CHIANGRAI – The stadium was hot in the afternoon, given it was made of concrete. But it was fairly occupied, and served its functions well. Above and over this, it has the biggest giant LCD screen in Chiang Rai, mostly playing latest music videos from the world’s top charts. By early evening, over half of the 5,000 seats in the stadium were filled. Most in the crowds were local teenagers, although there were also football fans of other age groups.Count Gerald (Right) divides his time between Belgium and Thailand. A descendant of Chao Phraya Abhai Raja, a Belgian adviser to King Rama V, he is involved in charity programmes in the north run through the Chao Phya Abha Raja Siammanukulkij Foundation, of which he is chairman
But what’s special about Chiang Rai Hills stadium, in Mea Chan district of Chiang Rai province, is not its popularity. Rather, it is the fact that all of the stadium staff are from hill tribe villages. Recently it held the “Ethnicity Cup”, a football tournament for teams from different hill tribe villages.
The stadium started off as a by-product of another idea. A group of teenagers from hill tribe villages wanted to set up a football team. They asked for sponsorship from Chao Phraya Siam Manukulkit Foundation, controlled by a billionaire Belgian nobleman, who has a residence in Mae Chan. When the foundation decided to hire a coach for them, it was the start of Chiang Rai Hills Football Club – Thailand’s first purely hill tribe football team to play in an official league.
Over time, however, the team and the foundation agreed that the team would need a stadium, and that to sustain itself financially the team would have to stop playing and come to run the stadium instead.
The construction of Chiang Rai Hills stadium cost 40 million baht. For Count Gerald van der Straten Ponthez, who inherited his family’s shares in the world’s largest beer company, the amount only equaled the price of his latest Lamborghini.
However, to the Belgian count, the Chiang Rai Hills project is more than a rich man’s toy. He regards the project as one of his six achievements in life. His other achievements include a local radio station which he helped set up, and the football club, Chiang Rai united, which he helped fund.
While more may be expected of an idle billionaire nobleman, the Chiang Rai Hills project, indeed, is meaningful to several lives. Twenty-two-year-old Banchong Mayoe, now the stadium’s manager, remarked that he might have remained in the village and possibly been a drug addict, if not for the opportunities given to him by the project.
There are, however, many other hill tribe youths who are not as lucky as Banchong. And perhaps the next step for the foundation to take should be to extend its aide to those, and resist the temptation to nurture its favorite few.