During a week of conflict and political instability, some of the foreign soccer players in the Thai Premier League found themselves in the streets, engaged in gun battles - but with water pistols. It's hard to escape the friendly water fights that break out during the Songkran festival every April. Perhaps only in Thailand could such good-hearted revelry follow the bloody clashes between security forces and red shirt protesters that left at least 23 people dead. The troubles have coincided with the early stages of the new Thai Premier League season, forcing the postponement of several matches. The civil unrest, along with searing heat and humidity plus a low level of English language skills, adds to the challenges for imported players. Even so, Thailand is becoming an increasingly popular soccer destination with Jamaican international Richard Langley, who enjoyed a long career in the second tier in England, joining Pattaya United this season. And Wales under-23 international Michael Byrne is one of the midfielders for high-flying Chonburi FC, having previously plied his trade for rivals Nakhon Pathom. 'It's been a difficult time with all the uncertainty and the stop-start nature to the start of the season, but I live a fair way from Bangkok where the political protests have been,' Byrne said. 'It's not easy to get yourself prepared physically and mentally for a game only to have it postponed at the last minute, but the coaches keep us focused.' With Manchester United legend Bryan Robson following his former World Cup teammate Peter Reid as national coach, Thailand has had an Englishman in charge of the national team since 2008. Aston Villa legend Peter Withe also managed the Thais between 1998 and 2002. 'I think the word is out that Thailand is on the way up,' said Liverpool-born assistant national coach Steve Darby. 'The money even in the lower leagues in the UK has always been more than Thailand, but salaries are rising and you will see more players now.' Thai Premier League clubs are allowed to sign as many as seven foreigners (and five Asian Football Confederation players) with five out of the seven allowed to play in any given game. Dale Farrington, editor of an English-language Chonburi FC website, said the impact of Robson's presence cannot be underestimated. 'I think that having such a high-profile figure has awoken interest overseas, especially in England and people probably take Thai football a lot more seriously as a result,' Farrington said. 'The majority of foreign imports in Thailand have traditionally come from places like the Ivory Coast and Cameroon and it's only recently we have seen a trickle of British and Europeans arriving to play here.' As for 24-year-old Byrne, he came to Thailand last year via Bolton Wanderers' youth academy and spells at several English lower tier clubs. Despite facing players such as Paul Gascoigne while playing in the reserve leagues and making a goal-scoring debut for Stockport County, his UK professional career never really took off. 'The recession back home was the main reason I came here,' Byrne said. 'I have always enjoyed new experiences. I toured China twice with Stockport and enjoyed it. I knew it was hot, but not this hot. Once I got used to the heat, I was OK. I have enjoyed every aspect of Thai life from day one.' Chonburi is a city of 220,000 people about 100 kilometres east of Bangkok. Byrne and his partner, Emma, and baby son, Lucas, live in a spacious family home, whose spare rooms are frequently occupied by visitors from the UK. Ahead of today's home game against Sisaket, unbeaten Chonburi FC, runners-up over the past two seasons, are top of the league after three games. Byrne and Thai veteran Therdsak Chaiman were among the heroes as Chonburi thumped TTM Phichit 5-1 last time out. Thailand's influx of quality foreign players is being funded by generous corporate sponsorship and healthy crowds, which were unheard of a few years ago. 'Thai football fan culture is a relatively new concept,' said Farrington, a Thai resident for 13 years. 'When I started watching Chonburi we probably averaged about 120 fans and the atmosphere was like a midweek English county cricket match. It was only last season that we saw a massive increase in crowds across the league and started to see large numbers of fans in replica kit, making lots of noise.' Thai players are slowly earning respect around the world with three Thai stars going on trial at Manchester City in 2007. Last season, Thailand internationals Surat Sukha and Sutee Suksomkit played with A-League club Melbourne Victory, with defender Surat extending his contract there. 'There are many good players in Thailand,' said Darby. 'I have no doubt, and neither does 'Robbo' and 'Reidy', that if visa restrictions weren't so stringent, there would be Thai players in the Premier League and the Championship.' Thailand's decadent pleasures are a potential distraction for any foreigner, but Byrne, who speaks decent Thai, says any professional player who falls off the rails doesn't last long. 'My club would soon tell if someone tried to burn the candle at both ends,' he said.