England and as close as Kashmir, with a strong young Thai presence as well.
Another sport that is equally effective in connecting cultures is football. Check the Farangutans, for example. The team roster is a mash-up of English, Americans, French, Canadians, Polish, Czechs and more.
"There are various circles of life you come across," says Lee Stevens, an English expat who's played with the Farangutans since its start 10 years ago. "The friends I know now, I would never have known unless I met them through football."
It's not just expats who benefit from joining a sports team. Thai locals get something out of it, too. Ekk Jampa, 28, is a native to Chiang Mai and says that since he joined the Ultimate Frisbee team in 2006, his English has improved tremendously just by playing alongside foreigners for so many years.
"My English was not like this back then," he says. "And some people on the team would make fun of me all the time for it." A team member sitting in the sidelines cuts in: "Oh, Ekk, we still make fun of you." Ekk smiles and brushes him off. "It's a really good community of farang here," he adds.
Ultimate Frisbee is a high-intensity co-ed sport that combines skill, speed, and most importantly, fun. There's minimal contact, which makes it a pleasant game for all. A unique facet about these players is that they support a grassroots organisation called Urban Light that works with at-risk teenage boys to help them avoid the kinds of vulnerabilities that might otherwise push them down the path of male prostitution.
Aw Kuntamarat, 23, works for the organisation and invites the boys there to play with the team. "It's nice to provide a healthy community for them so they can make new friends," she says. "What they get here is encouragement, to feel accepted for who they are and to start believing in themselves."
In a sense, the same can be said for expats, all of whom at one point or another seek an 'in', a means to a more appealing life abroad. And it seems for these folks that joining a sports team was just the ticket.
Ernest Hemingway once wrote that expats will "drink themselves to death" and "become obsessed with sex," likely because debilitating bouts of isolation are inevitable. But, if the camaraderie and spirit exuded by Chiang Mai's sports teams are anything to be believed, it seems the best pastime to combat the vices of looming alcoholism and nymphomania is sports. What's not to love? You get the friends, the fitness, and the fresh air.
And there's one more upside. As one football player put it, "It's a good excuse to get away from the wife."
If you're interested in playing with any of Chiang Mai's sports teams, feel free to contact the representatives below:
Facebook Group: Farangutan Chiang Mai Football Club
Facebook Group: Chiang Mai Highlanders Ballhockey
Facebook Group: Chiang Mai Tiger Suas
081 588 9174
Facebook Group: Chiang Mai Lanna Cricket Club
Facebook Group: Chiang Mai Ultimate
Facebook Group: Chiang Mai Softball