ON JULY 14 AND 15, rivers of yellow flowed down the road that led to Tham Luang. After the cave rescue operation got over, King Maha Vajiralongkorn had called on the people to help clean the common area of the cave complex; almost 4,000 people signed up, a Mae Sai district official said. Entire families turned up, with toddlers in tow.
Volunteers swept the public areas, cleaned rest rooms and swabbed floors and windows of the visitors’ centre and park offices. Wooden pallets used to make paths through the glutinous mud, and all the garbage from the 18-day-old mini town were loaded on to municipal trucks. Handpicked teams went in to clean the Buddhist temples, where soldiers had slept during the rescue operation.
All volunteers who signed up had received yellow polo T-shirts, yellow neckerchiefs (like Scout scarves) with the royal cypher and sky blue baseball hats. The yellow was in honour of the birth day of the king, and the blue in honour of the queen mother, Queen Sirikit. In Thai culture, every day is represented by a colour. Thailand’s volunteer force is massive. First-time volunteers are assigned to a department and an ID card is issued. The next time the call goes out, the person just has to turn up and present the card.
After the cleanup operations at Tham Luang, a two-part Buddhist ceremony was held on July 16, Monday—a rite to ensure a good afterlife for the late Lt Commander Saman Kunan, and a thanksgiving ritual for the safe return of the 12 footballers and coach Ekapol ‘Ek’ Chanthawong. The ceremony started with a performance by traditional Thai dancers. The ritual part was officiated by Niphon Arnchai, a senior priest adept in rituals of northern Thailand. Senior Buddhist monks from temples in the area also attended.
The thousands of faithful who attended brought wicker baskets of votive offerings. The Mae Sai district government, too, had presented offerings ranging from pig heads to snakehead fish, boiled eggs, crabs, carved fruit, clothes and flowers. Former governor of Chiang Rai and rescue commander Narongsak Osottanakorn lit 13 tall candles and 13 incense sticks in thanksgiving.
Tham Luang and all caves in the complex remain sealed, with boards warning trespassers of penalties. Local park officials said the complex could be sealed for the rest of the year. “As rains will continue into August, restoration work would be difficult then,” one of them said. “After that, national parks department will have to ensure that everything is back to normal.”
During the ceremony at Tham Luang, THE WEEK met Anan Lee, whose daughters studied in the same school as some of the rescued footballers. “I know some of these boys personally,” he said. “Very helpful kids. Last month, I saw someone struggling to load a package on to a motorbike. Two of these boys saw it and immediately went to help. They were not called; they just have good hearts.” Lee hoped three boys and coach Ek would be granted Thai citizenship; the papers have already been submitted, said Chiang Rai Governor Prachon Pratsakun. Lee himself is of Myanmarese origin, with a Chinese mother. He is married to a Thai national and has been living in Mae Sai district for more than 20 years now.
The boys were released from the hospital on July 18, amidst intense media glare. Their tightly-controlled interaction with the media was held at the provincial government’s Khotchasaran conference hall in Chiang Rai. Journalists had to submit questions before 5pm on July 17. The questions were then vetted, reportedly by the psychiatric services department of the Chiangrai Prachanukroh Hospital.
The boys entered the conference hall kicking footballs, and were dressed in the kit of the Wild Boar football academy—black shorts and white T-shirts with multicolour trim, with a charging wild boar in red. Also present at the interaction were two psychiatrists from the hospital, the four SEALS who stayed with the boys, the medical director and Pratsakun.
The medical director announced that the boys were physically fit, and had put on weight while they were admitted. The psychologists echoed the same and told that the 13 must be allowed to return to a normal life. They were survivors and not heroes, other doctors had said earlier, and it is necessary that they understand it.
Interestingly, during the course of the interaction, the boys and coach Ek set many a record straight. No, they did not go in to celebrate Pheeraphat Sompiengjai’s birthday. In fact, Pheeraphat had said that he wanted to return home by 5pm that day, because his parents were holding a birthday celebration for him. Ek said that the team had jointly decided to go to Tham Luang. Some had been there earlier, and had encountered water in the caves, too. But, it was nothing like the flooding this time. In a different interaction, British diver Vernon Unsworth, who has dived extensively in Tham Luang, said that the coach and the boys were not to blame, because the rains were three weeks earlier than expected.
And, contrary to what most media outlets reported, all the boys knew how to swim. Ek said that it was common for the team to swim after practice. The coach said that the team had decided to spend only an hour in the cave. When they were trapped, they did try to swim and find a way out, but realised that would not be possible when up to 3m of water rose in an hour. The coach and players referred to Na Nong So, a geographical formation within the cave, as the point where they realised that they were trapped.
And, the 13 denied reports that they had food with them. They had nothing, and survived ten days drinking water that dripped off the walls. After some time, the water running through the cave had cleared. They drank that as well. The only tools that they had with them were powerful flashlights, which they conserved.
About the rescue, they said they heard the voices of John Volanthen and Rick Stanton, before they saw them. Ek sent the player who was then holding the torch to find out. Adul Sam-On followed him. Adul, who speaks English, said that he was surprised to see the divers and was more surprised when he realised that they were not Thai. Obviously, they had no inkling of the international rescue effort that was on.
And, another myth that the team broke was that Dr Richard Harris, the Australian diver and expedition medicine specialist, had decided who must be extracted first. Dr Harris certified everyone, and the team decided who must go first. The boys said that the ones whose homes were the farthest were sent out first because they would have to cycle the most!
There were light moments in the interaction, when the boys spoke about the SEAL who was wearing nothing but a pair of underwear in the cave. A SEAL in undies and a foil blanket was a funny sight, they said. The three SEALs present on stage were grinning wide when the experience was shared. The SEALs did not reveal their names.
On stage, the boys presented a portrait of Kunan that they had autographed. The messages reflected their guilt and gratitude. None of the boys had told their parents that they were going to Tham Luang. On stage, they all looked contrite when the prospect of facing their parents came up. They apologised to their parents publicly.
The boys have become heroes, no doubt. When the interaction went live on Facebook, one comment under it said: “Do you have a gf?” Meanwhile, other offers, too, are pouring in for the twelve. Naresuan University has offered them full scholarships, up to PhD level, and FIFA president Gianni Infantino has invited them to the FIFA World Player of the Year awards ceremony in London, on September 24.
During the interaction, the Wild Boars said that the first football match they watched after being rescued was the telecast of the FIFA World Cup final. Most of them were cheering for France, the coach said. Didier Deschamps and his boys would be pleased!