For years, he’s been an unmistakable burst of red, white and blue in the stands. Tune into the Olympics, SEA Games, Asian Games or any event with Thai competitors and you’ll likely find him dressed in outrageous costumes, spinning his hypnotic parasol and screaming his head off.
Thailand’s most ubiquitous superfan is, in fact, Thailand. Yes, Thailand Khamthong is the man, at least since he changed his name to his nation.
“We are Thailand! We cheer Thailand!” he shouted, perhaps redundantly, on a recent afternoon at the Sports Authority, where athletes had gathered before heading off to Kuala Lumpur for the SEA Games.
Thailand, who will attend the games as Thailand’s unofficial spirit captain, alternately greeted and hugged hundreds of athletes he knows on a nickname basis, raucously shouted his chants and ruffled the hair of young paralympic athletes.
For more than 20 years, Thailand has been a staple at virtually every major sporting event where Thai national teams have compete. He’s usually found wearing the costumes he’s made, which include wacky flag-colored ensembles and traditional garb. His cheers are so loud that event cameras inevitably pan to him on the sidelines.
I go there early because there’s already games going on. I need to go cheer.
Thailand, a native of Yasothon province who loved sports since he was a child, wanted to be a professional volleyball player, but his skills weren’t up to par. For years he struggled to build his name and his brand as Thailand’s superfan.
“I thought, ‘what else can I do for my country?’ I started by picking up the balls and mopping the courts,” Thailand said. “Then, around 1995 I started to cheer by the courts because I wanted the game to be more fun.”
Back in the mid ‘90s, starting out as a solo male cheerleader wasn’t easy.
“I had to pawn my car for plane tickets. When I got there, I had no money to pay for any accommodation, so I would sleep at temples, the embassy or even the airport,” Thailand said. “I just knew I needed to go there to cheer for the athletes first. Sometimes I’d stay with the athletes.”
He traveled with his trademark costumes (“collections,” he calls them): traditional garments embellished with flamboyant additions and flag-colored everythings.
“My costumes show Thainess, you see?” he said, holding up a bag of them. “I want people to see me from afar. When we go to games with other Asian countries such as Myanmar or India, they wear suits. I want people to know me. When you see a monk’s robes, you know that’s a monk. When you see my trademark costumes, you know it’s me!”
But his is a joyous patriotism rather than aggressive nationalism.
“I want to bring Thai culture to the games, like with this parasol,” he said, twirling his trademark accessory inspired by northern-style umbrellas and painted like a barber’s pole.
Thailand holds an undergraduate degree in English from Ramkhamhaeng University and cheers in that tongue because, he says, it’s great for cheering.
“My English is quite basic. Still, when I yell things like ‘Thailand love London!’ it’s a very raw language that catches the hearts of many people,” he said.
Although he has a soft spot for volleyball and football, he’s also found ways to cheer on some unorthodox sports.
“Some people think it’s impossible to cheer for petanque or snooker, but you just need to know some cheering etiquette,” he said. “For example in snooker, you just cheer when the person enters and then keep quiet the rest of the time because they need to concentrate. You can politely clap if they score.”
The decision to change his name to Thailand came at the 2005 SEA Games in Manila. It was there the man then known as Bancha Khamthong was inspired after cheering hard, even for the home teams. When he got home, he went straight to his district office and changed it.
“When people cheer from the stands saying, ‘Thailand! Thailand!’ It’s like they’re saying my name, and I love that feeling,” Thailand said. “Foreign reporters run up to me, calling me Mr. Thailand.
But why the English form of the name?
“People might think, ‘what kind of crazy person changes their name to Thailand?’ But I want to represent Thailand,” he said. “I chose Thailand rather than ‘Prathet Thai’ because it’s more international, and I could run into some document-related problems with the second one.”
Still, he’s better known to domestic audiences as Tao Dukdae (Mr. Silkworm).
“Tao in Isaan is what you call a man, so I wanted to show my heritage. I chose a silkworm for my name because it’s small and seems useless but one day can become a butterfly if people see value in it, like how hard my life was when I was starting out,” Thailand said. “Plus, the silkworm can make silk, which is part of Her Majesty the Queen’s projects,” he said, pausing to wai to the sky at the word “queen.”
“All sports need cheerleaders. Some games didn’t have any, especially disabled sports,” said Thailand, who is a big supporter of paralympic athletes. “I cheer for all national teams, especially disabled sports, because once you have the Thai flag on your chest, you are a representative of Thailand, no matter who you are.”
At the Top of His Game
As Thailand gained fame, he eventually stopped sleeping on airport floors. Though sponsorships have poured in from official gaming committees and brands such as Singha, Thailand asserts he’s still down to earth.
He hates the thought of a game going uncheered, which is why Monday he flew to Kuala Lumpur on his own satang.
“They offer to pay for my plane tickets, but sometimes I want to go to the games before the tickets they give me, so I have to pay for that myself,” he said. “I go there early because there’s already games going on. I need to go cheer.”